The sultan and his sycophants: Erdoğan is leading Turkey towards a bleak future

Bulu then transitioned to the professional realm, holding managerial and advisory positions in both public and private firms, putting to use his education on industrial engineering and management.…

Bulu then transitioned to the professional realm, holding managerial and advisory positions in both public and private firms, putting to use his education on industrial engineering and management. He also took part-time teaching duties at several universities, including Boğaziçi, and climbed up the academic ladder by earning tenure, and serving as the department chair in Istanbul Şehir Üniversitesi – which closed after the failed 2016 coup d’etat – followed by rectoral appointments by Erdoğan to İstinye and Haliç Üniversities.

Compared to Boğaziçi’s previous rectors, Bulu’s academic achievements may not appear that impressive. But we are not here to judge his competence based on his CV. Rather, it is his prior mistakes that we find problematic.

A few days after his appointment, Bulu faced allegations of plagiarism in his dissertation work as well as articles published towards his tenure. Plagiarism is a red line that no credible academic – let alone a rector – should cross. It is academia’s gravest sin, which not only shows an academic’s inability to produce scholarly work but also reveals a graceless path leading to that.

Entire paragraphs were seemingly copied and pasted without proper citation, suggesting that Bulu is not loyal to science, as any academic should be, but craves political power and prestige. Bulu refuted the accusation, seeing it as a minor misdemeanour that was levied against him as part of a larger slander campaign. In order to save his seat, he chose to lose face.

Bulu has yet to resign. Given his love of a prestigious position, he likely will not. Erdoğan could have chosen to replace Bulu and have the higher moral ground by letting Boğaziçi’s academic staff elect their own rector. Or he could have chosen to listen to names he has previously worked with, like Babacan, who has extended a call for Bulu’s resignation. But such would be too lofty a request from a sultan who loves his throne, and deeply fears its loss.

Lessons from the late Ottoman Empire

For a president who takes the Ottoman Empire as his point of reference, Erdoğan needs better education in history. Had he kept some of his old advisers around – say, even Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman romance – rather than lose them to academic posts overseas, put them in jail after the attempted coup, or watch them form their own political parties, they could have told him that what brought the Ottomans down was primarily a type of governance not so unlike the one he is pursuing today.

Late Ottomans were once considered the sick man of Europe. The analogy described not just the rapid loss of Ottoman territory starting in the late 17th century, but also an empire which lacked solid governance.

Subsequent sultans of the late Ottoman era appointed statesmen whose loyalty was unquestionable, but their statecraft merely adequate. Take the case of Mahmud II (1808-39) whose fear of losing the throne led to his widespread practice of favouritism.

Mustafa Reşit Paşa, a prominent statesman of the times, and the architect of Ottoman modernism (Tanzimat), questioned the sultan’s choices in appointing statesmen to handle Ottoman domestic and international affairs and feared that the sultan’s actions would reflect poorly on governance and bring loss of power and prestige. And they did.

Another example is Abdülhamid II, the Sublime Khan (1876-1909), whom Erdoğan looks up to. Like Mahmud II, Abdülhamid II, too, surrounded himself with loyal statesmen who lacked political acumen. The sultan was known for appointing the offspring of ulemas, or prominent theologians, to top governing posts in the Empire. Names chosen for familial and kinship ties, not merit, were made governors of numerous Ottoman provinces.

This practice continued until the Revolution of 1908, when the Young Turks revolted against the Sultan and established what would become a constitutional monarchy, but they were left with incompetent rulers in key governing posts.

Erdoğan’s current handling of politics, which is akin to that of late-Ottoman sultans, is destined to bring both his own demise, and that of the country he reigns. Erdoğan believes that he can retain the throne by surrounding himself with sycophants. By handing out seats to those who pledge their allegiance to him, he assures them that rewards await those who remain obedient. But what good can come of a country whose top banks are run by wrestlers, top scientific agencies by zoo managers, and top universities by men who have no understanding of scholarly ethics?

With a PhD in management, Bulu may be a good manager. And his AKP membership is a sign of his loyalty to Erdoğan, though we should keep in mind that many of those who pledged loyalty to Abdulhamid II switched sides once he was deposed.

But these alone do not suffice for a leadership role at Boğaziçi. His rectorship is not only a disgrace to himself, it is also a warning sign for the way Turkey is headed. If Erdoğan is true about his love of the Ottomans, he must realise that loyalty without merit will lead to an Empire’s demise.


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