As per tradition in Middle Eastern countries, elections are a time of great celebration. This past June, Turkey’s first-ever presidential elections for a head of state and head of government were no different.
Hundreds of thousands gathered in Turkey’s famed Taksim Square, accompanied by a cacophony of car horns and bright-red flags featuring Turkey’s bold star and crescent. Altogether, these elements manifest the Turkish people’s support for newly-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In spite of mounting criticism against the Muslim leader, his leadership and party are the voice for the Muslims in Turkey who endured decades of discrimination under Turkey’s formerly secular government. Muslims in Turkey are now guaranteed religious liberty under Erdogan, marking a tremendous shift from oppressive secular laws. Additionally, Erdogan’s strong position on critical issues affecting the greater Muslim world such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make him a leader loved by these Muslims and others across the globe.
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Strong, independent Muslim leadership in the Middle East has always demonstrated a threat to Western influence in the region. This leadership, exemplified by Erdogan, is a serious indicator that remnants of imperialism have exhausted their stay, and that imperialism’s consequences no longer threaten Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey. It offers Muslims around the world a hopeful vision that one day their own nations could be the same—or at least return to what they once were.
Over the course of the last century, the West has transformed Middle Eastern and North African politics. The gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire in the decades preceding World War I and its eventual fall at the war’s conclusion raised critical questions of how the former Ottoman territories would be governed, and by whom. France and Great Britain quickly laid claim to these territories, drawing strategic borders and striking relationships with regional families who, in exchange for ruling authority, heeded Western interests.
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A hundred years later, in 2017, Prime Minister Erdogan undertook one of the most unprecedented moves by a Middle Eastern or North African country since Tunisia in the Arab Spring. He proposed to alter the Turkish Constitution so that the country would no longer run under a parliamentary system, but a presidential one. 51.4 percent of voters, out of 50 million total voters, supported the switch.
Scenes in Turkey featured flags emblazoned with “evet,” meaning “yes” in Turkish, but a “yes” that communicated a vested trust from a Muslim constituency in Ergodan’s administration to restore Turkey’s rich religious and geopolitical history.
In June’s presidential elections, 52.4 percent of voters elected Erdogan from the Justice and Development Party as Turkey’s first president in this new system. Erdogan defeated Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party—Turkey’s founding, secular party—by a very comfortable 21-point margin, marking a triumphant shift from the principles of the Turkish Republic’s hyper-secular and Western-oriented founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Muslims in Turkey voted for Erdogan in an effort to protect religious liberty. Muslims around the world in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the West hoped for Erdogan to bring a new wave of Islamic leadership unencumbered by Western influence, unlike Turkey’s Egyptian and Saudi Arabian counterparts. For Muslims in Turkey and abroad, these hopes are coming true.
Since 2017, criticism of both Erdogan and the constitutional referendum has increased among westerners and opposition parties in Turkey. In a lecture, Talha Kose, Vice Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ibn Haldun University, attributed this criticism to the fact that the “[former majority] seculars [in Turkey] have more connections with the West and are therefore making the election appear worse than it actually is.” He continued that “Turkish democratization is a modern phenomenon,” contending that the voice of the people in these elections should be trusted unequivocally, as they are in democracies around the world.
Indeed, the people have spoken.
For Muslim women wearing the hijab, Turkey was an unforgiving place, said Reyhan Balci, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and political science graduate student, in an interview with The Politic. “We were only allowed to wear the hijab after Erdogan came to power,” she said. “I would have no way to finish my education or work in my career if the old laws were the same.”
Balci’s situation resonates among the many Muslim, hijab-clad Turkish women in higher education, civil service, government office, the military, and the police force.
It was only after Erdogan was victorious in Turkey’s 2007 parliamentary elections as prime minister did Muslim women see a future of expanded religious liberty. In 2008, the Turkish Parliament amended the Turkish Constitution to allow women to wear the hijab in higher education institutions in Turkey. This was met by opposition from many in positions of power in Turkey, demonstrating how criticism of Erdogan’s administration runs deep among the secular offices which dominated Turkish policy for decades. This amendment was followed by a law lifting the ban on the hijab from public service positions in 2013 and from secondary schools in 2014. This example, among many others, is why Erdogan appeals to so many Muslims, both in Turkey and abroad.
When it comes to foreign and defense policy, Erdogan does not relent to the West. On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has stood clear on his commitment to the Palestinian people, often bringing attention to injustices committed by Israel in the region and calling for a united approach among Muslim-majority nations in support of Palestinians. Unlike Egyptian President Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom have been accused of adding to the U.S.’s partial role as arbiter on the issue in Israel’s favor, Erdogan has adopted a more critical stance on Israel, joining a myriad of Latin American nations. He has helped set a crucial standard that coalition-building between nations does not require the support of the U.S. or other powerful Western nations.
While these truths exist, Erdogan faces challenges from groups in Turkey who still hold fast to the founding values of the Republic of Turkey: secularism and laicism. While the two groups find common ground in their pride for Turkey’s strong history, the two hold starkly different interpretations of this nationalism.
As for Muslims outside of Turkey, Erdogan is often celebrated, meeting Muslims’ desires on issues including religious liberty, a just solution for Palestinians, and the trouble of Western influence. To many, he may be the only one able to stand up to the West’s unrelenting foreign policy in the Middle East—a pain known deeply by too many in the region.
Correction: The article previously read that “a number totaling 50 million people” voted in favor of Erdogan. It has been corrected to note that a total of 50 million people voted, of which 51.4% voted for Erdogan.