power & politics owen matthews
Sultan on Speed Dial Erdoğan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey
By Hannah Lucinda Smith
(William Collins 395pp £20)
Twenty years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was serving time in Pınarhisar jail, west of Istanbul, imprisoned as a dangerous radical for publicly reciting a religious poem. Today he is a latter-day sultan, a man who regularly addresses million-strong crowds and commands a personality cult almost as powerful as that of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. In the intervening two decades, Turkey’s president has presided over a threefold increase in GDP, curtailed the political power of the army and raised his country’s international influence to unprecedented heights, while at the same time jailing hundreds of thousands of opponents and systematically dismantling free speech. As Hannah Lucinda Smith writes in her fascinating new book, Erdoğan has gone ‘from being a flawed but largely tolerated democrat to a relentless autocratic populist … a hate figure that the whole world [has] heard of ’.
Erdoğan is one of the great political survivors of our times, the world’s ‘original postmodern populist’, who, like his contemporary in power Vladimir Putin, has transformed a dysfunctional liberal democracy into an illiberal autocracy. As
Erdoğan and Atatürk side by side in Istanbul with Putin, Erdoğan’s march towards authoritarianism has accelerated with time. Over the six years that Smith has been based in Istanbul as The Times’s correspondent there, Turkey has experienced its ‘most turbulent era in decades’, enduring ‘a refugee crisis, a wave of terror attacks, a fresh eruption of violence in its Kurdish region, and a coup attempt’. Yet through all this, Erdoğan has not just clung on to power but cemented it through increasingly strident attacks on foreign enemies, domestic traitors and international capital – in the process polarising society and undermining the infrastructure of freedom by destroying press opposition and any vestiges of judicial independence.
Smith is excellent at explaining the secret of Erdoğan’s success. Former allies and enemies, speechwriters and political veterans all describe his personal warmth and charisma – as well as his bullying, stubbornness, unflinching self-belief and towering rages. But Erdoğan Rising is much more than just a political biography. It’s a beautifully drawn portrait of a country and people that Smith knows and loves deeply. Along with Hugh and
Nicole Pope’s 1998 Turkey Unveiled and Alev Scott’s 2014 Turkish Awakening, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Turkey and its future.
Foreign correspondents’ books can be a mixed bag, sometimes too arch, like Edward Behr’s charming but often flippant memoir of 1978 (Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?), or too dry, like Stephen Kinzer’s rigorous but desiccated Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future (2010). Erdoğan Rising is rich in imagery and anecdote without ever straying into mawkishness or superficiality. Smith wittily riffs on how she tries to guess the character of an interviewee or shopkeeper from the inevitable picture of Atatürk they have in their workplace: have they chosen a stern Atatürk, posing in his high-collared uniform, or a suave Atatürk, enjoying a cigarette and a glass of raki or dancing in white tie with his daughter? A Turkish friend – and I can imagine exactly just what sort of worldly, witty Istanbul intellectual could have said this – tells Smith that Turkey ‘is nothing but a country of cults … It’s Jerusalem in the Year Zero.’
Smith is refreshingly fair. Rather than demonising Erdoğan’s supporters as they
Literary Review | november 2019 6