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Islamism meets inflation and Turkey teeters

The Western experts who can't fathom Erdoğan's ruinous fiscal policies should heed his emphatic, repeated explanation: He answers to a higher authority
A fishmonger peels prawns as he waits for clients in a street market in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Turkey's yearly inflation climbed by the fastest pace in 19 years, jumping to 36.08% in December. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A fishmonger peels prawns as he waits for clients in a street market in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Turkey's yearly inflation climbed by the fastest pace in 19 years, jumping to 36.08% in December. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Turkey’s economy is going mad. More accurately, it is being driven mad by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has dominated Turkish politics since 2002. Turkey’s annual Inflation rate has hit 36% and some analysts think it may go as high as 50%. Turkey’s currency, the lira, is collapsing. It lost 44% of its value against the dollar just in 2021 and it is still on the way down.

Interest rates should be immediately and aggressively hiked – this is basic economics. But Erdoğan is lowering them. He can do this because he has continually replaced key executives at Turkey’s Central Bank with his hand-picked choices. Just last year he replaced the bank’s entire board.

Western voices – the pundits, professors, journalists, and policymakers who drive the public conversation – have been chewing over possible explanations for this madness. What they haven’t paid attention to is Erdoğan’s own explanation. He is an avowed Islamist and fundamentalist Islam considers interest on loans to be a violation of God’s law – the sin of usury. He has repeatedly referred to interest as the “mother and father of all evil.” Data, expertise, and historical experience don’t matter; it is prohibited by the Quran. End of discussion. “We are lowering interest rates,” he has said. “Don’t expect anything else from me… As a Muslim, I’ll continue to do what is required by nas [Islamic teachings].”

While Erdoğan and his government make these terrible mistakes, many in the West are making a related mistake. Our experts and opinion leaders are far too accustomed to looking at leaders around the world as so-called rational actors. Possibly evil, possibly ignorant, but still rational. History shows something different. Plenty of world leaders are irrational and willing to follow irrational ideologies right over a cliff, taking their own and possibly other countries with them. Case in point: Venezuela. The more wreckage the policies of the Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro governments created, the more those leaders kept and keep pursuing the same policies. Erdoğan may be such a one.

For some reason, Western experts can’t seem to come to grips with such craziness. Most in the mainstream media have legitimized his economic “leadership” as an “experiment” testing out a “new model.” And not just fringe new sources. Foreign Policy and The Washington Post, for example, call it simply an “experiment”. Reuters oddly calls it a “risky” experiment, as if there is some conceivable benefit at the end (after all, high risk can bring high reward). What’s wrong with calling it an experiment? Well, dropping a nuclear bomb is in some sense an experiment. One doesn’t know beforehand exactly how many people will die, so there’s something to be learned. But we don’t call it an experiment. (The Economist comes the closest to pointing out the obvious by summarizing it as “zany experiment”).

Others see in him a leader falling prey to his worst authoritarian impulses, as so many others have done. There is no doubt that Erdoğan lusts for power, which explains many of the things he’s done. But it doesn’t explain wrecking one of the world’s more promising economies and liberalizing countries, which isn’t going to add to his power. You don’t see Xi Jinping wrecking the Chinese economy.

Erdoğan has made clear his commitment to a fundamentalist Islamist faith that does not recognize any legitimate separation of religion and government – or economics. He has made clear that he seeks to end Turkey as a constitutional state.
We find this hard to believe. Especially the most secular among us. Who would want to turn a country as successful as Turkey had been into a horror show like Iran or Afghanistan? In fact, there has been no shortage of leaders who wanted to do something like that and we should take Erdoğan’s word that he aspires to be one of them.

Instead, some analysts frame his Islamism and its residual description of the Turkish as a pandering ploy to get votes from conservative voters, ignoring the more parsimonious: Erdoğan is set on something that, to him, is more important than winning votes. And indeed, there is nothing in his history to suggest that he is anything but sincere. From education to foreign policy to the economy, he seems increasingly determined to establish a “New Turkey” based on the old cultural and religious values of the Ottoman Empire. He continually lambasts secularism and pluralism.

We in the ever-more secular West are ill-equipped to understand extreme religious impulses in the public space. But we’re going to have to get wiser about what seems to us just madness because that madness is growing. And at least one of the madmen is at the helm of countries sponsoring Islamist extremism and supporting jihadist mercenaries abroad, let alone toying with the fates of the 84 million people who call Turkey home.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. His most recent book is "Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy" (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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