Turkey’s Influence in the Muslim World

Turkish President Racep Erdogan addressing a party convention in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. (Getty Images)

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By: Prof. Osman Warfa

Recently, I was on two weeks consultant assignment in Turkey after returning from Latin America. I arrived Istanbul with elements of Nostalgia as I used to visit the country during holidays as a University student. Hereunder, I’m thus sharing with you a brief historic panorama and current affairs of my observation during the short visit as a scholar on an assignment.

To begin with, Turkey’s Islamic identity is an indisputable fact. From the Turkic dynasties that took control of former Abbasid territories at the end of the 10th century, the Turks became the main face of Muslim empires for almost 800 years. The decisive victory for the Seljuk Empire against the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE opened the doors for Turkic tribes to the region known as Anatolia, which stood at the gates of Christian Europe.

From Manzikert, the birth of the Ottoman sultanate in 1299 CE eventually superseded the Mamluks, Seljuks, Ayyubids and Abbasids as the largest Sunni Muslim empire for six centuries, especially when it assumed the position of the Caliphate over the Islamic world in 1517 CE. The Ottoman Empire’s discrete Turkish identity shaped the way this Muslim superpower dealt with respective European states. From the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 CE to the siege of Vienna in 1529 CE, right up to the Battle of Gallipoli during WW1, the Turks are being seen by their European neighbors as the Muslim insult at the heart of Europe.

Historically it wasn’t all doom and gloom. War and trade necessitated alliances, albeit short-lived, between the Ottoman Empire and mainly Britain and France, usually against the Habsburg and Russian empire. However, due to the Ottomans siding with Germany in WW1, the Sykes-Picot agreement led to the carving up of the Middle East into small nation-states as they exist.

After the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate on 3rd March 1924 and the declaration of a secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey looked towards Western Europe as a political model to emulate. During its formative years, the new Turkish republic saw a period of forced assimilation to secularism, and the censorship of Turkey’s innate Islamic identity and culture. The Kemalist regime imposed several draconian policies, which included the banning of the hijab, outlawing the public call to prayer, the closure of religious schools, and the abandonment of the Arabic language from the education curriculum.

The authoritarian crackdown on anything Islamic lasted for nearly 70 years with numerous military coups taking place when the security and unity of the secular republic was vulnerable. Throughout this period, the historical remnants of the Ottoman Empire were generally erased from public life, as the higher echelons of Kemalist power perceived it as a relapsing chapter of the county history.

As a Muslim majority country with a population of 80 million, one of the strongest standing armies in the world, and with social norms that are not entirely palatable to secular liberal Europe, Turkey’s desire to be accepted into the European Union was destined to be problematic. The accusations of human rights abuses and censorship of freedoms are frequently levied against the country by some EU members when opposing Turkey’s bid to join the union. And whilst it may not be diplomatically correct to say this, Turkey’s historical track record with Europe during the Ottoman Empire makes its Muslim identity an elephant in the room.

Consequently, it is safe to say, Turkey under the leadership of the charismatic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, aka AKP) is now looking towards the Middle East, North Africa and Somalia to gain political influence and economic opulence.

The popular equating of President Erdogan and the AKP to the Ottoman Empire is a fallacy. This so-called link between Erdogan and the Ottoman Empire was born out of the reality that for decades Turkey was structurally suppressed from the public recognition of its Islamic heritage, something commonly attributed to the Ottomans and the Seljuks before them. Predictably, when a seemingly unapologetic Muslim leader emerged from the gradual decline of Kemalism, a logical outcome was for some to liken Erdogan and the AKP to modern-day Ottomans.

The Ottoman nostalgia is certainly on the rise in the country. During my two weeklong visits to Ankara and Istanbul as a consultant, I noticed a consistent level of cross-spectrum positive sentiments of Ottoman history among the hotel staff, taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, shopkeepers and university students I interacted with – and some were ardent critics of Erdogan and his party.

As stated earlier, whilst it would be incorrect to even figuratively compare Erdogan to the Ottomans of the past, there is no denying the fact AKP has played a key role in normalizing Ottoman nostalgia in the country. It includes calling on Muslim youth in Turkey to marry young, advising married couples to have at least five children, rhetoric in support of the oppressed Palestinians, Syrians, Somalis and the Rohingya. Another indicator of Erdogan and the AKP’s role in reviving Ottoman history is their support for popular Ottoman TV shows.

The shows receives much praise from President Erdogan and conservative sections of Turkish society, as well as being warmly received by ShahzadeAbdulhamid Kayıhan Osmanoğlu -Sultan Abdhulhamid’s great grandson who helped with the show’s production. However, Payitaht Abdulhamid caused uproar on social media among some members of the Jewsih community who accused the show of peddling anti-Semitism. Lobbyists successfully prevented Netflix from airing the show, whilst staff members from the ‘Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ claimed that Payitaht Abdulhamid promoted an “antidemocratic, anti-Semitic and conspiratorial worldview”.

Praises and blames of political figures and parties should be proportionality based on policies and reality, as opposed to rhetoric alone. In the same way that Ataturk did everything in his power to eradicate Islam from Turkey’s public sphere, including Ottoman history, similarly Erdogan and the AKP cannot be exclusively praised for the recent revival of Ottoman history. Ataturk on numerous occasions criticized Islam and the influence of the “backward” Arabs on the Turkish nation, in the same way that Erdogan has clearly stated that he has absolutely no intention to govern by Shariah law or to establish an Islamic Caliphate.

The Ottoman Empire makes up 625 years of Turkey’s history. Therefore, 70 years of Kemalist oppression or 20 years of AKP’s so-called Islamification can neither lessen nor revive such a vast legacy overnight. The truth of the matter is that it is physically impossible to erase Ottoman history because it dominates the very landscape that Turks see every day, along with the plethora of cultural norms among the indigenous people that date back to the Ottomans.

Nevertheless, the exact details of Erdogan and the AKP’s influence aside, one must question where this revival of Ottomanization of the country will lead to? Surely, if the masses are being shown via mainstream TV a glorious Islamic empire that existed only 93 years ago, which ruled large swathes of the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and assumed overall leadership over the Muslim world, it will naturally influence the psyche of Turkey’s population.

The country selective military involvement in Syria, its ongoing clashes with Kurdish separatists, the formation of military training camps in Somalia, Erdogan’s purging of coup plotters and Gulenists, the war against Islamic State, and the AKP’s warm relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood are a mere spectacle compared to the militaristic, expansionist and religious narratives being disseminated in Dirilis ErtugrulPayitaht Abdülhamid and Magnificent Century.

Whether the revival of Ottoman heritage is a passive AKP Islaminazation policy or a genuine celebration of Turkey’s history, if a government allows the masses to be constantly reminded of their historical glory and accomplishments, many will begin to yearn to see a repeat of those achievements. It happens in the Western world as the U.S., Britain and France, the masses are frequently reminded by the mainstream media about glorious yesteryear – how great their colonial forefathers were in shaping the modern world, which strengthens the population’s sense of global prominence and interventionism.

Still, it is important to note that the cultural revival of Ottomanization isn’t necessarily an Islamic sentiment that could lead to the re-establishment of a Turkish-headed Caliphate or a neo-Ottoman Sultanate – for some it may be, but for many others, it really isn’t.

As an admirer of Ottoman history, I perceive the current resurgence in Ottoman heritage as a positive and refreshing change for Turkey since the dark days of Kemalist tyranny. It would be unfortunate if such a legacy was suppressed by Kemalists or manipulated by opportunistic Islamists when there is a wealth of lessons that the country can learn from their Ottoman predecessors in order to progress as an emerging superpower in the region.Prof Osman Warfa is researcher, consultant, and author of the book

“Somali Diaspora Organization Development: Implications for HRD”. 

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