Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum – Commentary by Dr David Altman, Senior Vice-President of Netanya Academic College, Vice-chair of the S.Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, 25 April 2017

by on April 25, 2017

Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum
Commentary by Dr David Altman
Senior Vice-president, Netanya Academic College
Vice-chair of the S.Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Israel
25 April 2017

The aim of the recent constitutional referendum in Turkey has not simply been an attempt by the Turkish President to accumulate power and strengthen his grip on the country. Erdoğan has a clear vision of Turkey, which is diametrically different from that of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. He envisions it not only as a non-secular state, but as a country whose role is to lead the ummah, or the entire Islamic world. Erdogan’s leadership ambitions have gained support from some of the most prominent Sunni Muslim clerics, including the Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Dr Altman, Senior Vice-President of Netanya Academic College and Vice-Chair of the S.Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, shares his opinion on the latest developments in Turkey and their potential impact on Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.  


George Pelaghias (G.P.): Today we have the pleasure of having with us Dr. David Altman, Senior Vice-President of the Netanya Academic Colleague and Vice-Chair of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue. If we look at 16th of April constitutional referendum in Turkey, the results have provided Erdoğan and the AKP with the means of strengthening the grip on Turkey’s future domestic policies. In your opinion, how can we expect Turkey’s regional policy to change after this referendum?

David Altman (D.A.): First of all, good morning to all of you. And I cannot start our conversation without saying that today is a very important day because it’s the day of the commemoration of the Holocaust that we all can still remember and feel what happened in Europe seventy five years ago. And to meet with friends under those circumstances is to remember and to cherish and appreciate the people that we should and can, and to do everything that such an event won’t happen to anybody anywhere in our generation and generations to come.

In general, your question is very valid, because I think we are talking about a revolution in the world stage altogether. I think that for the first time we can put on the table some of the differences between East and West. East – I mean Islam, and West – I mean Christians and Europe, Judeo-Christian – whatever you call it. Up till now we were trying always to hide differences and to speak about the unity, and to speak about the similarity, and to speak about that we are all having the same aims and the same goals, which is not correct. And this referendum puts the question on the table. What do I mean? We have some values which we think that those are the most important thing. Along those lines we are preparing all what we want do in the future, in the present, and some of it explains what we did in the past. Well, one of the most important thing is to say what is the most precious thing today in the world? If you are coming to evaluate “precious” – what would you say? Energy? Gold? Diamonds? Is there something which has such a big value that all the world economy and the world philosophy goes around it? The answer is very much yes. The answer is that the West believes that the most precious thing in the world is time – as we are only used to say “time is money.” We believe that money is the most important thing, but time is even dearer than money. And everything is accordingly now, because since we started to use the computers, since we are measuring time in nanoseconds, the value of time is getting dearer and dearer. This is the life of the West.

Unfortunately, the life of the East is completely different. Time is not important, if at all. Then when we are talking about contracts between West and East, we are not talking with the same language. When we are dealing with what to do in a short time that we are having, they don’t care, because time doesn’t matter. They can give you as much time as you want because we can wait five years, ten years, twenty years, forty years, or so. And that is very important in everything. Because when we are speaking of time taking over our life, we should measure what is happening in our society.

In a democratic society when you are electing a president, you are giving him power only for four years. In some places you are giving him the ability to be elected another time for four years, and in some places it’s only for one time and that’s all. Because power has to be limited, you cannot give power without controlling it. Somebody has power for too much time, as long as the time gets, as honest as the people will remain when they are in position for too much time.

When Erdoğan comes now and says, “We want to change the rules,” he says time is not important. “I don’t want to be a president for a short time, time for me does not exist. I’m getting the position, and I want to do with the position as much it is required to do the big job that I’m having.”

And the man comes with the different opinion about everything. He is not coming here to give an answer for a short while; he is coming here to change. And what is he changing? The biggest gift given by Turkey after the First World War was when all the world was so much afraid of six hundred years of Ottoman Islamic Empire, and always with a scare that they are going to take over the whole of Europe and Europe will become a Muslim continent, came a new man and says, “Don’t be afraid, I am coming with a new message, with the new present to you, world. Listen to me. My name is Kemal Atatürk and I’m going to give you a present. Turkey is not anymore a religious country. Turkey is a free country, a secular country, and they can become your brothers and your friends.” And the world got crazy, because after six hundred years the threat of an empire with a different approach and of a different religion was taken off their heart and soul.

And that’s why a lot of people were ready to give to Atatürk many, many concessions, they became one of the most important, accepted people in the world. And Europe opened their heart to a lot of people who came from a secular state. They wanted to prove that they are coming from the secular state.

And now comes a new man and says: “Listen, Atatürk unfortunately died long ago and together with him most of his philosophy. Don’t take away the pride of religion of the Turkish people. We are back in business as a religious state, as a state with the message, with a lot of responsibilities to our people, to our nation – we are part of a very big nation.” And this is part of the situation that has to be taken into consideration from this referendum.

G.P.: Certain media has suggested that this referendum outcome has given Erdoğan the position to adopt the more moderate position in foreign policy. Is this more wishful thinking than anything else?

D.A.: Only somebody who is a fool can accept it. Erdoğan wants to be the leader of the Islamic nation, period. He is not hiding it, he’s saying it in so many words, or in so little words. That is his aim, he wants to be the leader of one billion six hundred million Islamic people and to speak on their behalf in the struggle of leadership in the world. I can quote to you an article that was written by Dr. Ephraim Herrera, who is a great researcher on Islam, and he writes as follow. He quoted somebody who is very, very important in the whole hierarchy of the Islamic Brotherhood. The name is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. This is the leader, the spiritual leader. He used to be the head of al-Azhar, he quarreled with Egypt and he ran away to Qatar. And he writes as follow in 2014 – it’s a free translation, but listen very, very carefully:

“The unification of the clever people of Islam are declaring that the caliphate has to be established in Istanbul who should become the capital of the caliphate. Turkey will be the new caliphate. Why? Because it is combined the region and the country, the old and the new, the Arab and somebody which is not Arab. She is united the umma, which means the nation, and the man who did it is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and you should stand behind and swear loyalty to him, and to tell him, ‘March on!’ because I can see that he is going to be the leader because the will of Allah is future.”

And then he says as follows: “Erdoğan is a good candidate to be the caliph.” The caliph – not the prime minister, nor the president and not whatever. We are speaking about new terms that the West is not using. The new caliph of Islam means the leader of all the umma, of the old Islamic umma, of all the Islamic nation. And he explains why – because he has his people all together in Europe already ready. So what are you telling me? That he is going to be more modest? That he’s going to be more cooperative? He spoke very openly about it: “I waited 31 years to become part of Europe. Europe closed always the gate, they never opened. Now I’m going to speak in my language. I want to have Europe and according to my laws and to my terms.” And that is very, very, very dangerous.

By the way, to you, people of Cyprus, it will be a great, great challenge, because up till now you were one of the things which happened in the region. Tomorrow this is the gate of Turkey to Europe. You are becoming the front of everything which is going to happen in all of Europe. Take it into consideration because it’s your business.

We know that part of the problems that the Middle East is having is refugees. Who was behind the refugees? Erdoğan was getting money from Libya for many, many years to try to build up Libya, modern Libya, and he got about five billion dollars a year. Suddenly, he was the one who stood behind NATO, France, to convince them that Gaddafi has to be thrown out. Although Gaddafi had the relationship with the United States, with Europe, gave away his nuclear arsenal, gave away his chemical arsenal too. And the truth of the matter is that I didn’t see him as an immediate threat to the whole of the region. But as soon as he was thrown away with no alternative, the whole of Libya became a chaotic place and that was the gate to Europe. The island of Lampedusa was always the gate from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. And as soon as Gaddafi wasn’t there to watch it, it became open gate and refugees are coming and coming and coming. And that is one of the problems of Europe. The same happened when he was the one of the best friends of the Hafez al-Assad, the father, and Bashar Assad, the son. For a long time he supported them and spoke highly only about them, and always was even in an opposition to Israel because we didn’t see eye-to-eye with him about the Assads. And sadly he became the enemy of Assad, he was the one who stood behind the big revolution in Syria, supported the rebellions, and that would start the transport of refugees from Syria also, so like scissors from two sides – from Syria on one end, and from Libya on the other end – all of Europe is being attacked. So what would you say, that it’s just a coincidence, that it’s something which happened incidentally?

The third gate is – might be, might be, if you want take it seriously, in Cyprus. And we should be very much aware because not you, not we, and not Europe wants to see such a thing happening in the very near future.

G.P.: Dr. Altman, thank you very much for your valuable insights. We look forward to having you back on this issue and other issues as well. Thank you very much.


See: The Strategic Culture of Turkey

See: Turkey’s Election 2018

See: Turkey’s Political and Economic Future under Erdogan

See: Regional Security Videos