Op-Ed: Erdogan the Magnificent, Turkey's Neo-Ottoman Revival

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP/File)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP/File)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

In 1994, an aspiring Turkish politician named Recep Tayyip Erdogan leveraged his fame as a player for Istanbul's Kasimpasa Soccer Club into a successful run for mayor of Istanbul as a candidate of the Islamist Welfare Party.

His initial success proved short-lived. In 1998, he was dismissed from his position as mayor, banned from further political office and imprisoned for four months for having recited a poem, during a speech, that promoted an Islamic point of view of the role of government.

Erdogan later abandoned his explicitly Islamist views and recast himself as a socially conservative democrat who espoused liberal economic policies. In 2001, along with a former ally Fethullah Gülen, he founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to reflect his newfound objectives of social conservatism and economic reform.

In 2003, following the removal of the ban and his reinstatement in Turkish politics after the electoral success of the AKP in the 2002 elections brought it to power, he was elected to the Turkish Parliament in a by-election in Siirt.

That victory heralded the rise of Erdogan into the highest reaches of Turkish politics. He became, in turn, prime minister from March 2003, until he was elected president of Turkey in 2014. He has continued in that role through the present day.

Initially, the AKP-dominated parliament stayed true to its program of political and economic reform. In 2004, it passed a series of five reform packages designed to bring Turkey in line with European Union practices. These reforms included, among other things, increased legal protections of social, cultural and political rights, as well as protecting freedom of expression and limiting the role of the military in Turkish politics.

Over the last 10 years however, Erdogan and the AKP have veered significantly from their initial reformist agenda. Erdogan has been criticized for being increasingly authoritarian and for orchestrating changes in the Turkish constitution designed to further concentrate political authority in the presidency.

Turkey's external policy, in the meantime, has grown increasingly nationalistic and antagonistic to American and NATO objectives in the Middle East. Ankara's policies in the Syrian civil war, its support of radical Islamist groups and its intervention against the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, has led to significant tensions in its relationship with Washington.

Domestically, the AKP has supported the reintroduction of many Islamic cultural practices. These have ranged from promoting the use of the veil by Turkish women to a radical expansion of government-funded religious schools.

In addition, the AKP has promoted the glorification of Turkey's Ottoman heritage. It has, for example, adopted Ottoman ceremonial dress for Turkish troops providing honor guards for visiting dignitaries. It has encouraged Ottoman-themed television programs. It has also promoted the revival of traditional Ottoman military band music -- termed Janissary music. The Janissaries were an elite Praetorian guard charged with protecting Ottoman sultans.

Recently, Ankara announced that Turkish schools would begin teaching the Turkish language using its historic Arabic script. It later modified the policy, after it was heavily criticized, to say that instruction would be optional and not mandatory as originally announced.

Finally, most significantly for Turkey's neighbors, Erdogan has raised questions about the legitimacy of the postwar treaties signed by Turkey after World War I, which established its present borders.

He has claimed, for example, that Mosul, Kirkuk and portions of northern Iraq, covering much of what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, were seized illegally by the British at the end of World War I and should be returned to Turkish sovereignty. Similar claims have been made for the Dodecanese Islands, currently controlled by Greece, and for portions of the Turkish-Syrian borderlands.

Ankara's domestic and foreign policies have been described by some critics as a revival of Ottoman values and policies. Termed "neo-Ottomanism," it is defined as a political ideology that promotes greater political engagement of Turkey with regions formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. This engagement manifests itself as Ankara's promotion of its role in protecting ethnic Turkic inhabitants of the former Ottoman domains, as well as being a champion of Sunni interests.

In addition, it manifests itself in promoting a revival of Ottoman traditions and culture, including its Islamic religious heritage, among Turks both within Turkey and among the ethnic Turks living outside the country. The latter includes both the historic ethnic Turkic communities in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as the Turkish immigrant communities throughout Western Europe.

What exactly does Erdogan's and the AKP's neo-Ottomanism signify? Is this the beginning of a reversal of the Kemalist revolution orchestrated by Kemal Ataturk when the modern Turkish Republic was founded or political expediency on the part of Erdogan and his followers?

The Roots of Neo-Ottomanism

The term neo-Ottomanism is not new. It has been around since the 1970s and was often used to describe Ankara's irredentist land claims, especially with respect to Greece. It resurfaced again during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and has reappeared intermittently ever since. Its use has become more prevalent in the last decade, however, and now applies equally to both Ankara's irredentist claims as well as the increasing Islamization of Turkish society.

Neo-Ottomanism reflects, in part, political expediency by Erdogan and the AKP. It has been a successful strategy for mobilizing the AKP's base and its nationalist component has been used to isolate the Erdogan regime's enemies. It also, however, is the result of the complex evolution that Turkey's relations with Europe and the United States have undergone since the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

The Kemalist revolution was both modernizing and nationalistic. It represented a decisive turn toward Western concepts of modernity while still extolling Turkish culture and nationalism. Those aspects of Turkish culture that were deemed incompatible with modernization, like the historic Arabic script or traditional dress, for example, were eliminated. Hence, among other things, the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet, Turkish was purged of Arabic and Persian words and the wearing of a fez, a headdress associated with an oriental cultural identity, was made illegal by Ataturk.

Islam, while not proscribed per se, was seen as an impediment by the Kemalists to Turkish modernization. Hence, while religious life was allowed, and freedom of religion was specifically protected under the Turkish constitution, Ataturk insisted that the new Turkish state would be secular.

Religion would not be allowed in Turkish politics, a proscription that was regularly enforced, as Erdogan found out, as recently as the 1990s. The military, even more so than the courts and the government in general, took upon itself the responsibility of protecting the secular nature of the Turkish state from religious interference.

The Kemalist revolution's embrace of modernity on occasion went even beyond the European practices it was designed to emulate. The Turkish constitution, for example, gave women the right to vote more than a decade before French women won the same right in 1944.

Nationalism was an explicit part of the Kemalist revolution. Ataturk himself had been a war hero. His actions as an Ottoman Army officer during the Gallipoli campaign was what first brought him to national prominence.

The role of the Ottoman Army during the Gallipoli Campaign or against Russian military forces in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia was extolled and a source of Turkish pride. Turkish nationalism, however, was stripped of any religious context. As defined by Ataturk and the Kemalists, it was Turkish and secular even when it was praising military events that had occurred during the Ottoman caliphate.

Turkey began its discussion to enter the European Union (EU) in 1963 when Ankara signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community. Its stated aim then was to eventually be a full member in the EU. The process would proceed by fit and starts for the next 50 years -- far and away the longest negotiation of any prospective member. Ultimately, it would fail.

Three military coups over this period -- in 1971, 1980 and 1997, as well as the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 -- resulted in a suspension of the ascension process. European misgivings, first about the state of the Turkish economy, Ankara's respect for the rule of law and human rights, and later about the consequences of giving 80 million Turkish citizens, many of whom were practicing Muslims, immigration rights into the EU, also acted to slow down the process.

Nonetheless in October 2004, the European Commission extended an invitation to Turkey to begin formal negotiations for full membership in the EU. Membership would require Turkey to institute a series of legal, economic and political reforms designed to bring it into compliance with EU standards and regulations.

Full membership in the EU seemed like the culmination of the Kemalist revolution launched some 80 years earlier. The AKP then in power, with Erdogan as prime minister, began implementing the prerequisite reforms required for EU membership.

The timing was perfect. Turkey was about to enter a prolonged period of economic expansion that would see its GNP grow from $400 billion in 2004, to more than $850 billion in 2016. Per capita income doubled to $11,230 during this period. While still significantly below the more advanced EU economies, that number was comparable to newly entered states such as Poland and Hungary.

The ascension talks, however, went nowhere. In the wake of the rise of jihadist violence in Europe and the Middle East, significant political opposition began to emerge, first among right-wing parties, but as the decade wore on also among centrist political parties, opposing Turkish membership in the EU.

In June 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a report in which it noted that, "recent developments in Turkey pertaining to freedom of the media and of expression, erosion of the rule of law and the human rights violations in relation to anti-terrorism security operations in southeast Turkey have ... raised serious questions about the functioning of its democratic institutions."

In short, the growing consensus within Europe was that Turkey was simply not ready for membership in the EU.

Starting around 2007, the AKP began moving away from its goal of full membership in the European Union. Officially, Ankara continued to insist that it wanted to join the EU but, within the AKP, there was a growing realization that it was not going to happen.

Even though many of the elements of neo-Ottomanism had been around for decades, it was at that point that they began to feature more prominently in the AKP's politics. In other words, rejected by modern, secular Europe, the AKP looked to define a new role for Turkey -- one that would embrace its Ottoman and Islamic heritage rather than rejecting it as the Kemalists had done. Neo-Ottomanism was the ideology that would position Turkey as an Islamic and Middle Eastern power.

The roots of the AKP had always been in Turkey's rural areas among socially conservative voters who had never fully embraced Ataturk's vision of a completely secular Turkey. The fact that Islamist political themes resonated well in these areas meant that Ankara's search for a new role for Turkey also played well to its domestic political base. Even now, the AKP generally loses the urban vote in Turkish elections but makes up for it with widespread support in rural areas.

As the main guarantors of Turkish secularism, the AKP's domestic political agenda was bound to bring it into conflict with the Turkish military. Starting in 2007, Erdogan began to rid the military of senior officers he believed would stand in the way of a more politically Islamist Turkey. The government, claiming that it had uncovered plots to stage a military coup, brought court cases against what it claimed were complicit senior officers in the armed forces.

The court cases against the Turkish Armed Forces, known as the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases, were highly controversial and tainted by questionable evidence. For example, a document produced by the government purported to have been written in 2003, laying out the plans for the coup, was later shown to have been written with a 2007 version of Microsoft Word.

Erdogan's efforts to rid the leadership of the Turkish Armed Forces of potential opponents reached its crescendo in July 2016, when he announced that the Turkish military had attempted to stage a coup against the government.

Using the alleged coup as a pretext, Erdogan would, between July 2016 and December 2017, dismiss some 150,000 government and military officials. He also imprisoned or had dismissed almost 2,000 journalists and he shut down more than 50 media outlets that the government accused of spreading falsehoods and insulting the Turkish president.

In 2017, Erdogan also orchestrated a popular referendum designed to amend the Turkish constitution to expand the executive powers of the presidency at the expense of the Turkish parliament. The referendum narrowly passed. It was defeated in Turkey's main urban centers such as Istanbul or Izmir but got widespread support in rural areas.

The referendum, combined with the crackdown of his critics following the alleged coup, was cited by Erdogan's opponents as proof of his growing authoritarianism.

Turkey's Neo-Ottomanism Today

From a practical standpoint, what is referred as Ankara's neo-Ottomanism can be summarized as having five main tenants:

1. The restoration of many traditional Islamic practices to Turkey's social and cultural life.

These practices are far ranging, from the restoration of the traditional public call to prayer five times a day by the muezzin in mosques, a practice specifically outlawed by Ataturk, to promoting state-sponsored religious schools, now with more than one million students; to encouraging, and in certain instances mandating, more conservative and traditional Islamic dress among government employees -- for example, teachers in public schools, or such symbolic acts such as proposing to convert Istanbul's famed Hagia Sophia from a secular museum back into a functioning mosque.

This policy is a de facto cultural Islamization of Turkish society. It represents a reversal of the secularism and the explicit division of religious life from political affairs championed by the Kemalists. It is not yet a complete reversal of that policy, and it may never reach that point.

Turkey has a rich, secular urban culture, one that will resist the encroachment of religion into civil society and politics. While Turkey has grown noticeably more Islamist in recent decades, it still stops short of the pervasive influence that Islam plays in, for example, Saudi social and cultural life.

2. A glorification of Turkey's Ottoman heritage.

The Kemalists had explicitly rejected Turkey's Ottoman heritage as a legacy of its oriental past, one that was seen as backward and reactionary and incompatible with a modern, secular state. Neo-Ottomanism has at its core a revival and glorification of Turkey's Ottoman history. It is the embrace of a cultural legacy that the Kemalists had turned their backs on.

This glorification is evident in Turkey today, from soap operas based on Ottoman history and themes, to the revival of honor guards dressed in Ottoman military uniforms to, among other things, Erdogan's regular visits to shrines dedicated to Ottoman heroes and a revival of Ottoman military marching band music. Surprisingly, while the military marching band is seen as a quintessential Western legacy, it was in fact a practice first introduced by the Ottomans.

3. Promoting Sunnism.

From a foreign policy standpoint, Ankara's embrace of a greater role for Islam in political and social life expresses itself in support of Sunni Muslim interests as an important objective of Turkish foreign policy. Promoting Sunnism does not have to follow as part and parcel of glorifying Turkey's Ottoman heritage. The two are distinct, but they are compatible, and their support stems from the same root causes.

That promotion of Sunni interests has seen Turkey compete with Saudi Arabia, for example, in being a prime benefactor of foreign mosque building. It has also led Turkey to position itself as the defender of Sunni communities in places like Syria and Iraq in much the same way that Iran has positioned itself as the defender of Shia communities elsewhere in the Middle East.

4. Moving toward authoritarianism.

Domestically, neo-Ottomanism does not have to be authoritarian or anti-democratic. From a practical standpoint, however, to the extent that Turkey's embrace of neo-Ottomanism is also a rejection of a Western and secular future, it makes the drift to authoritarianism that much easier.

As long as Turkey aspired to full membership in the EU, then the club rules exerted some constraint on what was permissible. Those rules did not prevent military coups or anti-democratic activities, but it made it clear that progress toward EU membership was incompatible with such behavior and that behavior would need to change if progress was to resume. Stripped of those constraints, there is no longer a price to be paid for Ankara's anti-democratic behavior

5. Challenging Post-wwi treaties.

Finally, neo-Ottomanism is reflected in Turkish foreign policy as a greater willingness to challenge the legacy of the various treaties that settled the post-Ottoman Middle East. Promoting such irredentist claims is not an inevitable legacy of embracing its Ottoman past or accepting a greater Islamization of political, cultural and social life. In fact, many of those irredentist claims have been made against fellow Muslim countries.

What it does reflect, however, is Ankara's perception that it is less dependent on the West for its security and therefore less bound by the rules of the Western-designed international system. It also reflects Turkey's ongoing attempt to define a new role for itself within the world community.

From the mid-19th century to the late 20th century, the Ottoman Empire and then Turkey were dependent on Western support to counter Russian and Soviet aggression, a period that lasted roughly from the Crimean War until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rejected by Europe and no longer threatened by the Russian bear, it has brought Turkish foreign policy a degree of independence that it has not had since the early 19th century.

This independence has been underscored by Erdogan's Syrian policy. First in supporting various Sunni militias and political groups, including radical Islamist jihadists, against the Assad regime, and then openly siding against the U.S. in attacking the American-sponsored and supplied Syrian Democratic Forces.

In fact, Ankara sought Russian approval and support to attack the SDF, an American proxy force -- strange behavior from a country that is part of NATO and which, for more than half a century, has looked to American security guarantees as a critical element in protecting its sovereignty.


How Turkish politics will evolve is anybody's guess. It's hard to imagine that Erdogan and the AKP will exit the political stage anytime soon nor that they would accept an electoral defeat. Turkey's 20th century ambition to cast itself as a European country and to accept the rules of engagement that such an aspiration would require, however, has been put aside.

The secular legacy of Ataturk and the Kemalists is being reversed, but it is still unclear how far-reaching that reversal will be. Ankara is looking to define a new role for itself as a champion of Sunni interests and as a major power and leader of the Islamic world.

It is equally unclear what the ramifications of that policy will be, whether it will ultimately be compatible with its NATO obligations or its long-term security agreements with the United States.

This does not mean that the Ottoman Empire is making a comeback, nor does it mean that Erdogan intends to cast himself as a 21st-century Ottoman sultan. It does mean, however, that after disappearing from the world stage for almost a century, the Ottomans, or at least their stylized culture and legacy, are back.

Could the Middle East get any stranger?

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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