Neo-Ottoman Turkey: A Hostile Islamic Power

The fact that Turkey is no longer a U.S. "ally" is still strenuously denied in Washington; but we were reminded of the true score on March 9, when Saudi King Abdullah presented Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (shown above with wife and friends) with the Wahhabist kingdom's most prestigious prize for his " services to Islam" (from AltRight). Erdogan earned the King Faisal Prize for having "rendered outstanding service to Islam by defending the causes of the Islamic nation."

Services to the Ummah

Turkey under Erdogan's neo-Islamist AKP has rendered a host of other services to "the Islamic nation." In August 2008 Ankara welcomed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a formal state visit, and last year it announced that it would not join any sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the same spirit the AKP government repeatedly played host to Sudan's President Omer Hassan al-Bashir — a nasty piece of jihadist work if there ever was one — who stands accused of genocide against non-Muslims. Erdogan has barred Israel from annual military exercises on Turkey's soil, but his government signed a military pact with Syria last October and has been conducting joint military exercises with the regime of Bashir al-Assad. Turkey's strident apologia of Hamas is more vehement than anything coming out of Cairo or Amman. (Talking of terrorists, Erdogan has stated, repeatedly, "I do not want to see the word 'Islam' or 'Islamist' in connection with the word 'terrorism'!") imultaneous pressure to conform to Islam at home has gathered pace over the past seven years, and is now relentless. Turkish businessmen will tell you privately that sipping a glass of raki in public may hurt their chances of landing government contracts; but it helps if their wives and daughters wear the hijab.

Ankara's continuing bid to join the European Union is running parallel with its openly neo-Ottoman policy of re-establishing an autonomous sphere of influence in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Turkey's EU candidacy is still on the agenda, but the character of the issue has evolved since Erdogan's AKP came to power in 2002.

When the government in Ankara started the process by signing an Association agreement with the EEC (as it was then) in 1963, its goal was to make Turkey more "European." This had been the objective of subsequent attempts at Euro-integration by other neo-Kemalist governments prior to Erdogan's election victory eight years ago, notably those of Turgut Ozal and Tansu Ciller in the 1990s. The secularists hoped to present Turkey's "European vocation" as an attractive domestic alternative to the growing influence of political Islam, and at the same time to use the threat of Islamism as a means of obtaining political and economic concessions and specific timetables from Brussels. Erdogan and his personal friend and political ally Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, still want the membership, but their motives are vastly different. Far from seeking to make Turkey more European, they want to make Europe more Turkish — many German cities are well on the way — and more Islamic, thus reversing the setback of 1683 without firing a shot.

The neo-Ottoman strategy was clearly indicated by the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu as foreign minister almost a year ago. As Erdogan's long-term foreign policy advisor, he advocated diversifying Turkey's geopolitical options by creating exclusively Turkish zones of influence in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East... including links with Khaled al-Mashal of Hamas. On the day of his appointment in May Davutoglu asserted that Turkey's influence in "its region" will continue to grow: Turkey had an "order-instituting role" in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, he declared, quite apart from its links with the West. In his words, Turkish foreign policy has evolved from being "crisis-oriented" to being based on "vision": "Turkey is no longer a country which only reacts to crises, but notices the crises before their emergence and intervenes in the crises effectively, and gives shape to the order of its surrounding region." He openly asserted that Turkey had a "responsibility to help stability towards the countries and peoples of the regions which once had links with Turkey" — thus explicitly referring to the Ottoman era, in a manner unimaginable only a decade ago: "Beyond representing the 70 million people of Turkey, we have a historic debt to those lands where there are Turks or which was related to our land in the past. We have to repay this debt in the best way."

This strategy is based on the assumption that growing Turkish clout in the old Ottoman lands — a region in which the EU has vital energy and political interests — may prompt President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel to drop their objections to Turkey's EU membership. If on the other hand the EU insists on Turkey's fulfillment of all 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire — which Turkey cannot and does not want to complete — then its huge autonomous sphere of influence in the old Ottoman domain can be developed into a major and potentially hostile counter-bloc to Brussels. Obama approved this strategy when he visited Ankara in April of last year, shortly after that notorious address to the Muslim world in Cairo.

Erdogan is no longer eager to minimize or deny his Islamic roots, but his old assurances to the contrary — long belied by his actions — are still being recycled in Washington, and treated as reality. This reflects the propensity of this ddministration, just like its predecessors, to cherish illusions about the nature and ambitions of our regional "allies," such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The implicit assumption in Washington — that Turkey would remain "secular" and "pro-Western," come what may — should have been reassessed already after the Army intervened to remove the previous pro-Islamic government in 1997. Since then the Army has been neutered, confirming the top brass old warning that "democratization" would mean Islamization. Dozens of generals and other senior ranks — traditionally the guardians of Ataturk's legacy — are being called one by one for questioning in a government-instigated political trial. To the dismay of its small Westernized secular elite, Turkey has reasserted its Asian and Muslim character with a vengeance.

Neo-Ottomanism

Washington's stubborn denial of Turkey's political, cultural and social reality goes hand in hand with an ongoing Western attempt to rehabilitate the Ottoman Empire, and to present it as almost a precursor of Europe's contemporary multiethnic, multicultural tolerance, diversity, etc, etc.

In reality, four salient features of the Ottoman state were institutionalized discrimination against non-Muslims, total personal insecurity of all its subjects, an unfriendly coexistence of its many races and creeds, and the absence of unifying state ideology. It was a sordid Hobbesian borderland with mosques.

An "Ottoman culture," defined by Constantinople and largely limited to its walls, did eventually emerge through the reluctant mixing of Turkish, Greek, Slavic, Jewish and other Levantine lifestyles and practices, each at its worst. The mix was impermanent, unattractive, and unable to forge identities or to command loyalties.

The Roman Empire could survive a string of cruel, inept or insane emperors because its bureaucratic and military machines were well developed and capable of functioning even when there was confusion at the core. The Ottoman state lacked such mechanisms. Devoid of administrative flair, the Turks used the services of educated Greeks and Jews and awarded them certain privileges. Their safety and long-term status were nevertheless not guaranteed, as witnessed by the hanging of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch on Easter Day 1822.

The Ottoman Empire gave up the ghost right after World War I, but long before that it had little interesting to say, or do, at least measured against the enormous cultural melting pot it had inherited and the splendid opportunities of sitting between the East and West. Not even a prime location at the crossroads of the world could prompt creativity. The degeneracy of the ruling class, blended with Islam's inherent tendency to the closing of the mind, proved insurmountable.

A century later the Turkish Republic is a populous, self-assertive nation-state of over 70 million. Ataturk hoped to impose a strictly secular concept of nationhood, but political Islam has reasserted itself. In any event the Kemalist dream of secularism had never penetrated beyond the military and a narrow stratum of the urban elite.

The near-impossible task facing Turkey's Westernized intelligentsia before Erdogan had been to break away from the lure of irredentism abroad, and at home to reform Islam into a matter of personal choice separated from the State and distinct from the society. Now we know that it could not be done. The Kemalist edifice, uneasily perched atop the simmering Islamic volcano, is by now an empty shell.

A new "Turkish" policy is long overdue in Washington.

Turkey is not an "indispensable ally," as Paul Wolfowitz called her shortly before the war in Iraq, and as Obama repeated last April. It is no longer an ally at all. It may have been an ally in the darkest Cold War days, when it accommodated U.S. missiles aimed at Russia's heartland. Today it is just another Islamic country, a regional power of considerable importance to be sure, with interests and aspirations that no longer coincide with those of the United States.

Both Turkey and the rest of the Middle East matter far less to American interests than we are led to believe, and it is high time to demythologize America's special relationships throughout the region. Accepting that Mustafa Kemal's legacy is undone is the long-overdue first step.

Date posted: April 10, 2010