There are few political enigmas these days – strongmen, yes, but not enigmas. We have US President Donald Trump, who is far from it; we have UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is Trump without the charm, and we have various leaders across Europe and the world who somehow fit on either side of the right vs left political spectrum. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, is an exception.
Proof of this was came during last week’s NATO summit in London, in which leaders and representatives from the alliance’s 28 member states gathered to discuss its very future and survival. On the sidelines of this summit, Trump and Erdogan met to discuss a number of issues including developments in northern Syria following Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which the US previously condemned despite Trump having given it the green light.
This time, however, Trump praised Turkey for doing a “good job” in northern Syria following the halting of the operation. Can it be swept aside as the usual political indecisiveness and ineptness that Trump is known for? Maybe. But a similar attitude also prevailed last month when Erdogan visited Trump at the White House and attempted to justify the operation by showing a propaganda video outlining Kurdish militia crimes against Turkey’s civilians.
Trump was again charmed and ordered Senator Lindsey Graham to block a bill on the Armenian genocide, to the shock and confusion of those surrounding the president. Another example is Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria this year, following a phone call with Erdogan who reportedly made the proposal.
It was following the summit and diplomatic meetings, however, where Erdogan’s popularity was truly witnessed. He held an event in London on the last night of the summit, where, despite being reportedly badly organised regarding guest count and treatment, his speech was treated with huge applause and approval. His exit from the venue was even more hysterical, with massive crowds awaiting him, greeting him with an almost fan-like obsession of his personality.
He then held another event in the city of Cambridge, where he was invited for the official inauguration of a new eco mosque. His appearance was greeted with similar scenes, and his melodic recitation of the Holy Qur’an further gained him the respect of the religious community.
This fascination with Erdogan among certain segments of the public – some would call it a personality cult – has long been known. It is the diplomatic attitude which is much more interesting. Erdogan is most likely the only foreign statesman and leader to hold such a reception in the UK and Europe as a whole in recent memory, while also being one of the most hated and despised by Western political society.
The UK has long been at the forefront of tolerating and sheltering all manner of foreign political parties, diplomats, and exiled figures – dating as far back as the early Russian Communist party congresses and conferences held in London in the first decade of the 20th century, of which Lenin and Stalin were part of. Erdogan’s semi-tour of the UK and his ease in gaining and appealing to large audiences, though, is entirely different to the presence of other politicians staying in or visiting the country.
While his charm – if we can call it that – has worked with Trump and with his rallies in the UK, there has been some pushback with nations such as Germany, which attempted to show resistance when blocking his rally during the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017. After protests and rallies in support of Erdogan since then, however, Germany deemed it necessary to welcome him into the country for talks last year and to open another mosque in the city of Cologne on that same trip.
The Turkish President has, despite his numerous controversies and diplomatic disputes, been allowed to tour foreign countries more like a celebrity than a politician.
Since his entrance into the domestic political scene in the 1990s, Erdogan has always represented a revolutionary style of politics, going against the norm both nationally and internationally. His update on the removal of legislation that imposed repression on religion in Turkey upset the secularists at home, while his continual support of pre-dominantly Muslim countries and his expansion of Turkey’s religious cultural identity has made him subject to accusations of being an “Islamist” in power. His military interventions into northern Syria and his voicing of the Turkish Cypriots’ rights of access to natural resources has resulted in him being labelled an expansionist, genocidal dictator.
Whether one supports him or only looks at his increasingly dictatorial attitude and the fact that his AK Party’s principles have deteriorated in recent years, it is undeniable that Erdogan has been a revolutionary figure on the world stage.
What separates him from the other revolutionary political strongmen out there – populists, for example, such as Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte – is that he has managed to make himself welcome, albeit begrudgingly, by Western governments and by large segments of their populations.
Despite the EU’s sanctions against Turkey imposed this year and the US’ continued tense relations with the republic, the West has never despised a man and his political resistance so much yet been held under his sway as they have with Erdogan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.