Çağaptay is a prominent Turkey expert and the Director of Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. He is a historian by training and received his Ph.D. from Yale University. His latest book focuses on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and where he sits in the sweep of Turkey’s political history. As he did in his book, Çağaptay gave an overview of Erdogan’s rule since 2002 and told the story of an increasingly authoritarian and Islamic Turkey. In his view, Turkey has become a bipolar country, with one block consisting of conservative AKP voters who adore Erdoğan, and the other made up of mostly left-leaning people who detest him.
The July 2016 coup attempt consolidated this societal divide. President Erdoğan has become the unchallenged leader of the country, while those who refuse to support him have been portrayed as enemies of the state. Çağaptay argued that there are two motives behind Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. Firstly, even though he has turned out to be the most powerful leader since Atatürk, Erdogan still feels an existential threat. Therefore, in his thinking and rhetoric, authoritarianism is required to survive. The second reason behind Erdogan’s tight grip, Cağaptay contended, can be found in his working-class roots in Istanbul’s Kasımpasa neighbourhood. Çağaptay considered that he and his pious family – like all devout families - were treated as second-class citizens by the secular establishment. Thus, he consolidated his power by claiming that he is the only one who has restored - and will restore - Muslim dignity in Turkey. In Çağaptay’s view, Turkey’s illiberal slide did not begin in the aftermath of the coup attempt, but long before. He likened Erdoğan’s curtailment of rights and liberties to the slicing of döner kebap: “because Erdoğan cuts one thin slice at a time,” he said, “one would not notice how the institutions are emptied out and the crackdown intensified.”
Çağaptay ended his talk on a sombre note, sharing his feelings regarding the short-term prospects of Turkey. He contended that, because Erdogan’s polarizing rhetoric sharpens the ethnoreligious cleavages of Turkey, the tension among the groups might lead to civil strife.
Ezgi Basaran (SEESOX Associate, St Antony's College, Oxford)