Erdoğan: An Axiom of Islamic Leadership or Just a Muslim?

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

A dissection of the Arab-Turkish relations and an overview of Erdoğan’s Islamism.

Note before reading: “Islamic law,” “Sharia law,” or “Islamic state” are not scary terms. No, an Islamic state is not ISIS — you should probably stop watching Fox News and start reading authentic sources about Islam and Islamic law.

Whatever our Lord says, whatever our beloved Prophet says, we shall follow that path. — Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The popularity of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Arab Muslim world has even surmised that in Turkey itself. He has become a “transnational leader” for the ummah as he rules “in accordance” with the Islamic faith. He represents the Muslim nation in international events, raising important issues relating to the stateless, exiled, and oppressed Muslims around the world.

For many Muslims, Erdoğan is a good leader, if not great. Important to note is the fact that Erdoğan is not liked in Turkey as one would think. This can explain why he almost lost the earlier elections.

Erdoğan has rapidly transformed Turkey from a consuming state to a manufacturing and production giant that exports goods to the entire world. Under Erdoğan’s regime, Turkey has become the political and economic monster the west had feared it would become. His powerful stance against the western underworld, combined with a respectful and powerful presence in the political sphere of the Middle East, has made him what he is in the Muslim world: the beloved leader of Muslims.

Not so fast, though. While Muslims, in general, love Erdoğan, there are certain parties of Muslims that are not fond of the Turkish sultan. Primarily, those who don’t believe in democracy as a means to proclaiming an Islamic state (which Turkey is slowly becoming), and those who are on the non-Islamic side of things: the secular, who don’t believe in Islam as a means to political rule altogether. These stem from religious (or non-) backgrounds, of course. They are not accurate, but a general visualization of viewpoints.

“Keep Islam inside the mosques.”

Secular Muslims do not “strictly” adhere to Islamic law. More than that, they rarely tend to follow the exact teachings of the religion. Their view of the Islamic faith is revolved around it being a “religion” and nothing more than that. For Muslims, Islam is a way of life — a perfectly-organized lifestyle — which includes all aspects of life: political, social, economic, and individual. Secular Muslims believe that Islam is — and should be — constrained between the narrow walls of individualism.

Secular Muslims dislike Erdoğan. To them, he’s nothing more than an oppressor dictatorlike ruler who prioritizes faith over human rights. They often criticize his way of rule, his decisions, and general viewpoints. They’re not “in terms” with Erdoğan.

The Inbetweeners

I call them “regular Muslims” because they make the majority of Muslims in the world. They take Islam seriously, they believe it’s a complete lifestyle that includes the political sphere as well, and they mostly do practice Islam. Their fondness of Erdoğan is mainly because of his portrayal as a great Muslim leader who had done (has been doing) wonders to help Muslims rise from ashes. For decades now, the Muslim world has been getting punched in the guts with the cycle of atrocious dictatorships that rule their states, e.g. Egypt’s Al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman, and Syria’s Al-Assad.

Because Erdoğan does not agree with these Arab (“Muslim”) state leaders, who are hated in most of the Arab world, he is thought of as being like-minded with the Arab world. Thusly, when Erdoğan does something worthy of praise (something of Islamic nature; a powerful, unexpected stance) regular Muslims will compliment him.

When the ideology or worldview is similar, expect alignment, even if only verbal.

“No Islam through democracy.”

Hizbul-Tahrir al-Islami or the Islamic Party of Liberation is one of the most prominent critics of Islamic rule through democracy. They believe that democracy is a poisonous form of rule and lifestyle, what with its doings in the Middle East. For these Muslims, an Islamic state should completely diverge from and rebel against the democratic ideology, either verbally, practically, or both. The rise to power through democracy and then transforming that democracy into an Islamic rule is not an option. Their aim is to entirely replace the corrupt social system that is currently in control. The phrase “ex injuria non oritur jus” can explain their viewpoint of international law. The Latin phrase translates to “law does not arise from injustice.” In Arabic, (mistakenly took as a prophetical saying or Hadith), it’s a very common phrase among Muslims: “ما بُنيَ على باطِل فهو باطِل”. In Islam, there is no manmade law. Muslims take their laws and legal rules from the Quran and the prophetic Sunnah, as well as other legislation sources. Democracy was “forced upon Muslims by the West,” rendering an Islamic rule (like the late Ottoman) not only obsolete in the eyes of the Muslim public, but also impractical and unattainable. Part of the “regular Muslims” believes that there is no other option but to “go with the flow” and transform a current democracy into an Islamic rule. However, for “zealot” Muslims, whose end goal is forming a state with an Islamic legislation system, building an Islamic state on the rubble of democracy would incur a democratic aftertaste no matter what. But if Erdoğan is doing something to help Muslims and rules per Islamic law, doesn’t that make him an Islamic ruler? Even if he’s there through democracy? The reality of it is that this viewpoint of “pure” Islamic law is theoretical in its very nature. Their notion is rather impractical if we try to implement it in real life. Take a democratic state and tell me how you would take down democracy (which has grown core-deep roots) easily? It is impossible without war, a coup d’état, or a political/military takeover. All of these procedures are bound to entail human losses, overall destruction of the state, and, put simply, chaos. Erdoğan is not intending to form a pure Islamic state or any Islamic state for that matter. He is still perceived as a Muslim leader because of his ideology, as well as his form of rule.

Erdoğan’s Muslim critics believe that any Islamic law that he issues is null and voided. No matter what he does — good or bad — he is still not the Islamic ruler they want. It is important to note that many critiques of Erdoğan are just: his political viewpoints and (formal or informal) alliances with Russia, the United States, and Iran are seen as “treason for the Muslim ummah.” Erdoğan is not the only one who rules by Islamic (or semi-Islamic) law. His Muslim critics also condemned Egypt’s late president-elect Muhammad Mursi, for rising through democracy to form an Islamic state — or change laws to become in harmony with Islam. It is important to also note that this is a wide spectrum. Some parties, like the aforementioned Party of Liberation, are considered Muslim by, say, regular Muslims. They’re considered very Muslim by secular ones, as well. But that’s just because they identify as a Muslim party and act accordingly. Hizbullah also identifies as Muslim, albeit Shiaa, but is not considered Muslim by other parties. So is the case with the now decrepit ISIS.

Parties who identify as Muslim do not necessarily represent Islamic law. Islam is represented by its own law, not by the adoptions or behaviors of individuals or groups.

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How Islamic are Erdoğan’s Actions?

Not every action that Erdoğan takes necessarily stems from a religious background. It oftentimes has nothing to do with religion. If Erdogan decides to deploy troops in Libya to fight against Haftar, it’s probably because of politics, economy, and diplomacy, not to help the rebels win. When Erdoğan meets with Donald Trump, it’s probably because of economic reasons, not to tell him off or show a “powerful presence” against the world’s “strongest” country.

Erdoğan’s concerns are not purely religious. Sure, he “cares” about Syrian refugees losing their home, and thus wanting to return them to a safe zone back in their country. But he’s also concerned about his economy going downhill. He’s worried about national security, about international leverage. If this equation was to be truly employed, then Erdoğan shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, or Hasan Nasrullah should be condemned as not only treason but even possibly infidelity. Afterall, conspiring or allying with non-Muslim states of aggression is not allowed under Islamic law. Judging Erdoğan’s actions solely as religious is problematic, as it creates a paradox when Erdoğan does something Islam does not concur or dictate. And since Erdoğan is not a prophet or a higher entity than other Muslims, trusting him blindly would be foolish, as well as it would imply that he has higher power than an intellectual human being. This is where fans of the Turkish president fall short on explanation, letting critics interrogate their beliefs as soon as Erdoğan’s slipups come to light. Certain decisions are purely based on an economic or political agenda that he has to follow as a democratic leader of a nation called Turkey. If the Turkish economy was dependent on helping Israel or allowing U.S. troops into American-Turkish military bases, then Erdoğan has no choice but to comply. It would have nothing to do with religious beliefs. On the other hand, there is some whiff of religious influence on some of Erdoğan’s actions. Certain decisions that he takes — whether diplomatically or within his country — stem from a preliminary Islamic identity. Erdoğan is a loudmouth Muslim. He is proud that he’s a Muslim, and he’s not afraid to shout it. Unlike all other Muslim leaders, he’s done so much for the Arab and Muslim world (read, Middle East). He’s stood with Muslims against their aggressors and condemned acts of terror “in the name of Islam.” We’re all relieved and happy that he hates Egypt’s Al-Sisi (who likes him?)

Arabs and Turks: Friends or Enemies?

The history between Arabs and Turks dates back to the eighth century. The primary connection — or the only one — was Islam. The Turkic people fought alongside the Abbasid Arabs in the Battle of Talas against the Chinese in 751, and consequently, the Abbasid caliphate controlled Turkic regions and integrated the Turks within their military system, who rapidly rose to high ranks.

Over the years, a large mass of the Turkic people converted to Islam, thus removing the nationalist barriers and uniting with Arabs under the Islamic faith. The Abbasid caliph asked for the Seljuk Sultan’s help when the Shiite invasion was dawning on Baghdad by the Buyid dynasty. Tuğrul Bey, the founder of the Seljuk Empire, then strengthened the ties between Turks and the Abbasid Arabs by marrying the caliph’s daughter. The Seljuk Empire became known as the leader of Muslims, thus conquering most of the Arab regions. When the Empire became history rubble, it was time for the Ottomans to inherit the rule. Servants of Islam, the Ottomans were given praise and gratitude by other Muslim societies.

Today, Ottomans and their soldiers were the only protectors of Islam and made it proud.

The relationship between Turks and Arabs was then built around religion. The Ottomans served Islam and were worthy of praise and support. The Arab Muslims, having descended from the land of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were treated as “brothers in religion,” and were an esteemed nation in the eyes of the Turk. Arabs lived for centuries under Ottoman rule. Arab nationalism came to life shortly before World War I. When a political reform movement by the name of Young Turks took power, non-Turkish communities, especially Arabs, started to worry about certain deviations from the religious unified notion. If religion concepts were what united Turks and Arabs, conflicts because of nationalism and citizenship would arise if religious unity was gone.

The Young Turks embraced the concept of Ottomanism, which would later prove to fail, giving way for Turkish nationalism to prominently overwhelm the empire. Imperialist powers launched a series of initiatives that included forced assimilation, executing Arab nationalists, and prohibiting writing and speaking of the Arabic language, as well as forcing Arab children to study in Turkish schools. When Arabs started showing signs of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire — prominently marked by Sharif Hussain bin Ali of Mecca opposing Ottoman oppression — the Ottoman Empire sent troops to the region. The Arabs, having no other central government but that of the Ottoman’s, turned to the British for help. Sharif Hussain bin Ali was promised a huge chunk of land for the independence of Arabs but was tricked when the war ended. He was instead banished to Cyprus, and only two lands — Iraq and Jordan — were given to his sons. The Hejaz region was given to Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, an ally to the British. After World War II, imperial powers like France and the U.K. withdrew from these regions, leaving Arab dictatorships that depended on them. Weak, fallible, and disintegrated.

Then began the agitations between Arabs and Turks. The former blamed the Turk for “colonializing the Arabs,” while the latter claimed that “Arabs shot them in the back.”

Many Arabs still yearn in nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. To this day, Ottoman Sultans still come to memory and are idolized by the Arab world. Mainly, Mehmed the Conqueror (محمد الفاتح) and Abdulhamid II (عبد الحميد الثاني). Mehmed was the Emperor who conquered Constantinople, and Abdulhamid II was a late-Ottoman sultan who did not waver into giving away Palestine to Zionists. Today, many Arab Muslims name their children after these sultans, paying gratitude and esteem to their service to Islam. After many clashes of religion, culture, and nationalism, Arabs and Turks maintain a friendly relationship today. The normalization of Islamic roots is still deeply embedded in the essence of the two nations, united by the religion of Islam, not nationalism. The praise and moral support of Turkey is still a trend among Arabs, as Erdoğan brought back Islamic principles to the Turkish state. After Mustafa Kemal Atatürk took hold of the post-Ottoman state (now Turkey), he erased all religious signs and symbols, as well as anything that had to do with Arabs or the Arabic language. Erdoğan reminds Muslims of the Ottoman era when Arab neighbors are still “brothers by religion” and the main focus is on thwarting aggression by the West against Muslims in general.

Criticism of Erdoğan’s Agenda

As mentioned, the secular criticism of Erdoğan revolves around him being overtly religious, as their main criteria for an efficiently functional democracy is the separation between religion and politics, as well as the preservation of human rights, primarily free speech. Secular Muslims are not interested in seeing the Turkish state resemble the Ottoman Empire, as the latter is history.

Some regular Muslims argue that, while Erdoğan is a great leader, regardless of religion, he still has some shortcomings. And that is fine. It is important for them to have a leader who isn’t — in any way — destructive of his nation. Sure, Erdoğan isn’t a saint, but at least he’s turned Turkey around in every aspect possible. Compared to Egypt’s Al-Sisi, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, or Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman (or his father), Erdoğan is “one hell of a leader.”

For the fanatics, their criticism revolves around him being not enough religious. Their take on Islamic rule is that if you want to identify as an Islamic leader, then you have to say you’re ruling an Islamic state, and act following Islamic law. Erdoğan does not do that with consistency, and can oftentimes deviate from this principle altogether.


There’s a continuous debate about Erdoğan’s real identity. Not as a Muslim, but as an Islamic leader. Realist Muslims tend to believe that he’s just Muslim by name. Sure, he practices Islam as an individual, but that doesn’t mean he does everything thinking about Islam first. When it’s appropriate, he stands behind Islamic principles. When it isn’t, he doesn’t even mention it.

Whether or not you agree with Erdoğan as a Muslim, an atheist, or a “triggered American,” he has proven to be one of the most powerful leaders in the world in many aspects: political, economic, religious, and strategical.

Erdoğan has his missteps and slipups, but these fall short against his achievements, whether nationally or internationally. It depends on where the viewpoint comes from.

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Copyright © 2021 by Tarek Gara. All Rights Reserved.

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