Understanding Turkey since the dissolution of the Ottoman empire has proven difficult for westerners. The decaying magnificence of the Ottoman years was a vivid adornment to past debate. Nineteenth century diplomatists like David Urquhart defended the Sublime Porte as a reasonable counterbalance to Russia, and publicity-minded moralists like Gladstone decried Ottoman atrocities, all while the empire became more visibly moribund and threadbare.
Religiosity was integral to all estimations of the Ottoman system and its weakening. Imperialist observers and travellers to the orient described the east as a combination of decadent luxury and fanatical religion, ascribing Ottoman failures to both. As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, countries like the new German empire and Britain contended with the Ottoman sultan’s claimed position, as caliph, at the head of the Muslim world.
The end of the caliphate and the collapse of the empire provided new reasons to misunderstand, notably on the matter of religion. A new Turkish state, led by Mustafa Kemal, trumpeted its secularism and modernity. Lord Kinross’s Ataturk, for decades a standard English biography, held that the new secular Turkey decisively broke from the pious old on the example of its founder.
This century has seen religious terrorism animate much of the world, and allies sometimes selected by whether their societies manifest religion and, if so, to what degree of passion that religion expresses. For some watching Turkey, any gesture in the direction of Islam seems like backsliding.
Many examples are taken to indicate a final departure from secular Ataturkism under the Justice and Development party (AKP), widely held as Islamist, and its strongman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The reconsecration of the Hagia Sophia, once a basilica, and until recently a museum, as a mosque provides a new candidate – to those looking to find one – for the epochal moment where Turkey steps permanently away from the secularism claimed by the state.
The symbolism of the moment is sharp, and elegies like one elegantly written by Ziya Meral of Chatham House balance the sadness of the moment with the sense that this is a side issue, pursued by a party two decades in power, enacted with little domestic opposition. One action does not a reversion to Islamism mark. Contemporary political histories of Ataturkism newly undermine the idea that Turkey was ever fully secular.
Yet many European policymakers, behind their hands, believe precisely that Turkey is pointedly becoming an Islamist state, one whose apparent aggression shocks them and offends their delicate tastes. It is the only interpretation, at least at this time, which many will countenance fitting all the facts.
But we have been here before. The previous theory of Turkey’s new direction was a little grander and more sweeping. It held that Turkey wanted to re-establish something of its Ottoman grandeur and eminence. Observers took snide glances at Turkish parades featuring men dressed as janissaries and all manner of antique flummery. They took to calling Erdogan ‘sultan’.
There is a religious element, too. Although no theory of neo-Ottomanism included resurrection of the caliphate, the term was associated with a new Islamism at odds with Turkey’s twentieth century secular nationalism.
Earlier this year, an essay by Nicholas Danforth put that prescription to bed. But a new, ready-made interpretation has sprung out to take its place. This holds that, under Erodogan, Turkey has pursued a species of pan-national Islamism in the AKP mould, backed with force.
Some facts accord with this idea. But adherence to it, and attributing all Turkish actions to the enacting of this sinister doctrine, leads European policymakers into rough waters.
When Turkey protected rebel enclaves in Syria from extermination by use of its military force earlier this year, there was muted relief in European capitals. But when Turkey, in a bid to make something of its stake in Syria, does uneasy deals with Iran and Russia over Syria, there is if not consternation, then at least confusion. Was any of this neo-Ottoman, some wondered, with Turkey attempting to undo the treaty of Sèvres?
When the Turkish armed forces began a direct campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey claims is a subsidiary of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a number of explanations were offered approaching the level of speculation about national psychology. Perhaps it indicated a new Turkish militarism, or the forerunner to a policy of ethnic cleansing.
Some excitedly discovered that the Islamism of many Turkish allies in Syria, and the avowedly secular and Marxist tenets of the PKK, could provide an answer. And so, with that, Turkey’s contorted attempts to stablise northern Syria, defeat the enemies it considers a terrorist fifth column, and contain a refugee crisis largely restricted to those countries bordering Syria could be happily filed away under the label of a turn to revanchist Islam.
In Libya, these misunderstandings have come close to hysteria. Libya’s war is complex and the sides taken by outside powers may appear tortuous. Turkey is fighting on the side of the Government of National Accord. Meanwhile many in Europe, as well as Russia, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, are either actively or passively supporting, in Khalifa Haftar, a rampaging general’s bid to overthrow the government recognised by the United Nations.
Here Turkey’s actions are not just poorly understood; they are decried as despicable. In part because Turkish help recently defeated Haftar’s attempt to capture the capital of Tripoli after a bloody and grinding campaign. But the Turkish action which inspired most histrionic denunciation was its importing of Syrian fighters into Libya to defend the GNA.
Many foreign nations supported Haftar under the proviso that he was a strongman and a secularist. By contrast, France and others accuse Turkey of importing jihadists, tacitly assumed by some in policy to be part of an Islamist wave of Turkish design. My own investigation, and reporting by many others, including Elizabeth Tsurkov, found that Islamism motivated Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in Libya far less than money.
As if to precede the curtain fall of his campaign with a joke, supporters of Haftar, the nominally secular candidate of stability preferred by European powers, recently declared a jihad against Turkey to follow their shattering reversal in the offensive on Tripoli. While the view many take of Turkey’s policy refracts through the prism of whether it demonstrates incipient Islamism, others declare these things openly, and seek besides to turn vicious civil conflict into holy war.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.