From secularism to political Islam, Turkish neo-Ottomanism

By Tamseel Aqdas

The Turkish political framework is conceivably depicted as dynamic in nature, by virtue of its transformative tendencies. Amidst the years, Turkey has embarked upon a modification from the Islamic Ottoman Empire to a Secular Republic. Nevertheless, as of now, Islam is being employed  as a political tool through the Neo-Ottomanism ideology. The Ottoman Empire Era (1656-1703) was the golden era of Turkey, on the grounds of leading the Muslim world. However, in a dark twist of events, the Ottoman alliance with the defeated Central Powers amid World War I brought an end to the era of glory. Britain, France, Italy, and Greece essentially colonized modern day Turkey; after which, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the Turkish War of Independence and overcame the influence of European powers. Appropriately, the Treaty of Lausanne appeared in the picture. Under which, borders of the Turkish republic were defined, including the loss of Turkey’s dispossession over Cyprus, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and the Levant.

Upon such misfortunes, Atatürk carried ambitions of stabilizing Turkey through the embodiment of state-of-the-art principles which dejectedly contrasted Ottoman values; as, they endured western secular influence. To begin, Turkey was declared as a republic, where sovereignty persisted through the people; implying the end of Ottoman Sultanate. Furthermore,  nationalism was induced in the people of Turkey, with the notion that every country acquired the right to self-determination. Meaning, no state had the immunity for expansion into sovereign territories through imperial ambitions. Correspondingly, Turkey acquired the notion of diminishing  its previous yearnings to reclaim lost Ottoman land. Most importantly, Atatürk strongly accredited the concept of secularism. His school of thought reflected that the non-secular nature of the Ottoman Empire resulted in its demise. Hence he believed that, Turkey’s reformation into a progressive state could be attained through secularism. In that regard, religion was reduced to a personal matter of individuals, where the state policies did not reflect on Islamic principles. Consequently, religious courts and religious schools were banned, alcohol consumption became easier, and mosques were regulated by the government; in hopes of suppressing religious extremism. All in all, Atatürk held ambitions for a progressive Turkish state, where political Islam will not linger to attain imperial and economic incentives through exploiting religion. His vision focused on the conception that, Turkish enlightenment and reformation relied on shedding lime light on their internal affairs and economic conditions, rather than expansion of territories and entitlement of dominating the Muslim world. Additionally, his ideology expressed that incorporation of religion into politics led to extremism, resulting in, lack of scientific advancements and progression in Turkey.

Inarguably, Atatürk’s reforms resulted in a progressive Turkish republic, however, fate took a twist after the death of Atatürk. The members of the ruling party increasingly dissented over the interpretation of his philosophy, and tried to enforce Islamic principles recurrently. In that regard, the state experienced coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997; as, Atatürk passed the authority of safeguarding the secular identity of the state on to the Turkish military. Ironically enough, the coups employed for securing Turkey, eventually led to its annihilation. They resulted in declining economic activities, which adversely impacted the GDP of the state. With the collapsing economic advancements, the mayor of Istanbul from 1994-1998- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan- revised the debacle of Turkey. In 2003, he rose to power alongside his Justice and Development Party. Similar to Atatürk he had a reformist vision of remodeling Turkey, however their ideologies contrasted. Erdogan co-related development with regional hegemony; as, he wanted to regain lost Ottoman prestige through the ideology of Neo-Ottomanism. To elaborate, his aim is to advance influence over the Muslim world once again, since his school of thought accredits that as the appropriate potential of the Turkish state. Nevertheless, the ambitions are dependent on incorporating Islam as a political tool; thus, Erdogan has employed the conduct of political Islam.

To add on to the argument, one of the major factors backing Erdogan’s ideology is the expiry of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Under International Law, treaties expire in subsequent 100 years; implying that by 2023, Turkey may seek to reintegrate its forfeit territories. By doing so, Turkey will attain regional hegemony and revisit its lost glory. The perception is to expand Turkish relations across the Middle East, in order to maximize regional influence. As a result, Turkey has carried out several military operations in Northern Syria; on account of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)  carving out extensive territory in Northern Syria. Conjointly, special forces have also been deployed in Northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who seek autonomy and an independent Kurdistan. The autonomous Kurd regions challenge the sovereignty of Turkey; as, it may aspire Kurds living in Turkey to gain momentum in their insurgent movement. This directly challenges the expansionist and hegemonic ideology of Erdogan, hence, Turkish forces have intervened to maintain their sovereignty. Furthermore, Turkey has also supported the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in the Libyan civil war, in hopes to attain political influence in Libya and to gain access to its Northeastern Mediterranean coast. In this manner, Turkey will be able to yield access to oil and gas reserves of the Mediterranean. Moreover, with the coming termination of the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey can explore and utilize natural gas reserves of the Black Sea. In fact, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has explored 320 billion cubic meters of natural gas, he aspires to launch production by 2023. Consequently, Turkey can revoke its dependence on energy reserve imports from Iran, Iraq and Russia; and dominate over one the largest economies in the Middle East. This will further increase Turkish influence across the region. Furthermore, Turkey has developed an antipathetic stance on Israel and India, due to their human rights violations against the people of Palestine and Kashmir. This strategy is being incorporated in order to be promulgated as the liberator and hegemon of the Muslim world. Moreover, Turkey has formed close alliances with Malaysia, Qatar, Iran and Pakistan; in anticipation of generating a Muslim bloc alongside compatible states. In this manner, Turkey can lead countries that carry analogous viewpoints on Islamophobia. Subsequently, Turkey will revisit its Ottoman prestige.

Nevertheless, these aspirations shall not be easy to attain; as, Turkish regional hegemony is a threat to the USA’s and Saudi Arabia’s influence over Middle Eastern territory. It has been suspected that the USA orchestrated the 2016 coup attempt against the government of Erdogan. Implying how, the USA fears Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism and its strive for regional dominance; as that would threaten the dominance of the USA and its plans for the Middle East. A prototype is that Turkey paved an obstacle in the elimination of ISIS, due to its intervention against the Kurds of Northern Syria, which were aiding America in its goal. As a result, Erdogan incorporated the theory of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and established a robust geopolitical and strategic alliance with Russia, Iran and China, such as: burgeoning energy, weapon and commercial relations. Moving on, Saudi Arabia views Erdogan’s ambitions as a threat to its authority. Over the years, Turkey has challenged the interests of Saudi Arabia and its Arab alliances in various parts of the Middle East and Muslim world. Saudi Arabia wants to maintain its status quo in countries across the region; and thus, entails the phenomenon that states should accept authoritarianism and dictatorship, while abandoning principles of freedom and democracy. On the contrary, Turkey has encouraged the Arab Spring whilst cladding with the appeals of the masses. This stance has enraged the monarchies of Saudi and its Arab allies, who carry the notion that the Arab Spring will result in domestic instability and challenges to  authoritarian rule in their states. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has incorporated strategies to contain Erdogan’s ambitions. For example, Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain and Egypt backed Greece and Cyprus in their appeal to the UN- secretary-general to not register the maritime delimitation jurisdiction agreed between Libya and Turkey. As, that deal will grant Turkey access to the oil and gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, Pakistan was instructed not to attend the Kuala Lumpur summit based on tackling Islamophobia, in fears of Pakistan integrating itself in the emerging Turkish led Muslim bloc. In addition, through the incorporation of Hybrid warfare, Turkey has been accused of spreading the coronavirus in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, whilst also labelling the Ottoman caliphate in the Arab world as an occupation in their new school curriculum.

Overall, Erdogan’s ambitions for a progressive Turkey contrast Atatürk’s secular reforms. According to Erdogan’s ideology, the true potential of Turkey lies in regional hegemony and as the leader of the Muslim World, similar to its Ottoman tenure. All embracing, it can be implied that Turkey may emerge as a regional superpower and the changing dynamics of the Middle East are inevitable, exclusively upon the termination of the Treaty of Lausanne in 2023. As, hurdles in the Turkish domination will be removed. Notwithstanding, the question of the balance of contrary forces in the future lingers on the concept of ‘time will tell’.

Tamseel Aqdas is a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University, Islamabad

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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