Trending Events - Issue 9 - Apr 2015

Does Turkey have a Neo-Ottoman dream?

Thursday، October 27، 2016
Does Turkey have a Neo-Ottoman dream?

*This article was published in the Trending Events periodical, issued by Future for Advanced Research & Studies - Issue 9, Apr 2015.

"Does Turkey have a neo-Ottoman dream?". This was always one of the persisting questions I have been posed with in all the Muslim nations I visited during my work as a former director-general of Turkey's Anadolu news agency.

Many of these questions have to do with Turkey's domestic affairs and foreign policy. But the question about Turkey's "neo-Ottomanism" always topped the list with other questions revolving around, and being in the spirit of its topic. This can be explained along the following three baselines: Current developments and events, international politics and the intellectual framework of this topic.

FIRST:  Shifts in Turkey's Foreign Policy

Turkey's foreign policy has experienced several changes since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power. Previous regimes that ruled after the establishment of the Republic insisted on distancing themselves from the states that were established in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Rather those regimes looked westward towards Europe accordingly adapting their relations and policies. On the other hand, the many questions raised by the West about the background of these changes focused on whether or not there was a shift in the essence of Turkish policies taking place. The declared reason of these questions, however, was the desire to know whether or not Turkey was about to sever its relations with the West, give up on EU membership and merge with the Middle East to become one of its states.

The West used to ask these questions: "What is going on in Turkey? Why Turkey opposes Western and American policies towards the Middle East? Does Turkey want to pursue neo-Ottoman policies?". Apparently, Western countries were not comfortable with Turkey's policies that seek to re-establish a strong relationship with the Muslim world and they were making preparations and taking precautions to counter this endeavor. Turkey's viewpoint, however, expressed the desire to bolster its political, economic and social relations with the independently Muslim countries, in the same way Western countries themselves used to do.

It is worth mentioning that the newly-established Republic of Turkey severed ties with the Ottoman state. Later, the radical reforms introduced between 1924-1946 constituted the main reason why a great deal of Ottoman cultural elements and values of history, language and everyday traditions were not carried to the next generations. Despite the fact that the steps made then by the state were crucial for modernizing the society, they nonetheless led to the extinction of Ottoman traditions and customs upheld by the people for 600 years, and also produced social confusions, most notably when a new Latin script replaced that based on the traditional Arabic for writing Ottoman Turkish which was banned in 1928 by "the language revolution" (Dil Devrimi).

Since first coming to power in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making statements stirring up neo-Ottoman sentiments and calling for re-building bridges with the Ottoman history and promoting the positive aspects of Ottoman culture. In doing so, he was walking in the steps of other powers like Russia, Britain and France which seek to revive their historical values dating back thousands of years. Erdogan began to take symbolic steps in this direction in the areas of education, training, culture, history and architecture to promote Ottoman culture. Among Erdogan's most notable steps was his announcement to introduce optional lessons in Arabic-alphabet Ottoman language into the national school curriculum. The move was aimed at allowing the youth to understand and learn about the Ottoman Empire and benefit from thousands of books and articles written during the rule of Mamluks, the Seljuks and Ottomans.

On the other hand, Erdogan introduced the tradition of having 16 presidential guards clad as warriors of the 16 great empires that the Turks established throughout history. The warriors, who would later be a regular feature at ceremonies at the presidential palace, represented an attempt to re-build bridges with the past and reconciling with the history of Turkey.

SECOND: Western double-standards

Western countries continue to uphold double standards in their policies regarding the countries of this region. Britain for instance, colonized vast swathes of the world and entered into wars and conflicts. Although the British pulled out of the occupied countries, they established alliances and strong relations with these countries, the Muslim countries in particular. In addition, Britain's political, economic and cultural influence in the Middle East still maintains momentum. Despite the fact that these relations are considered as normal as relations between any independent states and that these countries have not asked the British any questions such as "Are you seeking to re-establish a Great British Empire? Are you planning to colonize us again?", Turkey is faced with questions about "neo-Ottomanism" as it expresses its desire, as an "independent state", to re-build "warm" relations with Muslim countries.

The question begs itself: What harm is there when Turkey builds an alliance based on common interests with the other countries that it co-existed with for a long time under the umbrella of one state? Apparently, there are double-standards. That is to say, "some" seek to label Turkey's policies as a shift to "neo-Ottomanism" while they do not look at Britain and France, for instance, in the same way. Now that is an interesting approach.

As an associate member of the old European Economic Community since 1963, Turkey sought to become a full membership in the EU and made huge efforts under the AK Pary to achieve full  accession after the country satisfied all the economic criteria of the Maastricht Treaty (Treaty on European Union or TEU of 1992) as well as the Copenhagen criteria, the rules that define the political obligations of the institutions of a candidate country. Later, Turkey initiated the formal negotiations over EU membership. Despite all the reforms that Turkey has introduced, the European Union has not yet accepted the country as a full member. Other countries like Estonia, Malta and Cyprus, were accepted as full EU members during the process of EU enlargement despite the fact that these states have not complied with the relevant EU's criteria. Turkey, however, was not treated on equal basis despite its robust economy and strong democratic structures. 

The fact is that the EU, through these policies, turned out to be reiterating that it is rather a Christian union, and therefore it is not surprising that the EU has not accepted any Muslim country as a member.

THIRD: Turkey and the OIC

On several occasions, Turkey lobbed criticism at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for its inert and ineffective role. Turkey's view is that the OIC should play an active and strong role in promoting the prospects of common economic and cultural cooperation and that an active role for the organization would lead to vast political and economic openness in this region, as well as help in finding solutions to its issues. Turkish intellectuals and opinion leaders believe that this enhanced regional cooperation in the face of Western expansion would also play a highly effective role in developing and strengthening the assets and strengths of the whole Muslim World.

But this proposal has faced sharp criticism from the media that receive support from the West and attempts to depict the proposal as a plan to establish an anti-Western alliance aims at  resurrecting the Islamic Caliphate at later stages. Additionally, in some Muslim countries, there seem to be some writers and politicians that are affected by these criticisms levied at Turkey's proposal, while common forums and intellectual platforms of the Muslim World do not play any effective role nor have the stature that enable them to have effective contributions in this direction. That is what is driving Muslim countries to promote cooperation with Western countries rather than with other Muslim countries.


On a final note, and from the point of view of Turkish intellectual proposals, Turkey considers  this region as one institution that is united on religious and historical foundations collectively referred to as "the unity of the Muslim Nation". And if we are to use international concepts and terminology, we can say that the concept of "unity of the nation" is in fact a reflection of a treaty on political, economic and cultural cooperation, and even represents the first and most ancient forms of unity throughout history. I think that whoever thinks that the efforts that Turkey is making to solve the issues of this nation, and promote cooperation within it, reflect "neo-Ottomanism" is in fact hurling false accusations at Turkey and doing this country great injustice.