Neo-Ottomanism: A new direction for Turkey?

Once upon a time I dabbled a little in politics, to the extent that I actually tried twice to get myself elected as a Member of Parliament. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. I guess my main motivation was to preserve my right to criticize. People would say, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you do something constructive to change things?’ I wasn’t successful, of course, and I’m equally glad, in retrospect, that I wasn’t. To get elected on a party ticket you have to juggle the dictates of the party itself, the fickle winds of public opinion, the oppressive power of the media circus, your own desire for power, and your private beliefs and personal integrity. All too often, the still small voice of the latter is drowned by the insistent bellowing of the former.

All politicians know this, of course, and choose to pay the price for success, so you can’t feel too sorry for them. Barack Obama should have known (if he truly didn’t) before swearing the presidential oath, that the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to shut down Guantanamo and stop the torture; that adhering to the demands of the Armenian diaspora would run him into difficulties with the Turkish Government; and that the too-big-to-fail US banking sector would force him to help them out of their self-dug hole with a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-funded handout. Democracy is the machinery that allows us to call politicians to account when they stray too far from the path we want them to follow. Never fear, America, here comes Sarah Palin to the rescue!

I guess have a longish history as a political sceptic, but I do feel a certain sympathy for those charged with the responsibility of forming Turkey’s foreign policy these days. Neo-Ottomanism is a word I hear bandied around a lot. The implication seems to be that Turkey is moving away from the Western orientation it has followed since the founding of the republic, turning instead towards the Central Asian and Middle Eastern regions associated with its Turkic and Ottoman origins. The argument clearly has appeal for those, abroad and at home, wishing to label Turkey as eastern, Islamic, uncivilized and ‘other’; and the present government as all those things, plus backward-looking and anti-democratic. What do I think? Let me share my thoughts . . .

The Turkish Republic had its birth in a land devastated by decades of war – and it has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. The Ottoman Empire had been reduced by a century of nationalist splintering from within, and imperialist manipulation from without, to a shrunken rump on the verge of collapse. The last nationalist movement to emerge was Turkish nationalism, forced into self-awareness by the threat of imminent destruction. In order to foster this national identity, the leaders of the republican independence movement were obliged to create an identity of Turkishness, to decimate the elitist Ottoman language and exalt its poor Turkish relation; to develop myths of a legendary Turkish past, and sever ties to the Islamic Empire which had finally been brought to its knees by Western European power.

Osman Gazi,
founder of the Ottoman dynasty

The new Republic had, from its inception, an uncomfortable relationship with the Ottoman Empire from which it sprang. Osman Gazi, the founder of the Ottoman state, was a 13th century Turkish warlord. The Ottoman Sultans, for centuries, claimed, largely by dint of military might, the title of Caliph, or leader of the Muslim ‘nation’. Nevertheless, though officially Muslim, the empire contained relatively autonomous populations of Jews and Christians, as well as the various Islamic communities. The Ottomans did not regard themselves as ‘Turkish’. Turks were the warriors and tillers of the soil. The basis of the Ottoman language may have been Turkish, but it had substantial overlays of Arabic and Persian, incorporating three distinct language families[1]. The Ottomans were a ruling elite intermarrying with Russian and Greek princesses, and happily mingling with maidens fair from the conquered lands of Europe. In its declining years, however, their Empire had become a virtual puppet of the European Great Powers, accepting support and indignities from all and sundry to eke out its existence a little longer. When the armed forces of France and Britain occupied Istanbul at the end of the First World War, the ‘virtual puppet’ status became reality. The Sultan and his ministers were compelled to sign at Sevres a treaty that would have dismembered the once mighty empire. The final insult must have been the Entente-sponsored invasion of Anatolia by the army of Greece, intent on re-establishing its ancient Byzantine glory.


In short, we can say that the founders of the Turkish Republic had to split from and deny pretty much everything that the Ottoman Empire had represented. The fostering of a Turkish national identity required a rejection of all things Ottoman, even religion – yet the new state, unlike its predecessor, was now almost exclusively Muslim. Contradictions abounded, so, of necessity, there was some rewriting of history, some adjusting of reality, some myth-creation in order to ensure the survival of a nation that, like Hans Andersen’s ugly duckling, no one else in the world really wanted.

It is only recently that Turks have started to become comfortable with their Ottoman heritage. Sufficient time has passed that they can begin to feel pride in the achievements of ancestors whose existence cannot be denied. Most of the excesses of early republican nationalism and secularism are being quietly put away on high shelves. Atatürk himself insisted that the ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, should be intoned in Turkish. Now that is a dead issue. Even the most ardent Kemalists seem content to hear Arabic broadcast at high volume five times (or more) a day from a forest of increasingly lofty minarets. One of the most popular drama series on television these days is “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (“The Magnificent Century”), set in the 1500s, during the reign of Sultan Süleyman, generally acknowledged to have presided over the Ottoman Empire at the zenith of its power. Modern Turkey is achieving a synthesis, as its middle class multiplies and the process of urbanization accelerates, of modernity, economic consumption, globalization, secular democratic government, Islamic traditions and Turkishness. That is as it should be. The government may try to direct these processes but it cannot control them.

So far, then, I have been looking at the domestic situation in Turkey, but of course, there is another aspect to the label of Neo-Ottomanism. When the Turkish Republic came into being, its founders resolved to turn towards the West in the search for a new direction. The founding principles included democratic republicanism, separation of religion and government, state-sponsored economic development, and reforms of alphabet, language, clothing and religious practices. Europe represented the goals of the new republic, and all things Western and European became desirable. Although remaining neutral during the Second World War, Turkey sent armed forces to the Korean conflict, and was a major military contributor to NATO defences during the Cold War. I have recently learned that, when President JF Kennedy was indignantly ordering the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, the United States had bases in Turkey with missiles trained on the USSR. I suspect the Soviets knew about these, were not too happy about them, and very likely had Turkish locations pretty high on their list of targets to hit, should the need arise. It was a risk the Turkish Government took, one assumes out of a desire for friendship with the West.

At this point, I would like to quote from Wikipedia on the subject of Turkey’s attempts to gain admission to the European Union. I am aware that some people disparage Wikipedia as a source, but on this one I’m prepared to trust them. You can check the facts elsewhere if you have the time and the inclination:

“Turkey’s application to accede to the European Union was made on 14 April 1987. Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union (EU) and its predecessors since 1963. After the ten founding members, Turkey was one of the first countries to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1949, and was also a founding member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1961 and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1973. The country has also been an associate member of the Western European Union since 1992, and is a part of the “Western Europe” branch of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) at the United Nations. Turkey signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was officially recognised as a candidate for full membership on 12 December 1999, at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. Negotiations were started on 3 October 2005, and the process, should it be in Turkey’s favour, is likely to take at least a decade to complete. The membership bid has become a major controversy of the ongoing enlargement of the European Union.”

It looks to me as though Turkey has been pretty determined, one might say patient, in its efforts to be accepted into the European fold. I am well aware of the arguments against acceptance, however, spoken and unspoken, and (just between you and me) I suspect that a blue moon will rise over a cold day in hell when the EU finally welcomes Turkey aboard as a full member. So what are the Turks to do in the mean time?

The key issue that makes Europeans shy away from inviting Turkey into their club, namely religion, is the very factor that gives Turks an advantage when it comes to dealing with nations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Muslims have felt marginalized by Western societies for a long time now, and the accelerating speed of modernization has served to accentuate the sense of superiority in the West, and corresponding sense of exclusion in the rest of the world. Turkey, with its unique combination of secular democracy and traditional Islamic viewpoint, coupled with the detachment that its Turkishness brings to the mix, finds itself in a position to play a mediating role in an area that remains a mystery to most in the West. Central Asian Turkic republics, freeing themselves from decades of oppression by Russian and Soviet conquerors, see Turkey as the big brother that has trodden the difficult path they themselves aspire to follow. Middle Eastern states have a more problematic relationship with their liberal neighbour, but still, Turkey stands as an example of a country that has managed to achieve impressive political, social and economic freedoms while retaining its Islamic identity.

Is it any wonder, then, that the government of Turkey, and the private sector of its own accord, have been working to build bridges with neighbouring states in their immediate vicinity and further to the east? Can Western nations continue dangling carrots while holding Turkey at arm’s length, and at the same time, seriously expect the Turks to forego all other international contact in the hopes of future acceptance? The United States at least, has a pragmatic approach – unlike France for example, they refrain from grandstanding to special interest groups at home who have a historical axe to grind. They encourage EU members to adopt a more positive approach to Turkey’s membership application – even if only because of Turkey’s strategic geo-political significance. Britain also pushes Turkey’s case from time to time – though a cynic might suggest this stems more from its desire to maintain a Euro-sceptic position than from any great love for Turks as a race.

In the mean time, we see Turkish construction companies working in partnership with locals in Kazakhstan and Libya, and Turkish educational foundations building schools. We have seen the Turkish government (in league with Brazil) trying its own approach to ease international tensions over Iran’s nuclear development programme. We are seeing tent cities established near the southeast border to accept thousands of refugees fleeing violence and oppression in neighbouring Syria. Students from 130 nations are currently in Ankara to participate in the 9th International Turkish Language Festival.

In 2010 Istanbul was chosen as one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture, and, major projects were carried out all over the city to showcase its historical riches. Twenty-one million Turkish Liras were spent on a three-year restoration of the 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque, simply the best of many architectural treasures built during the reign of that ‘Magnificent’ sultan. But it is not merely Istanbul and Ottoman treasures that demand huge sums for historical restoration and preservation. A farmer near the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, better known for its coal mines, recently uncovered, while digging foundations for a hothouse on his property, the perfectly preserved mosaic floor of a 3rd century Roman villa.

Then there are the Ottoman heritage buildings beyond the boundaries of modern Turkey. The international community recognises the debt owed to the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome, and there is no difficulty in raising money to restore and preserve classical remains, wherever they may be located today. The British Empire left its architectural footprint all over the world, from Sydney to Kolkata, Istanbul to Shanghai. Most of those cities are in countries that have long-since thrown off the colonial yoke, yet they are happy to find new uses for the buildings. The Ottoman heritage is a different matter. In the Balkans and Greece, emergent Christian states couldn’t wait to erase all traces of their Muslim Ottoman past. In Central Asia, a century or two of Russian and Soviet hegemony, and economies with little surplus for luxuries, have combined to the detriment of important historical sites. Recently the Turkish Government has been involving itself in the restoration of their historical heritage in neighbouring nations. There are critics who see this as yet another aspect of emerging Neo-Ottomanism. Yet imagine the outcry if Turkey allowed, never mind contributed to, the decay and destruction of a 15th century church or cathedral within its borders. Without Turkish Government involvement, the six-century-old Fethiye Mosque in Athens would continue its descent into rubble; the Orhun inscriptions in Mongolia, the oldest known written documents of Turkic history, would meet the same fate, as would, probably, the madrasah where Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi was born in Afghanistan.

As I said in my opening paragraphs, I don’t generally have much sympathy for politicians. Dealing with criticism is part of their job, as are making unfulfillable promises and obfuscating the truth. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the present Turkish government gets more than its fair share of unreasonable criticism. Can they really be in the United States’ pocket, and at the same time, have a shariah and Neo-Ottoman expansionist agenda? Should they spend tax-payer money restoring and caring for their historic buildings, or leave them to rot and decay – and if restoration is the decision, who should decide which ones and where? Should Turkey cut itself off from contact with its Muslim and Central Asian neighbours in the hopes of currying favour with Europe? The path of political success is a minefield, and I’m pleased, when I look back, that New Zealand voters kept me from it.


[1] English, in comparison, though indebted to several major sources, is pretty pure Indo-European.
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