Fuat Ozgur Calapkulu, the leader of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the eastern province of Siirt, made the comment in a tweet Tuesday. His Twitter account has since been locked, but screen shots of the tweet are widely available.
The controversial tweet was apparently written in jest: Responding to criticism of Erdogan's plan to become the head of government under a new presidential system, Calapkulu said people had underestimated the Turkish leader before, pointing out that at first they said the "tall man" (slang for Erdogan) couldn't even be a local administrator, then that he couldn't be prime minister or president.
Whatever the intention, Calapkulu's remarks sparked a backlash. On Friday, he released a statement saying he did not mean "caliph" literally. “I use this word to refer to a leader who has command of all the problems, institutions and administration of his country," he wrote, "a leader who is the independent and powerful voice of the world’s downtrodden; the protector of the oppressed; a good, successful, pioneering and visionary leader.”
It's understandable, perhaps, that not everyone would see it that way. The idea of an Islamic caliphate is deeply intertwined with Turkish history: The Ottoman Empire claimed the caliphate from the 14th century to the early 20th century. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, undertook reforms and abolished the caliphate, effectively leaving the political lineage of the prophet Muhammad unclaimed. Since that point, secularism has long been an important, though divisive, feature of Turkish political life.
However, after nearly 13 years under AKP and Erdogan, many wonder whether the secularism embedded into Turkey by Ataturk is fading. Erdogan is a devout Muslim, and the party he leads has long been accused of having Islamist leanings. The Turkish president certainly has no problem linking himself with Turkey's pre-Ataturk past. This year, he took to greeting important visitors in his lavish, 1,000-room palace surrounded by guards wearing costumes from Turkish and Ottoman history. He's even tried to revive an Ottoman-era language.
To complicate matters further, last year the extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State declared its own caliphate across Syria and Iraq and deemed the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph. Turkey's government has found its opposition to the Islamic State complicated by its relationship with its minority Kurdish population and accusations of tolerance for Islamist extremists within Turkey. Last month, Turkish troops entered Syria to move the tomb of Suleyman Shah, considered the founding father of the Ottoman Empire.
Calapkulu isn't the first person to think of Erdogan as a caliph. Last year, Today's Zaman — a newspaper run by supporters of the Gulen movement, which opposes Erdogan — wrote that a number of followers of the Turkish leader had compared him to an Islamic ruler in the past, though Erdogan himself had never demonstrated any ambition toward establishing a caliphate.
In his note, Calapkulu implied that as his views were "peacefully expressed," they should be tolerated. Critics of Erdogan aren't always given that benefit: Over the past year, scores of Turkish journalists and many others have been investigated on accusations that they insulted public officials, usually the Turkish president. Among those who could face charges include a former Miss Turkey and a 16-year-old schoolboy.