Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim to be the leader of the Muslim world is based on a misreading of history.
In an interview in 2010, Turkey’s chief ideologue, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was then foreign minister, admitted that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions were inspired by the British Commonwealth.
In that case, there was something he misunderstood.
The British Commonwealth is a loose association of former British colonies, with the queen as nominal head and a shared inheritance in language, culture and rule of law. Its charter also expresses a commitment to democracy, human rights, separation of powers and freedom of expression. In the Muslim world, its counterpart is the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), where Turkey has played a prominent role.
Three months ago, Erdogan went so far as to say that Turkey was the only country that could lead the Muslim world. In an echo of Davutoglu’s concept of “strategic depth,” he based his claim on Turkey’s cultural wealth, history and geographical location. Shortly after, this was backed up by the publication of the 2019 edition of “The Muslim 500-The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims,” where Erdogan topped the list, followed by King Salman of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan. Erdogan was ranked as No. 8 in 2016 and 2017, and No. 5 in 2018.
His profile is prefaced with a quotation, “We are followers of a long-established tradition which has, throughout history, considered social, cultural and religious differences as richness.”
That might cause some raised eyebrows in view of Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent and opposition. The Turkish president is lauded for his country’s unprecedented economic growth, constitutional reform and its re-emergence as a major global power. But the profile does not gloss over the major challenges he now faces, which include Turkey’s relations with the US, Russia, Syria, Daesh (Islamic State) and the Kurds, not to mention Turkey’s present economic crisis.
Ahmet Davutoglu was ousted from being prime minister in 2016, as he threatened to overshadow his president. When he was nominated two years earlier, he was hailed by Erdogan’s governing AK (Justice and Development) Party as “a true son of the Ottomans.” But despite his fall from grace, his ideas have taken root. His strategic vision was to once again make the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics. In short, the AKP would create a new world order (nizam-i âlem) with Turkey as a global power.
HOWEVER, PLANS for a “Middle East Union” – a free-trade zone with visa-free travel between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – were upset by the civil war in Syria, and Davutoglu’s proposal for an “Ottoman Nations Gathering” never got off the ground. At the same time, Turkey embarked on a series of strategic partnerships with Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, China, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Qatar and Pakistan.
Turkey’s relations with Iran can be defined as “economic interdependence,” and there has been a rapprochement with Russia since the downing of the Russian Su-24 in November 2015. Now, the three nations are partners in the Astana process, and Turkey’s long-standing strategic alliance with the US has crumbled, not least since the US has been sidelined in Syria.
Turkey has also been at odds with Saudi Arabia because of Turkey’s support for Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its support for Qatar in the current standoff.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has only added to the tension. Erdogan’s showdown with Israel’s former president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in January 2009, won him the applause of the Arab street, and a call from the Lebanese daily Dar Al-Hayat to restore the Ottoman Empire and become the caliph of all Muslims.
Now, relations have been reduced to an exchange of insults between Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, Erdogan has not abandoned Turkey’s imperial ambitions. On the contrary, through TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), it has extended its influence to Central Asia, the Balkans and Africa, and in 2017, as a corollary to its aid to Somalia, opened a military base in Mogadishu. Turkey’s outreach has also been complemented by the activities of the Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs) in former Ottoman territories. In Europe, state-appointed imams keep an eye on the Turkish diaspora.
Turkish professor Nuray Mert has defined neo-Ottomanism as “irredentist nationalism,” which is close to the truth. Erdogan has talked of revoking the Treaty of Lausanne, which defined Turkey’s present borders, in favor of the Misak-i Millî (National Pact), a decision by the last Ottoman parliament in 1920 to include parts of Syria, Greece and Iraq.
Russia has allowed Turkey to occupy two areas in northern Syria, and Erdogan has hoodwinked US President Donald Trump into withdrawing from a third. The question is how long it will take before Turkey’s outreach is converted into overreach and Turkey is confronted with an ignominious retreat.
The writer is a commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.