Erdoğan opposes caliphate call for now, but for how long?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticised a call for Turkey to reinstate a caliphate after re-converting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque from a museum.

"I am finding some debates intended to overshadow the opening of the Hagia Sophia to worship," Karar newspaper quoted on Erdoğan on Saturday as saying at a convention of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), after a Turkish pro-government magazine, Gerçek Hayat, published a recent cover page that read, “Up next is the caliphate”.

Although Erdoğan appears to have shut down the idea for now, the Turkish head of state has a history of flipping policy on its head - one of the more recent examples being his decision in July to change the status of the Hagia Sophia.

Erdoğan had played with the idea of converting the UNESCO World Heritage Site back into a mosque for years. However, when delivering a speech before the March 2019 local elections, the president said that the Hagia Sophia’s conversion could hurt Turkey.

“There is a downside to this. Let us not forget that the cost will be much heavier for us,” Erdoğan said at the time. “Those who say (the Hagia Sophia should be turned back into a mosque) do not know the world, nor the people they will deal with. As such, as a political leader, I have not lost my way so much that I would fall for this trick.”

Just over a year later, Erdoğan ordered the Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship - a decision met by widespread international condemnation - after Turkey's highest administrative court ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was illegal.

The president’s move fulfilled a long-standing demand by his Islamist voter base, but was also seen by Turkey observers and analysts as a distraction from the country’s ever-growing economic crisis.

Erdoğan’s policy-flipping is not a recent trend.

In 2011, NATO led a multi-state military intervention in Libya’s civil war fought between forces loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi and rebel groups.

Erdoğan initially opposed the move by NATO - which Turkey is a member of - saying in March 2011 that foreign interventions, especially military ones, had in the past only deepened problems.

“Military intervention by NATO in Libya or any other country would be totally counter-productive,” he said.

That same month, Turkey approved its involvement in military operations in Libya, including enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya, and sent warships and F-16 fighter jets to support the operation that helped depose Gaddafi.

Then years later, Turkey carried out a military intervention of its own to bolster the Tripoli-based government and secure a foothold in the war-torn North African nation.

Another example of Erdoğan’s shifting stances took place back at home, where relations between the AKP and their erstwhile-ally turned foes the Gülen movement boiled over with the failed coup attempt in July 2016, a major turning point for Turkey and how the Turkish government handled public opposition and dissent.

When AKP came to power in 2002, it joined forces with the movement led by the Turkish U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, which Turkey’s secularists accused of infiltrating state institutions, particularly the judiciary, police, and military to expand its power - a charge that did not appear to faze Erdoğan.

At least not until relations started to rapidly deteriorate between the AKP and the Gülen movement from 2013, when prosecutors allegedly linked to Gülenists brought corruption charges against Erdoğan’s entourage and attempted to have some of his close allies jailed.

Following the failed 2016 coup, the Turkish government blamed the Gülen movement of placing its acolytes into influential positions throughout state institutions and the media, leading to the dismissals of some 150,000 civil servants and over 94,000 arrests linked to the coup.

The list of Erdoğan’s switching policies continues with sending Selahattin Demirtaş, the one-time co-chair of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and other officials to negotiate with the outlawed Kurdistan Peoples’ Party (PKK) in Qandil, Iraq, only to later accuse them of being terrorists.

Erdoğan also supported the protests in Syria against President Bashar Assad in 2011, calling the Syrian leader’s brutal response to the civil uprising “savagery” and soon after breaking diplomatic relations with Damascus. However, he later cracked down on the peaceful 2013 Gezi Park protests against his own government.

Only time will tell if Erdoğan reverses his position on a Turkish caliphate.