On January 29, Turkish President Erdogan sacked the chief of the state’s statistics agency, after data showed record high inflation of 36.1 per cent in the country. Erdogan has sacked three central bank governors since 2019. This raises the question for Pakistanis, who are also reeling under high inflation, about whether the Turkish leader is the current-day Ertugrul, with special insight to address economic woes.
Pakistanis’ attachment to Turkey is deep rooted, starting with the Jauhar brothers’ obsession with the Ottoman Caliphate during British India. This obsession with the Caliphate is in stark contrast to Jinnah’s interest in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – The Grey Wolf – who preferred a modern nation-state. Regardless, throughout Imran Khan’s administration, there seems to be a revival of this former obsession, with shows like Ertugrul translated into Urdu and aired on Pakistan Television (PTV).
Erdogan’s supporters milk this obsession by playing to the emotions and sentiments of the masses. Indeed, the scene from the Turkish serial, Payitaht Abdulhamid, which shows Indian Muslims sending their bracelets to the Ottoman Caliph is adeptly moving. What is there not to like?
Both Erdogan and Imran Khan rail against the West and satisfy their constituents with pompous rhetoric. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a historic site into an operational mosque, or the ‘absolutely not’ refusal to establish more U.S. bases in Pakistan, are both reflective of demagogues who know their masses. And like any demagogue, the attempt to appeal to mass sentiments in order to cover up their shortcomings on pressing economic woes in their respective nations.
What is problematic is not allowing proper democratic scrutiny on one’s ill-conceived ideas. Even worse is deflecting criticism by recourse to religion.
Indeed, under both Erdogan and Khan, the cost of living has skyrocketed. While some of surging pricing has to do with the pandemic, climate change and rising energy prices, a lot of it is exacerbated by poor management.
Consider the basic lesson learned by every Economics 101 student: inflation is a monetary phenomenon. This means that inflation results when the rate at which money is printed exceeds the growth rate of output production. The solution offered by central banks is to reduce money supply by increasing the interest rate. Thus, inflation is curbed by higher interest rates.
However, Erdogan seems to subscribe to the unorthodox idea that lowering the interest rate will curb inflation. There is nothing wrong with having ideas that challenge the status quo, as long as they are backed up by strong evidence. What is problematic is not allowing proper democratic scrutiny on one’s ill-conceived ideas. Even worse is deflecting criticism by recourse to religion.
And this is characteristic of Erdogan, who has consolidated power by turning the parliamentary democracy of Turkey into the presidential democracy of Turkiye. This has allowed him to behave as an autocrat, who is sacking qualified personnel with impunity. He also hides behind the popular Islamic notion on the ban on ribba (usury).
All of this reminds me of Turkish academic Timur Kuran’s thesis on why the Muslim world lags behind the West on economic development. It has to do with institutions. Indeed, in many western economies, the powers of the president or prime minister are kept in check to prevent autocratic behavior. When Trump tried to destroy American institutions by hiring lackeys to high positions, there was push back from the opposition. Under public media scrutiny, he was panned mercilessly.
If such institutions were in place in Turkey, Erdogan would not have been able to fire qualified personnel as easily. His unorthodox ideas would have been subject to scrutiny and his errors would have been rectified.
Unfortunately, the same institutions that allow the West to thrive despite the pandemic, are still missing in the Muslim world. This has allowed Erdogan to imprison devout Muslim women and their babies, just because they supported his rival, Fethullah Gulen. But none of this matters to Imran Khan and the many Pakistanis who have conveniently turned a blind eye to the oppression of the Uyghurs.
Now where is Islam in all of this?
In essence, Erdogan is not the mythical Ertugrul. Like Imran Khan, he hides his shortcomings behind a thin veneer of religiosity. Both know how to get away with mismanagement, vilification of opponents, and ignoring constructive criticism. They are simply demagogues who know the pulse of the masses and play them quite well.