The Sultan and King Bibi

Erdoğan and Netanyahu are both right-wing populists who crushed secular movements - and are remaking their countries

The Sultan and King Bibi
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, waves to supporters at the party campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on March 24, 2021/Emmanuel El Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Before the conversion of Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque last year, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, stressed the historic nature of the moment. “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its chains of captivity,” he declared. “It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people, and it has been accomplished.” For Erdoğan and his conservative Sunni followers, the decision by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to transform the mosque into a museum was an attack on the country’s Islamic and Ottoman heritage. Like many of the reforms introduced by the secularist Ataturk, it has now been reversed by Erdoğan in what is best described as a triumph of ethno-religious nationalism.

Three years before Hagia Sophia’s conversion, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, welcomed President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital in equally effusive terms. “The Jewish people designated Jerusalem as its capital 3,000 years ago,” he told attendees at an international conference. “Here our forefathers walked, here our kings ruled, here our prophets preached, here are our roots.” Zionists across the political spectrum dream of Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital, although they disagree about how that should happen. The Israeli right, however, a broad movement that encompasses secular Likudniks and religious settlers, are determined to make the dream a reality, and Netanyahu has adopted that view.

Over the last decade, a crop of right-wing populists has sprouted across the world. The ousting of Trump was a win for liberals, but the soil from which he grew remains fertile, and many other demagogues — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — still thrive. These so-called strongmen, who often blend religious and ethnic motifs, represent a reaction against globalization and the liberal elites who they argue are its sole beneficiaries. Netanyahu and Erdoğan — despite their frequent and vehement public disagreements with each other — belong in this company. Like their reactionary confrères, the leaders of Israel and Turkey claim to speak for silent majorities, the good citizens whose beliefs were scorned by the secular nationalists of the past and the haughty liberals of the present.

Two biographies, Anshell Pfeffer’s “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” and Soner Cagaptay’s “The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” capture the similar political journeys of Netanyahu and Erdoğan. “Bibi” and “The New Sultan” provide portraits of two right-wing populists who have become their countries’ longest-serving leaders by skillfully placing themselves at the head of long-brewing ethno-religious, nationalist movements.

The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by former Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal, who later became known as Ataturk (“Father of the Turks”). Ataturk was determined to build a modern, Western country — two things seen as synonymous at the time. The state, controlled as it was by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), dominated the country’s economy as it attempted to “catch up” with the industrialized nations of the period. The CHP also cut Turkey’s ties with what the secular nationalist ideology of the new ruling elite — Kemalism — cast as a backward, Oriental past. The caliphate was abolished, the call to prayer was changed to Turkish, and the Swiss legal code was introduced. The fez, too, was outlawed. Ataturk believed a cultural revolution, a complete transformation of his people, was required to secure Turkey’s place in the West.

Zionism drew on the same secular, nationalist zeitgeist. After Israel’s establishment in 1948, David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionist movement sought to forge a modern country with socialist characteristics. Dominated by European Jews (Ashkenazim), Israel’s ruling elite wished to carve out an extension of Europe in what they viewed as the backward Levant. Aided by state control of the economy, this nation-building project also attempted to mold the polyglot community of immigrants into “New Jews” — modern, Hebrew-speaking Israelis who were firmly rooted in their homeland. Just as Kemalists hoped to join Europe, Zionists believed that the establishment of Israel would mean Jews would be embraced by the West and anti-Semitism would dissipate. Self-determination was assimilation from a safe distance.

The modernizing aspirations of Kemalism and Labor Zionism were founded on particular ethno-religious identities: Sunni Turkish and Jewish, respectively. However, despite building on old foundations, Ataturk and Ben-Gurion aspired to create something modern. This aspiration would prove devastating for those deemed outsiders to the national project — Palestinians in Israel and Kurds and minorities in Turkey — who would resist the suppression of their collective identities. It would also provoke a reaction from those the modernizers wished to liberate.

In 2013, while I was working as an English teacher in the Turkish city of Izmit, I was approached by a colleague at Kocaeli University. A quiet man, he inquired as to what drew me to Turkey. “I wanted to live in a Muslim country,” I responded vaguely. He smiled and recommended “Orientalism” by Edward Said, a “good Muslim” who understood the Islamic world. Eager to ensure I didn’t get led astray, he also cautioned that the teachers at the university were biased when it came to Islam. He was referring to the fact that many were Kemalists. Sensing my colleague’s Islamist leanings and not being in the mood for a debate, I rather petulantly pointed out that Said was no Muslim, good or otherwise, and made my excuses.

My colleague was echoing a familiar narrative that was first voiced by Adnan Menderes, the leader of the center-right Democrat Party (DP). Elected in 1950 in Turkey’s first free election, Menderes was a landowner from the Aegean province of Aydin who rose to power by denouncing — in Cagaptay’s words — “High Kemalism’s elitist and secularist agenda.” Despite being a part of the establishment himself, Menderes mobilized small manufacturers, villagers, and provincial landowners — the “backbone of the center-right,” according to Cagaptay — using anti-establishment rhetoric. “Enough! It is the nation’s turn to speak!” he would tell voters. He promised economic and political liberalization to those tired of the heavy hand of the Kemalist state, and he relaxed Ankara’s antipathy toward Islam. Under the DP, the call to prayer would once again be heard in Arabic.

In a familiar pattern, Menderes’ populism morphed into demagoguery. Confident that “the People” were behind him, he went after civil servants and judges and anyone who could be branded a Kemalist. After a decade of DP rule, the military, which saw itself as the defender of Ataturk’s revolution, toppled the government and executed Menderes. The ousted prime minister would become a martyr for generations of right-wing activists, including those in today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who Cagaptay says owe the DP a “political debt.” “The torch of democracy that Menderes and his friends lit,” Erdoğan proclaimed in 2010, “has been passed from hand to hand and carried to (our party) today.”

The first electoral challenge to Israel’s secular establishment arrived two decades after Menderes’ execution. In 1977, the veteran right-wing activist Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, a shock result that saw the left go into opposition for the first time. Begin was a follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who founded the Revisionist movement in the 1920s. Vehemently opposed to socialism, Jabotinsky’s supporters had an uncompromising desire to build “Greater Israel” and believed negotiation with the Palestinians to be futile. Israel, Jabotinsky said, could only be built by force, behind an “iron wall of Jewish bayonets.”

Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, became a committed Revisionist in the 1930s, which meant, according to Pfeffer, “spending the next half-century as an outsider to mainstream Zionism” due to the dominance of Labor Zionism. However, in the 1970s, cracks began to appear in the Labor edifice, and Begin, who had led the right-wing paramilitary organization Irgun during the British Mandate, returned to politics. Founding the center-right Likud, Begin ran for election casting himself as an opponent of the left wing, secular, Ashkenazi elite and offering a package of economic liberalization and social conservatism. His message appealed to religious nationalists and to Jews of Middle Eastern descent (Mizrahim) who were tired of being treated like second-class citizens by the Ashkenazi. His efforts were rewarded in the 1977 poll. Likud’s election marked the beginning of the Israeli right’s ascent. It also prepared the ground for Netanyahu’s rise.

It is hard to ignore the parallels between Begin and Menderes when reading “Bibi” and “The New Sultan.” Both were right-wing populists who challenged the secular elites of their countries. Both supported economic liberalization and were not shy about using religious rhetoric. However, they were conservatives rather than radicals. Despite challenging the Kemalist elite, it was Menderes who, Cagaptay tells us, “institutionalized the deification of Ataturk” and finished the construction of Anitkabir, the founding father’s tomb. Begin also proved to be a cautious leader in certain respects. In a telling anecdote in “Bibi,” he explains to a surprised left-wing civil servant whom he wanted to keep on, “We have no intention of plundering power. There has to be continuity.”

Neither Begin nor Menderes was a revolutionary of the right. The more radical challenge to the ruling elites of Turkey and Israel would emerge in the 1970s as, across the globe, secular ideologies and state-managed economies began the long retreat in the face of religion and the market.

During the 1970s, activists of the Marxist left and nationalist right violently clashed as they fought the Cold War on Turkey’s streets. Thousands were killed in this undeclared civil war. Away from the violence, another ideology, whose advocates claimed to be following a path that was neither socialist nor capitalist, emerged during this period: Islamism. At this time in Turkey, political Islam was represented by the National Outlook Movement, which was founded in 1969 by Necmettin Erbakan. A former spokesperson for Anatolian businesses, Erbakan promised his followers a new politics that drew not on the “snake oil” of Western ideologies — as Marxism and Kemalism did — but on native sources, specifically Islam. The National Outlook Movement, Cagaptay tells us, was the milieu that would shape the young, working-class Istanbullu, Erdoğan

In September 1980, nervous of the spiraling violence between left and right, the Turkish military orchestrated a coup that would give an unintended boost to Erbakan’s Islamists. Under the subsequent autocratic rule of Gen. Kenan Evren, hundreds of thousands of people, particularly leftists, were arrested and some murdered. After this crackdown, in an attempt to bind the country together, the military propagated a blend of Turkish nationalism and Islam, known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. If they thought a dose of ethno-religious nationalism would stave off any radical challenges to the state, they were mistaken. By legitimizing Islamic politics, the military created fertile terrain for Islamists to flourish. “Formally secular Turkey,” Cagaptay writes, “gradually became informally Sunni Islamic under the generals.”

After three years, the military returned to their barracks and Erbakan founded the Welfare Party, which went from strength to strength. Islamist activists, like the young Erdoğan, made inroads into working-class communities and also appealed to the more pious entrepreneurs in the Anatolian heartland. Erbakan built up a committed following during this period. “Other parties have members,” he would say, “we have believers.” This soon translated into political success. By the mid-90s, Erdoğan, who had become chairman of the Welfare Party’s Istanbul branch, was elected the city’s mayor. Shortly afterward, Erbakan was prime minister.

“The Islamists were at the gates,” writes Cagaptay. This was how the military saw the rise of the Welfare Party. Horrified, the generals threatened yet another coup and the government collapsed. During the protests that followed, Erdoğan, in a moment that hinted at his later populist fire, read an incendiary poem: “Our minarets are our bayonets, / Our domes are our helmets, / Our mosques are our barracks.” He was arrested. The militancy expressed in this poem may not have been apparent during the early years of Erdoğan’s rule, but by the 2010s there was no question that he was out to conquer Turkey.

The 1970s also marked Israel’s shift to the right. Military success in the Six-Day War amplified religious and ethnic nationalism within the Jewish state, which had tripled in size overnight. Israelis across the political spectrum rushed to worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Second Jewish Temple, and build homes in “Judea and Samaria,” the West Bank. After the traumatic near defeat of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, this messianic fervor intensified with the founding of groups such as Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”). Combining Orthodox Judaism and nationalism, the activists of this radical organization preached the importance of settling occupied land and — as they saw it — taking back religiously important locations such as Hebron, the home of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The rights of Jews over 1 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories did not count for much in the face of Israeli irredentism.

This wave of religious Zionism dovetailed with Likud’s secular, nationalist dreams of “Greater Israel.” In his first speech after the 1977 election, Begin stressed the organic link between the Jewish people and the entirety of the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. “The Jewish people,” he stated, “have an eternal historic right to the Land of Israel.” While not observant, Begin openly embraced Jewish tradition and courted the more traditional Mizrahim, ultra-Orthodox parties, and the Hasidic movement. Along with his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, Begin played a crucial role in propagating a communitarian identity that stressed the primacy of Judaism and Israel. He was building a Jewish state rather than a state for Jews. As Pfeffer puts it, “Israel’s politics had truly shifted.”

It was against this background that the U.S.-educated Netanyahu rose to prominence. During the 1980s, Netanyahu proved himself a master of public relations as Israel’s representative to the United Nations. “Netanyahu was achieving a degree of prominence that few foreign diplomats ever had,” Pfeffer tells us. This talent for hasbara, the Hebrew term for propaganda in the service of the state, abroad helped at home. A committed Revisionist, Netanyahu returned to Israel with his sights on leading Likud to power. With an impressive military career behind him, it did not take long before Netanyahu earned the respect of Likud’s rank and file, many of whom had grown impatient with the party’s more cautious old guard. He was elected party leader in 1993 to chants of “Bibi, king of Israel.”

The ambitious Netanyahu was in sight of the throne at a historic moment. In 1993, Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman, Yasser Arafat. As far as the right was concerned, Rabin was giving away Holy Land to “terrorists.” Netanyahu vehemently denounced the peace process in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset: “This is the most estranged government ever from the (Jewish) heritage of Israel,” he told Rabin (the brackets are Pfeffer’s). “The government’s alienation from the heritage is the real reason for its policies and why Hebron is to them an Arab city, Judea and Samaria, the ‘west bank,’ the Golan, Arab land.” Ultra-nationalist protests against the Oslo Accords erupted across Israel, creating fertile terrain for violence. In 1994, a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron. The following year, Rabin was assassinated.

Mirroring the rise of religious nationalism in Israel, only under military occupation, Hamas became more active. The Palestinian Islamist group also opposed the idea of dividing the Holy Land and initiated a suicide bombing campaign in response to the Hebron massacre. Such violence provided the Israeli right with the ammunition they needed to attack the left on the issue of security. Netanyahu capitalized on the fear and confusion by reluctantly accepting the peace process as a strategic move to gain votes from the center, but also by emphasizing the importance of Jabotinsky’s “iron wall.” The move worked, and he won the 1996 election with the slogan “Netanyahu — Making a secure peace.” While he was only on the throne for one term, “King Bibi” would return.

“The New Sultan” and “Bibi” are indispensable guides to the historical backgrounds of the ethno-religious, nationalist movements that have propelled Erdoğan and Netanyahu to power. They also provide valuable insight into the nature of their rule once they came to power.

The AKP was elected in 2002 on the promise of making a fresh start after years of coalition governments and economic crises. Distancing himself from his radical Islamist origins, Erdoğan spoke of democracy and freedom and of curtailing the power of the military. He was also credited with Turkey’s economic revival. Netanyahu, meanwhile, served a stint as the minister of finance under Ariel Sharon in the early 2000s before returning to the leadership of Likud. He was elected prime minister again in 2009. Just as Erdoğan played down his radical past, so too, did Netanyahu. The Revisionist who once denounced Labor’s compromises with the PLO formed a coalition with Labor. As the decade progressed, however, and the liberal order struggled with the rise of nationalism on the global stage, the radical side of both leaders came to the fore.

Between 2008 and 2011, Erdoğan and his allies in the ubiquitous Gülen movement — a dark star in the constellation of Turkish Islamism — neutered the military in a series of show trials orchestrated to stave off the threat of a coup.

After that, the new Sultan was free to rule as he wished. (The Gülenists later turned on him in an alleged coup attempt in 2016.) With populist appeals to those he called the “real owners of the nation’s sovereignty” — conservative Sunni Turks — Erdoğan stamped his authority on all institutions of the state, from the police to the military to the civil service and the education system. Just as this has enabled him to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, he has also been able to remake Ataturk’s republic into a more religiously conservative state.

Today, Erdoğan’s support might be waning due to the pandemic and Turkey’s economic difficulties. However, with the country’s centenary around the corner, he may well be able to retain his position with some bold populist offering. The promise of constitutional reform — announced earlier in the year — may well serve this purpose. But regardless of his personal fate, much of his mission has been accomplished. As Cagaptay, who throughout “The New Sultan” steers clear of hyperbole, concludes, “The AKP has carried out its own revolution. It has eliminated the legacy of Kemalism and secularism.”

Netanyahu’s time in power bears comparison to that of Turkey’s president. In the early 2000s, the failure of the peace process and the rise of Hamas led to the collapse of the Israeli left and the achievement of a near-hegemonic position by the ethno-religious, nationalist right.

Against this background and under Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud has overseen Israel’s march toward becoming an explicitly ethno-religious state. The passing of the Jewish nation-state law in 2018 was an important milestone on this journey. Netanyahu, the prime minister who has talked about Arabs voting “in droves” and attacked the “leftist fake news media,” has encouraged this shift to the right. The rise of the extremist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir and the attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel by far-right thugs are the result of four decades of right-wing activism. But they are also the result of Netanyahu’s tenure in power.

After failing to form a government in the recent election, it looked like Netanyahu was about to be dethroned. War with Hamas may well revive his political fortunes. As with Erdoğan, however, whatever happens to him personally, the evidence suggests that the ethno-religious, nationalist wave he has ridden his whole career is far from ready to break.

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