September 08, 2014

Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy

Istanbul — In the late 1990s, as Turkey was reeling from various political and economic crises, there was a nationwide debate over European Union membership and whether Turkish accession to the union would solve the country's problems.

Back then, I was a graduate student in International Relations at Marmara University. Among the professors in my department, there was only one who opposed Turkey's integration with the West. He was a distinguished scholar of Islamic and Western political philosophy, and a genial figure who enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students. In his lectures, this professor argued that Turkey would soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential.

Now, 14 years later, that professor, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been named Turkey's new prime minister.

Mr. Davutoglu's classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis. He cited the historical precedents of Britain, which created a global empire in the aftermath of its 17th-century civil war, and Germany, a fragmented nation which became a global power following its 19th-century unification. Mr. Davutoglu was confident that his vision could transform what was then an inflation-battered nation, nearly torn apart by a war with Kurdish separatists, into a global power.

He crystallized these ideas in the book "Strategic Depth," in 2001, a year before the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., came to power. In the book, he defined Turkey as a nation that does not study history, but writes it — a nation that is not at the periphery of the West, but at the center of Islamic civilization.

The book was like a prophecy of Turkey's future. Mr. Davutoglu saw himself as a grand theorist at the helm of his country as it navigated what he called the "river of history." He and his country were not mere pawns in world politics, but the players who moved the pieces.

These days, pro-government media is giddily casting him in that role. A new online video, viewed by hundreds of thousands, portrays him as a powerful leader following in the footsteps of Ottoman sultans. "My century-old dreams are coming true," goes the accompanying jingle. "The spiritual heir of Abdulhamid II."

But Mr. Davutoglu is not a "neo-Ottomanist" — a label often applied to him. He is a pan-Islamist. The movement known as Ottomanism emerged in the 1830s as the empire's elites decided to replace existing Islamic institutions with modern European-style ones, in fields from education to politics. By contrast, Mr. Davutoglu believes that Turkey should look to the past and embrace Islamic values and institutions.

But, ironically, he bases his pan-Islamist vision on the political theories that were used to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945. While purporting to offer Turkey a new foreign policy for the 21st century, his magnum opus draws on the outdated concepts of geopolitical thinkers like the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Briton Halford Mackinder and the German Karl Haushofer, who popularized the term "Lebensraum," or living space, a phrase most famously employed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to emphasize the need to expand its borders.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
According to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart.

As foreign minister, Mr. Davutoglu fervently believed that the Arab Spring had finally provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to put these ideas into practice. He predicted that the overthrown dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional "Muslim Brotherhood belt" under Turkey's leadership.

He sought Western support by packaging his project as a "democratic transformation" of the Middle East. Yet today, instead of the democratic regimes promised three years ago, Turkey shares a border with ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate. Two months ago, its fighters raided the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage. Mr. Davutoglu, who has argued that Turkey should create an Islamic Union by abolishing borders, seems to have no idea how to deal with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, who have made Turkey's own borders as porous as Swiss cheese.

As a former student of Mr. Davutoglu's who has read hundreds of his articles and books, I'm not surprised that his foreign policy has led Turkey into this corner. The new prime minister is mistaken in believing that the clock in the Middle East stopped in 1918 — the year the Ottoman Empire was destroyed — or that Turkey can erase the region's borders and become the leader of an Islamic Union, ignoring an entire century of Arab nationalism and secularism. What Mr. Davutoglu needs to do, above all, is to accept that his pan-Islamist worldview, based on archaic theories of expansionism, is obsolete.

Instead of restoring the Islamic values and institutions he has long extolled, he must foster universal values like democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedom. Only then can Turkey overcome the polarization from which it currently suffers, and become a worthy example to its neighbors.

Behlul Ozkan is an assistant professor at Marmara University and the author of "From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: The Making of a National Homeland in Turkey

No comments: