The government's continuous efforts to expand influence in the Middle East, Africa and the Caspian Basin have introduced a new concept into Turkey's extensive political jargon: neo-Ottomanism.
The notion is a catchy phrase that both arouses a proud nostalgia for an empire that ruled over this vast geography for centuries and a creeping sensation of a fear to return to a past where religious bonds surpassed national identity. But analysts caution against both and say a pragmatic desire to expand influence in the region should not be mixed up with ideologically charged imperialism.
The ruling AK Party is hardly a follower of the static Cold War era policy, when Turkey was firmly a part of the Western camp threatened by the Soviet Union on its eastern borders. It has forged ties with ex-foe Syria, rival Iran, initiated dialogue with Palestinian radical group Hamas and mediated in Lebanon and between Israel and Syria. It also advocates a regional conflict-resolution mechanism in the southern Caucasus that would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Last but not least, it has been seeking to expand influence in Africa, even at the expense of standing by Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in the face of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity.
This unconventional interest in the South has already led to speculation that Turkey is drifting away from the West, a charge the government firmly denies. But things took a more dramatic turn when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stormed off from a Davos panel in late January after telling Israeli President Shimon Peres that “when it comes to killing people, you know it well.” Erdoğan’s move was definitely the harshest protest against Israel for a recent Gaza offensive that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians in the coastal strip. And it quickly made Erdoğan the darling of Arab nations frustrated with the inaction of their own governments in the face of the plight of the Palestinians.
Some commentators in the Arab media said neo-Ottomanism was on the rise. In Turkey, Erdoğan was given a hero’s welcome upon his return from Davos, with supporters carrying placards that described him as “the conqueror of Davos.”
The combined effect of all these events was enough to create a wave of neo-Ottomanism at home. It went on to such an extent that an AK Party supporter hailed Erdoğan as an Ottoman-style sultan on a placard he carried during a ceremony to launch a Metrobus line running uninterrupted between the Asian and European parts of İstanbul earlier this month. That placard, said a commentator in the mainstream media, is as dangerous as placards calling for the army to intervene in politics, such as those carried by the AK Party’s secularist opponents in anti-government rallies in the recent past.
And an unlikely contributor in the debate, the head of the private intelligence institution Stratfor, George Friedman, poured more fuel onto the fire when he forecast at a meeting in İstanbul this week that Turkey would rule the former Ottoman territory, which includes almost the entire Middle East as well as North Africa, by the mid-21st century.
“Muslim countries are not looking for a leader,” said Egemen Bağış, the state minister in charge of Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union, in televised remarks last week. “We can only be a source of inspiration.”
The debate is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the term “moderate Islam,” which some American policy-makers thought would best describe Turkey, raising questions over the AK Party’s commitment to Western ideals in foreign policy and secular principles at home. The government has firmly rejected the term “moderate Islam” and denied several times that its growing links with the East are at the expense of its ties with the West. In a recent meeting with journalists, Ahmet Davutoğlu, widely seen as the architect of the AK Party’s foreign policy, said the growing Turkish influence in the Middle East and Africa was an effective way to undermine the opposition of some European countries that have vital interests in these regions -- such as France -- to Turkey’s membership in the European Union.
“This region is an area where Turkey has comparative advantages, given its cultural and historical affinities. It is not rational to not utilize these advantages,” said Özdem Sanberk, a foreign policy analyst and a former undersecretary of the foreign ministry. Sanberk says in a dynamic society prone to polarization like Turkey, concepts -- such as neo-Ottomanism -- can easily spark confrontations. But any substantial claim that Turkish foreign policy is drifting away from a national framework to an imperial one based on religious bonds needs to be backed by credible evidence of imperialist ambitions.
“Unless you have imperialist desires, it would be irrational not to use the cultural, historical and geographical advantages that you have in this region,” he said. Attempts to expand regional cooperation existed in the 1970s, 1980s and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but none were accompanied by imperialist goals, he added. “Turkey’s foreign policy is dictated by the economic and strategic interests of the country,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
Dangers of swimming in Ottoman waters
In a 2005 speech, Erdoğan said Turkey was a “core” country -- as opposed to a peripheral one -- that has the potential to influence a wide area at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa and that “Turkey ought to embrace its historic mission and take up a role that befits its rich historic background.” But he insisted this did not mean a change in the current “route” of its traditional foreign policy, emphasizing instead that the route will be modified in accordance with modern global realities.
But with a highly charged domestic atmosphere where division along the lines of secularism runs deep at home, the government may need to express its non-imperialist intentions more clearly than it does now to avoid further polarization. In addition to deepening the rift between the government and its secularist opponents, an Ottoman rhetoric may also serve to radicalize Islamic groups, says Yasin Atlıoğlu, a researcher at the İstanbul-based think tank Bilgesam. “Frequent references to ideologies like neo-Ottomanism and Islamism may lead conservative Islamic groups to radicalize and seek to expand their influence beyond the state’s control,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
At the height of Israel’s Gaza operation, radical Islamic groups were at the forefront of protest demonstrations across Turkey. An ideological rhetoric representing Erdoğan as some sort of “caliph” defending Muslims’ rights may fuel their enthusiasm to be more active, according to Atlıoğlu.
In the Middle East, Arab leaders are also likely to be alienated by a talk of a resurging Ottomanism in Turkey and poison the atmosphere of cooperation growing between them and Ankara due to suspicions over Turkey’s possible expansionist intentions. “The government should make clear, especially to Arab leaders, that its policy does not include revisionist goals or objectives such as the creation of an Islamic union and that its policies are confined to political and economic cooperation,” he said.