Reprinted from CrisisMagazine.com.
Much has been made of the Islamic State’s claim to the caliphate. But the Islamic State is fast losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and without a territorial claim, its claim to the caliphate is a shaky one. According to some sources, ISIS has already been preparing its followers for the fall of the caliphate.
Meanwhile, an Islamist power with a much better claim to the caliphate has been gathering strength. Whether the failed coup in Turkey was the real thing or whether it was staged, as some have claimed, President Erdogan’s hold over the Turkish nation has been immeasurably strengthened. As a result, he is now one giant step closer to doing what, some say, he has always wanted to do—namely, to re-establish the caliphate.
The last time the Muslim world had a caliphate, it was centered in Constantinople. The Turkish sultan (who was also the caliph) was the head of the Ottoman Empire—an empire that controlled far more territory than ISIS does or is ever likely to. Then in 1923, following the disarray left by the First World War, a secular government under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey and abolished the caliphate soon after.
To many in the Muslim world, this was a world-changing catastrophe. It flew in the face of Muhammad’s intention that mosque and state should be united, and it undermined the case for Islamic law. Moreover, the overthrow of the caliphate affected not just Turkey, but all of the Muslim world. In the late 1920s in Egypt, Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood with the intention of reversing what Ataturk had done. The Brotherhood came close to doing this–at least in Egypt—in 2012 with the election of Mohamed Morsi as president. But Morsi showed his hand too early and was soon deposed by the military under General El-Sisi.
In Turkey, also, it was the military that acted as the guardian of the secular state. And so it remained until the election of President Recep Erdogan in 2002. Even then, Erdogan moved slowly in his efforts to re-Islamize Turkey. He gradually removed top military officers and replaced them with his own men; and he did the same with the police, the judiciary, and other key institutions.
By 2012, some twenty percent of the country’s generals were estimated to be behind bars. Then, with this month’s failed coup, Erdogan moved quickly to arrest some 3,000 members of the military and 3,000 members of the judiciary. In addition, his regime sacked 9,000 workers attached to the Interior Ministry. Within a week of the attempted coup, some 50,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers had been suspended or arrested.
Erdogan’s power is now nearly absolute—not unlike the absolute power of a sultan. According to some, this has been his goal all along. One indication is that Erdogan has built himself a thousand-room presidential palace that is attended by guards dressed in Ottoman-era uniforms.
If Erdogan does try to establish a caliphate, where does that leave ISIS? Would they go quietly into the dark night of oblivion? Or would they find a place in the new caliphate?
As you may have noticed, alliances in the Middle East are constantly shifting. It’s not inconceivable that ISIS would someday pledge allegiance to a neo-Ottoman caliphate—although such an event might have to be preceded by the demise of their current caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The truth is, Erdogan has been something of a friend and benefactor of ISIS. As Caroline Glick observed in the Jerusalem Post:
Erdogan has turned a blind eye to al-Qaida. And he has permitted ISIS to use Turkey as its logistical base, economic headquarters, and recruitment center. Earlier this year, the State Department claimed that all of the 25,000 foreign recruits to ISIS have entered Syria through Turkey.
Turkey is also the gateway between Syria and Europe. It is through Turkey that the bulk of Muslim migrants flow into Europe. This gives Erdogan enormous leverage over the future of Europe—a continent which is already reeling from a flood of migrants and refugees. How is the leverage applied? In March, the European Union reached a deal with Turkey that would in essence turn Turkey into a buffer zone against further immigration. Here’s how Foreign Affairs summarized the bargain:
Turkey has agreed to act as a giant refugee holding center, keeping the millions of migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East from reaching Europe and accepting those sent back from Greece. In exchange, the EU will pay Turkey three billion euros on top of the three billion pledged last November to help care for the refugees. It will also speed up the approval of visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens and revive stalled negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the EU.
So Turkey will keep the Syrian migrants out of Europe as long as Turkish citizens are allowed almost unlimited access to Europe through visa-free travel. The net result is that the Islamization of Europe will continue. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop Turkey from opening up the refugee floodgate whenever it sees fit. Turkey’s control of Mid-East migration gives it the upper hand in its dealings with Europe.
The other part of the bargain is the revival of negotiations to admit Turkey to the EU. If Turkey is ever successful in that endeavor, it would spell game-over for Europe. If Erdogan wants to re-establish the caliphate, and if he is so keen on union with Europe, it is likely that he envisions Europe as part of the future caliphate. This is something that the Ottoman sultans dreamed of, but were never able to accomplish. But Erdogan might be able to pull it off. There is now a very large contingent of Turks in Germany who seem to bear more allegiance to him than to Germany. And all over Europe there exists a fifth column of active and potential Islamists ready to be activated. As for the other four columns, it’s worth keeping in mind that Turkey has the second largest army in NATO (the U.S. has the largest). And with many of the generals who coordinated with NATO now in jail, Turkey’s loyalty to NATO is very much in question.
There is one other factor to consider. During and after the coup attempt, Erdogan shut down Incirlik Air Base, which is home to 1,500 American soldiers as well as other NATO troops. The Turkish government cut off the base’s electricity supply, temporarily suspended flights, and arrested the base commander, General Ercan Van. The base reportedly houses 50 nuclear warheads. The bombs are controlled by the U.S. forces in Turkey, but could they by means sudden or gradual fall under the control of Turkey? And if they did, would the U.S. dare to do anything about it?
By many accounts, Erdogan is a true believer who, in his own way, is every bit as fanatical as the ayatollahs in Iran. The man who built a thousand-room palace for himself might well believe that a restored caliphate should possess all the weapons that befit a great world power. With Erdogan’s latest consolidation of power, an already dangerous world just became a lot more dangerous.