12/08/2014 02:52 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Betrayal and Resentment: The Lost Love Between Erdogan and the West

By Karabekir Akkoyunlu

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to prove that western civilization is a scam. Last week he declared that Muslim seafarers had discovered America centuries before Columbus and even built a mosque on the hills of Cuba. This week, his science minister claimed that Muslim scientists had established the Earth was round 800 years before Galileo.

Never mind that Columbus had merely written of a hill in the shape of a mosque, and not of an actual mosque, in Cuba; that Galileo's discovery had nothing to do with the Earth's shape, but rather with its orbit around the Sun; and that Hellenic astronomers knew the Earth was round as far back as the third century BC.

For western audiences, Erdoğan is rapidly becoming a cartoon character. Once respected as the no-nonsense leader of a rising regional power, he now seems to occupy that dubious place reserved for eccentric foreign leaders, filled until recently by the likes of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Libya's late Muammar Ghaddafi.

But the more he is caricaturized, the more resentful and insular he gets. "Foreigners don't like us", he declared at a trade summit for Islamic countries in Istanbul a few days ago, visibly irritated by the western criticisms of his Columbus remark. "They love oil, gold, diamonds, and the cheap labor force of the Islamic world... They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die."

Why is the powerful and popular leader of Turkey, a NATO-member and EU-candidate, so angry at the West and why is he resorting to clumsy historical revisionism to discredit it? Part of the answer lies in the recent geopolitical twists in the post-'Arab Spring' Middle East.

Only a few years ago, Erdoğan's Turkey was being lauded in the West as the "true victor of the Arab Spring" and promoted as a model of democratic governance, economic development and moderate Islam for the new Middle East. This was a flawed model from the outset. There were glaring signs of Turkey's growing illiberalism long before the Arab uprisings began, with dissident journalists and activists being thrown in jail, curbs on freedom of expression and civil liberties, rising police brutality and consistent allegations of high level corruption.

But in their shortsighted calculations of strategic expediency (the AKP seemed to be a convenient bridge between the rising Islamist movements in the Arab world and the West) pundits on both sides of the Atlantic started pouring praise on Turkey. Influential think tanks, previously critical of the Turkish government (particularly of its Israeli policy), suddenly started painting a favorable picture of the country under the AKP. Western leaders fanned Turkish dreams of becoming the region's big brother.

All that praise and pomp contributed to Erdoğan's hubris and single-minded ambition to redesign his country and the wider region in his own religious populist, illiberal and capitalist image. It took a popular outburst in the magnitude of Gezi Park protests and a disastrous engagement in the Syrian civil war for the AKP's western supporters to realize that maybe Turkey was not the ideal model for the Middle East.

For his part, Erdoğan felt betrayed by the western media's extensive coverage of the Gezi protests and when western governments kept their silence on the Egyptian coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of Mohammad Morsi, a key AKP ally. Turkish officials also believe - not unjustifiably - that their western counterparts egged them on to take the lead in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria, but left them alone to do the dirty work, which ultimately turned Turkey into a highway and breeding ground for jihadist fighters.

That explains why Erdoğan retorted furiously to Joe Biden's remarks, which put the blame for the radicalization of the Syrian opposition squarely on America's regional allies, the Gulf Arab monarchies and Turkey. The US vice president's subsequent visit to urge Ankara to clamp down on Islamic State (IS) fighters within Turkey has done little to cool his temper. Shortly after seeing Biden off, Erdoğan slammed the "impertinence, recklessness and endless demands" of "somebody coming to this region from 12,000 kilometers away."

By all accounts, the Turkish government faces a rude awakening in Syria and Erdoğan is not taking this lightly: the Assad regime, which Ankara has been so eager to see gone, remains standing. Meanwhile, the Kurds are building an autonomous state in northern Syria. Their resilient defense of Kobane and its secular, pluralistic revolution serve as a rare source of inspiration in a region blighted with sectarian violence.

And instead of focusing on Assad or trying to reign in Kurdish militants, its western allies are pressuring Turkey's Islamist government to turn on a Sunni movement fighting both Assad and the Kurds in Syria.

So Erdoğan's recent anti-western vitriol is both politically and personally driven. As his government unwillingly and half-heartedly obliges with western demands to join the fight against ISIS, he is trying to consolidate his image as the champion of Muslims by tapping on his Sunni constituency's deep rooted sense of victimhood and injustice vis-à-vis the West. A master politician, he knows that the overwhelming majority of his supporters will ignore the factual distortions of his pseudo-historical claims.

But on a more personal level, Erdoğan also shares the same feeling of victimhood and injustice. Like most of his supporters, he seems convinced that the West is conspiring with his secular opponents and erstwhile Islamist allies (the Pennsylvania-based movement of Fethullah Gülen, who fell out with Erdoğan last year), to deny Muslims a bright new dawn in the Middle East under Turkey's leadership.

Like his attempts at historical revisionism, the story of how Erdoğan was betrayed is part fact and part fiction. But the more the Turkish president believes in it, the lonelier he is likely to get.

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