Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left) in 1978 and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2018. (Image sources: Khomeini - Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Erdogan - Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Watching Turkey's transformation into an authoritarian Islamist nation over the last 16 years has been eerily like watching Iran's rapid fall in 1979 -- but in slow motion. Whereas Iran went from a secularist American ally to an implacable Islamist foe in a matter of months, Turkey has been on a similar path but led by a more cautious Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has moved at a much slower rate.
Rise to Power
The Pahlavi Shah of Iran exiled Ruhollah Khomeini (to Turkey, coincidentally) in 1964. When he returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, Khomeini seized absolute power almost immediately. With the Shah out of the country seeking treatment for his cancer, there was little to stop Khomeini and his clerical allies. He quickly created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which would soon surpass the Shah's SAVAK secret police in putting down internal enemies. The SAVAK's infamous Evin prison, which once held as many as 5,000 of the Shah's political enemies, soon held over 15,000 of Khomeini's. Within weeks, Khomeini presided over a reign of terror that Robespierre himself might admire.
Turkey's fall into Islamism, on the other hand, has been much slower, guided deliberately and incrementally by Recep Tayyip Erdogan through a series of elections. Perhaps he learned to go slowly from his misstep in 1998 when, as Mayor of Istanbul, he rallied his supporters by pronouncing, "the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." As a result, Erdogan was convicted of inciting hatred, given a 10-month jail sentence and banned from holding public office.
Erdogan, however, was not about to go away. He created a political party called the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that won big in 2002. Soon, the ban against him was lifted and his comeback complete when he became Prime Minister in March 2003.
Erdogan moved cautiously at first, making occasional Islamizing moves such as seizing Christian churches, changing hijab laws and persecuting non-Sunni Muslims . Then two pivotal events provided him with the opportunity to seize more power: the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the failed alleged coup attempt against him in 2016. As Daniel Pipes put it in 2016:
"After years of restraint and modesty, his real personality – grandiloquent, Islamist, and aggressive – came out. Now, he seeks to rule as a despot."
Erdogan once said that "Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off." It appears he has reached his destination.
In Iran, the moment Ruhollah Khomeini stepped off the plane from France (the final locale of his years in exile), he set to work erasing the secularism that the Shah had achieved through decades of Westernizing Iran. The Shah's so-called "White Revolution," initiated at the behest of the Kennedy administration in January 1963, was a program of reforms that established quotas for minorities and women in government jobs, transferred land to the farmers who worked it, and embraced all things Western and modern. In 1967, the Family Protection Bill enabled women to sue for divorce, win custody of their children, and deny their husbands the ability to take multiple wives. It abolished "temporary marriage" (a Shia religious authorization for prostitution) and raised the legal age of marriage from nine (following the Prophet Muhammad's example) to fifteen.
Khomeini vilified the Shah's Westernization program as "Westoxication" (translated from the Persian gharbzadegi). Instead of a technologically-superior giant willing to share the fruits of modernity with its third-world, anti-Communist ally, the U.S. became the "great Satan," supposedly imposing its secularism on Iran and erasing its Islamic culture.
In Turkey, Erdogan has slowly and incrementally eroded the freedoms of citizens. Like Khomeini, he wanted to purge from his country the Westernization program of his predecessors. Turkey once stood apart from the rest of the Muslim world due in large part to the reformer named Mustafa Kamal, a Turkish general who seized power after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Adopting the name Ataturk ("father of the Turks"), he officially (if symbolically) abolished the Islamic Caliphate in 1924 and began secularizing and Westernizing Turkey. For almost 70 years, Turkey seemed immune from Islamism. But that immunity now seems illusory.
After becoming Prime Minister, Erdogan began to erode the Ataturk system. As President, he has demolished it. The once-mighty Turkish military has been purged of its independence. Minority rights, especially those of Christians, have dwindled. Erdogan has focused on closing churches and building mosques. The press is no longer free, and Turkish academia is a shadow of its former self.
Any Islamist who seeks to govern has to find a way of rationalizing around the Koranic decree that "Allah has no partners." In 1991, when Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current leader of Al-Qaeda) criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for participating in Egypt's democratic processes, he concluded:
"The bottom line regarding democracies is that the right to make law is given to someone other than Allah Most High. Such, then, is democracy. So whoever is agreed to this is an infidel – for he has taken gods in the place of Allah."
The Shia version of this prohibition dictates that no humans can govern so long as the Twelfth Hidden Imam remains hidden, and any attempt to do so is profane.
Khomeini's solution was to create the valeyat-e-faqih – usually translated as "governance of the jurisprudent." This arrangement placed daily governance immediately into the hands of the clerics, whose strict adherence to Sharia insulated the regime from the charge of "Making partners with Allah." They were not really governing, so goes the argument, but just keeping a pious watch over things until the Twelfth Imam comes out of hiding.
To watch the watchers, Khomeini made himself Rahbar ("Supreme Leader"). Masquerading as the wise one, he was just another dictator who had figured out a way to trick and threaten the population into compliance.
Erdogan's gradual takeover has been accomplished through the democratic process made possible by Ataturk's reforms. It has not quite amounted to the feared "one man, one vote, one time," but with each electoral victory Erdogan has achieved, he became more authoritarian and more Islamist. After the alleged 2016 coup attempt, he escalated the takeover. Erdogans narrow victories in the 2017 constitutional referendum and the 2018 presidential election allowed him to change and ignore the constitution on which he rode to power, making him Turkey's Khomeini. Now that Erdogan no longer needs to risk losing at the voting booth, look for sham-elections that he will win by Arafat margins.
Khomeini's foreign policy objective was a simple one: expand Iran's influence, spread its version of Islamism and fight all things Western.
Erdogan's foreign policy was also hostile to the West from the beginning, even before he became Prime Minister in 2003. In the post-9/11 wind up to the Bush administration's move against Saddam Hussein, Turkey negotiated with the U.S. to admit an additional 62,000 troops that would make up the forces entering Iraq from the north. A deal had been reached that would have brought Turkey $6 billion in direct aid and additional loan guarantees for billions more. But after Erdogan's AKP party won control of 60% of the parliament in the November 2002 elections, it exerted enough influence to quash the deal.
As Prime Minister and then President of Turkey, Erdogan's policies have become steadily more hostile to U.S. interests. He championed the Gaza flotilla, helped Iran transport weapons into Syria, and fought America's Kurdish allies. Not only has he popularized – perhaps even invented – the Brotherhood's 4-finger salute, but he has embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and its brand of Islamism.
Among the most troubling of all the Erdogan-Khomeini parallels is the new Turkish penchant for hostage-taking. On November 4, 1979, Khomeini's forces seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held hostage 52 embassy employees, diplomats and civilians for 444 days. After they were released, Khomeini continued seizing Americans, mostly through his terrorist proxies.
The term many have adopted to describe Erdogan's latest slip into Khomeinism is "hostage diplomacy." American pastor Andrew Brunson was taken hostage on October 7, 2016 and has been used as a pawn in Erdogan's version of diplomacy ever since. Charged with "Christianization," as per the newly confident Islamist regime, Brunson is not the only American being detained in Turkey.
One might argue that the U.S. ignored for decades the danger of the Shah's fall and the rise of Shia Islam as a political force, but once that happened, Iran went fast during the tenure of a weak president who did nothing to help the Shah and in fact hastened his demise. By the time Jimmy Carter realized how foolish abandoning the Shah was, it was too late. But the U.S. has had more than enough time and warning to see what is coming in Turkey under Erdogan. Now that the slow-motion demise is speeding up, nothing short of a successful military coup is likely to prevent Erdogan from going full-Khomeini.
Fortunately, it is not 1979 and one can learn from the lessons of that grim year. Many are beginning to reconsider Turkey's membership in NATO. Unfortunately there is no mechanism to expel a member from NATO, but there is no reason to keep dozens of U.S. B61 tactical nuclear bombs in Turkey's Incirlik Air Base. Though the bombs (which Turkey has no airplanes capable of deploying) are secured in underground vaults and protected by redundant launch-code protocols, if seized they still represent a major threat.
Imagine what the world would be like if the U.S. had stationed nuclear weapons in Iran prior to Khomeini's takeover. Imagine what the world will be like if Erdogan seizes America's nuclear weapons.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.