'Erdogan Rising: A Warning to Europe' offers detailed account of Turkish president's rise to power

Journalist and author Hannah Lucinda Smith writes about of the most influential leaders in modern-day Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presents statements following the Cabinet Meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on October 5, 2020. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)
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The official celebrations that greeted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's election victory in July 2018 provided a helpful indication on the direction the country is likely to take under his leadership in the years to come.

Given that Turkey remains a prominent member of the Nato alliance and has spent much of the past two decades seeking to acquire membership of the European Union (EU), the guest list for the president’s inauguration might have been expected to include a number of foreign dignitaries.

Yet, in a clear signal of how Erdogan views Turkey's future relations with the outside world, no invitations were extended to political leaders in the US or Britain to attend the inaugural ceremony held in the gardens of Ak Saray, the presidential palace. Instead, the only heads of state from the European Union to receive invites were Hungary's Viktor Orban and Bulgaria's Rumen Radev.

Instead, the attendees witnessing the ceremony – the highlight of which was the newly elected president taking part in a slow procession through the crowd to rapturous applause and the boom of cannon fire, were drawn from an eclectic group of nations which included North Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia, Qatar and Kuwait.

Part of the reason for Erdogan's decision to turn his back on the West, as journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith explains in her book Erdogan Rising: A Warning to Europe, was the Turkish leader's irritation at the lukewarm reception his victory had received from the West. Monitors sent from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to observe the elections concluded that the vote had been "free but not fair", not least because coverage of the campaign provided by the largely pro-Erdogan Turkish media had left the opposition at a crushing disadvantage.

The other important factor in Erdogan’s post-victory celebrations was that, so far as he was concerned, Turkey’s future no longer lay in forging closer ties with the West, but in forging its own Islamist destiny, one where the ultimate ambition was to recreate the glory of the Ottoman Empire.

As a journalist with The Times newspaper who has covered the region for a decade, Smith is ideally placed to provide a detailed examination of Erdogan's remarkable rise from being a fringe player in Turkish politics to becoming arguably the most influential – certainly the most controversial – leader Turkey has known since the rule of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Book cover of Erdogan Rising: A Warning To Europe' by Hannah Lucinda Smith (William Collins)

As Smith explains in her highly readable account of Erdogan's rise to power, the Turkish leader's commitment to the Islamist cause began early in his political career when, aged only 21, he became the leader of an Istanbul branch of the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi in Turkish, or MSP), one of the few overtly Islamist organisations in Turkey at the time.

Tall and striking, Erdogan made a big impression on his fellow Islamists when he attended a party meeting in 1974. The country had just undergone its second military coup, and Istanbul was caught up in a mushrooming street war between rival leftist and nationalist street gangs.

“He could make himself heard. When he spoke, people felt sympathy with him”, one of his contemporaries from that period tells Smith.

Erdogan’s inspiration during that period was Necmettin Erbakan, a middle-aged and nerdish professor, who argued that all of Turkey’s ills were the result of foreign meddling and western influence, and the only way to return the country to its former Ottoman glory was to embrace Islam and rebuild relations from the Muslim world.

He could make himself heard. When he spoke, people felt sympathy with him

Even though National Salvation Party and Necmettin are now little more than footnotes in modern Turkey's history, Erdogan has remained committed to its Islamist agenda, to the extent that he even spent a brief spell in jail for his beliefs in the late 1990s.

These formative years in Turkish politics certainly had a profound impact on Erdogan's approach to politics where, having helped to found the Justice and Development Party , he has adopted an increasingly despotic approach, to the extent that the country is now suffering as much repression today as it did under the junta.

The result, as Smith observes in her concluding chapter, is that Erdogan increasingly resembles the central character in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, a man who has little concern for diversity of opinion either among his colleagues or within the country itself.