There is certainly no shortage of writings on Turkey today regarding that country’s “drift” away from its Western orientation. Some who espouse this argument frame the consequences in terms of Turkey’s increased ties to China.[1] While Turkey itself has launched an “Asia Anew” policy,[2] the outsized focus on this and other alleged signs of Turkey’s “drift from the West” distracts from the very palpable effects of its adventurism in the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s increasingly reckless foreign policy is on full display — from weaponizing refugees to extort the European Union to exporting mercenary Jihadist fighters to Libya.[3] These are hardly the actions of a responsible regional power, much less a key member of the NATO alliance. 

Taken in total, one might logically conclude that such actions are “irrational,” as they diminish Turkey’s standing in both the region and the world.  But if we interpret these dynamics as the consequences of ideology warping a state’s rational self-interest, their underlying rationale becomes less opaque.  Unlike other Islamic ideological models, Turkish Neo-Ottomanism focuses on a revival of a “greater Turkey” that renews a classical, civilizational model of the Ottoman Empire’s legacy anchored by economic, military, and political power.[4]

Western media narratives largely ignore these nuances, painting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an autocrat who seeks to increase his domestic powerbase in Turkey at any cost. But by this standard alone, then, authoritarianism itself becomes the scapegoat.[5]  By contrast, Erdoğan is merely the symptom of a broader problem — that is Ankara’s promotion of a Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman ideology that has dangerous implications for the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and beyond.  This misguided vision of pan-Islamism evokes a culturally hegemonic form of political Islam (as well as a form of militant Jihadism).

How did Ankara arrive at this juncture? The concept of Pan-Islamism certainly is not a new phenomenon.  In historical terms, the Ottoman Empire (1517-1923) represented the last Caliphate and Islamic State. A series of military defeats in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and World War I (1914-1918), followed by a crucial victory in the Turkish War of Independence (or Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922), culminated with the founding of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923. The establishment of the modern Turkish state effectively extinguished traditional Ottomanism as a viable political ideology. In its place, widespread Kemalist reforms generated a seismic shift in Turkish society: the abolition of the Sultanate, adoption of the Latin alphabet in place of Arabic script, and a new legal code modeled after European, not exclusively Islamic principles.[6]

Moreover, following this critical juncture in Turkey’s own history, the Middle East region subsequently witnessed a series of independence movements throughout the early to mid-20th century. These independence movements resulted in the creation of the modern republics of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, and Tunisia, among others. The newly independent regional states largely modeled their governments in the image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  As such, this unique historical experience and legacy explain the present-day resistance to Turkey’s expansionist, pan-Islamist project by Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s burgeoning alliance with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood as a transnational movement serves to further exacerbate existing tensions. But Ankara’s Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman ideology is essentially drawing new fault lines across the region—pitting statist, secular, republican governance models against the culturally-expansionist, militant, and pan-Islamist alternative in Turkey.

All too often, external interpretations of Neo-Ottomanism are reduced to a euphemism for Turkey’s increasingly “anti-Western” political orientation. To be sure, this phenomenon has little to do with the West and reflects much more about the emerging ideological model in Turkey.  While Erdoğan certainly embodies a shift in Turkish politics, the conditions of possibility for his meteoric rise in the early 2000s were established by the re-introduction of Ottomanism during Turgut Özal’s tenure, and later reprised by foreign minister (and academic) Ahmet Davutoğlu. Davutoğlu claimed that Turkey is destined to become a regional hegemon, merging geographic determinism with cultural agency and Turkey’s historical experience.[7] But where Davutoğlu advocated a policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” Erdoğan has managed to create crises with nearly all of Turkey’s neighbors.

Contemporary Turkey is playing an increasingly outsized role as an international defender and promoter of its Islamic brand. This blending of Turkish nationalism with an Islamic consciousness highlights the agency of ideological seduction that accompanies Neo-Ottomanism.  During Erdoğan’s tenure, the Turkish state has effectively co-opted the Diyanet Foundation (originally founded under Atatürk to regulate and relegate religious affairs and promote moderate Islam as a path towards further state and societal secularism), placing Justice and Development Party (Turkish: AKP) loyalists in charge and ensuring its role as a central element of Turkey’s foreign policy.[8] The Diyanet controls the sermons issued by Turkish imams worldwide and exerts considerable influence over diaspora communities.[9]  

To this end, Turkey continues to finance the construction of mosques across the globe, from Latin America, to Europe, Africa, and Asia — with Erdoğan himself often officiating the opening ceremonies.[10] Since the rise of the AKP, Turkey has strengthened and solidified its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, hosting major international forums on the Islamic world in Istanbul.[11] The Turkish state also fuels an international hub of religious education through its Imam Hatip schools (which Erdoğan attended as a young boy); Turkey financed the attendance of over 1,000 international students from 76 countries during the period of 2014-2015 alone.[12] Additionally, within Turkey, Imam Hatip religious education is a national priority — state funding for middle and upper schooling (ages 14-18) skyrocketed to 6.57 billion lira ($1.68 billion) in 2018 and Turkey added over 1.3 million new students in the 10-14 year age group.[13] In a dramatic reversal, Saudi Arabia, which had fostered its own visions of hegemonic pan-Islamism, has recently opted to stop exporting its Wahabbi version of Islam. Turkey, by contrast, has gradually assumed this pan-Islamist role over the past 17 years of Erdoğan’s tenure, but in a markedly more aggressive and reckless manner.   

According to a 2017 online public opinion survey conducted in 12 countries across the Middle East, Erdoğan’s promotion of Turkish nationalism and political Islam seems to be yielding results. The study found that, “despite being a lay person, President Erdoğan commands the highest trust among respondents, with 40 percent saying they trust him as a religious authority.”[14]  Additionally, the AKP’s dominance of religious organizations such as the Diyanet has blurred the lines between official (state) Islam and political Islam in Turkey — “the public perceives Islamism and state religion as two sides of the same coin ... [with] AKP supporters indicating higher levels of trust in the Diyanet’s fatwas.”[15] One important exception today is Egypt, where Erdoğan’s clout has declined since that country’s military backed popular protests that ousted Erdoğan’s transnational Muslim Brotherhood allies in 2013.

Turkish political Islam also extends to international humanitarian relief via Islamic-leaning NGOs.  We see Ankara’s enhanced influence as a major provider of aid throughout the Middle East and Africa.  In perhaps the most prominent example, Turkey has invested over $1 billion on aid programs to Somalia through the Diyanet Foundation and other Islamic relief organizations.[16] While these aid programs certainly raise Turkey’s profile, we should note that they are accompanied by political baggage.  In addition to building the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Hospital in Mogadishu, Turkey has also constructed its largest overseas military installation in Somalia, establishing an important military presence in Africa.[17]

This Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman model serves as a catalyst for Turkey’s revisionist approach to regional security dynamics.  For example, President Erdoğan regularly stokes irredentist sentiment by questioning the Treaty of Lausanne — the 1923 agreement that sets the boundaries of modern Turkey.[18]  Playing on nationalist predilections, Erdoğan implies that Mustafa Kemal made undue territorial concessions in the Lausanne Treaty that undermined Turkey’s legitimate claims. As such, Turkey has the “right” to demand a return to the national borders envisioned by the “Misak-i Millî” plan. Misak-i Millî (or the National Pact) was a strategy of six key decisions adopted by the Ottoman Parliament in 1920. According to the National Pact, Turkey claimed territories stretching from Eastern Thrace (now part of Greece), to Cyprus, the eastern Aegean islands, parts of northern Syria, northern Iraq, the entirety of modern Armenia, parts of Georgia, and even to Iran.[19] 

Turkey’s support for regime change in Syria places Ankara in the challenging position of: 1) managing an expanding and costly military conflict with the Kurds absent a cogent exit strategy; 2) refuting Western accusations of Turkey’s own complicity in aiding ISIS; and 3) balancing Washington’s withdrawal from Syria and its concern for the plight of the Kurds.[20]  Likewise, Turkey’s continued military presence and incursions into northern Iraq and Syria only exacerbate regional tensions, energize Kurdish opposition in Turkey, and reinforce negative historical memory in the Middle East of Turkey’s role as an imperial, occupying power.[21]

 In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s heavy-handed approach to energy claims (concerning natural gas deposits in Cyprus’ maritime zone) have largely backfired. Turkey claims that any discoveries of natural gas (or energy resources) within the Republic of Cyprus’ maritime zone must be shared with Turkey (and the Turkish Cypriots).  To enforce these claims, Ankara has increased its naval presence in the region. Foreign energy investors and conglomerates now increasingly view Turkey as an obstacle, instead of a partner, in extracting natural resources from newly discovered reservoirs.[22] This belligerent approach — combined with Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric and Turkey’s aggressive violations of Greek airspace and maritime zones in the Aegean — has resulted in an emerging alliance between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt.[23] These countries are increasingly cooperating on energy issues, tourism, and security/military cooperation, largely directed against Turkey’s confrontational behavior in the region.

Looking ahead, the coronavirus pandemic will temporarily shift media attention away from the crises in Syria and Libya, as well as the simmering tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.  But the unfolding pandemic may actually serve to further push Turkey into its Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman ideological model, as Ankara seeks to deflect domestic criticism and “export” its problems. Flush with financial support from Qatar, Turkey’s dangerous foreign policy is turning regional dynamics on their heads.[24]  In January 2020, Erdoğan published an op-ed claiming that the “road to peace in Libya goes through Turkey.”[25] But rather than seeking to defuse tensions in an already volatile situation, Turkey instead concluded a “maritime border” agreement with Islamists in Libya that yielded the ire of key regional actors (i.e. Egypt, Israel, and Greece) as well as the European Union and the United States. 

Images of thousands of refugees attempting to cross from Turkey into Greece (encouraged by Erdoğan himself to do so) demonstrate the destructive nature of Ankara’s irresponsible policies. Left unchecked, Turkey’s Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman inspired ideology will continue to contribute to regional tensions and instability well into the future. But before Western actors can effectively deal with this phenomenon, they first need to acknowledge its existence.  At the same time, a Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman ideology ought to equally concern China, which has its own key interests and investments in the region.Turkey’s destabilizing actions can only serve to drive a further uncertainty into a Beijing-Ankara relationship that is already on rocky ground. Indeed, the consequences of Turkey’s precarious ideological model endanger not only Ankara’s immediate periphery, but also create global dilemmas.

 

[1] Oded Eran and Gallia Lindenstrauss, “With a New World Order Taking Shape, Turkey Again Looks Eastward,” INSS Insight No. 1194 (July 16, 2019), https://www.inss.org.il/publication/with-a-new-world-order-taking-shape-turkey-again-looks-eastward/; Arran Elcoate, “Little Brothers Together: Turkey Turns to China,” The Diplomat, August 18, 2018; Jan Gaspers and Mikko Huotari, “Turkey Looks to China for Security Cooperation Alternatives,” GMFUS Policy Brief 26 (2017), http://www.gmfus.org/file/25684/download; Selçuk Colakoğlu, “Turkey-China Relations: From ‘Strategic Cooperation’ to ‘Strategic Partnership’”? Middle East Institute, March 20, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/publications/turkey-china-relations-strategic-cooperation-strategic-partnership; and Erdoğan Albay, “Turkey Shifts Focus to the East,” Policy Forum, October 15, 2015, https://www.policyforum.net/turkey-shifts-focus-to-the-east/

[2] Ümit Alperen and Eyüp Ersoy, “Turkey and Asia Anew: A Foreign Policy Initiative in Passing,” The Diplomat, October 18, 2019; and Selçuk Colakoğlu, “Turkey’s Asia Anew Initiative: Assessment and Shortcomings,” Middle East Institute, October 15, 2019, https://www.mei.edu/publications/turkeys-asia-anew-initiative-assessment-and-shortcomings.

[3] Gabriela Bacynska and John Chalmers, “EU Fumes at Turk Migration ‘Blackmail,’ Mulls More Money for Ankara,” Reuters, March 3rd, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-eu-turkey-exclusive/e…; Aya Burweila, “Turkey’s Support to Libya’s Outlaw Militias and the Threat to Europe’s Southern Flank,” Research Institute for European and American Studies Brief, December 2019; Marwa Maziad, “The Turkish Burden: The Cost of the Turkey-Qatar Alliance and Hard Power Projection into Qatar’s Foreign Policy,” in Dania Koleilat Khatib and Marwa Maziad (eds.) The Arab Gulf States and the West:  Perceptions and Realities, Opportunities and Perils (New York: Routledge, 2019): 107.
 

[4] Hamid Mandaville, “Islam as Statecraft”; see also: David Lepeska, “Turkey Cast the Diyanet,” Foreign Affairs, May 17, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2015-05-17/turkey-casts-…;
 

[5] Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid, “Islam as Statecraft:  How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy,” The Brookings Institution, November 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/FP_20181116_islam_….  
 

[6] Artun Ünsal, “Ataturk's Reforms: Realization as a Utopia by a Realist,” Turkish Yearbook 19 (1979): 27-57; Erik-Jan Zurcher, "Ottoman Sources of Kemalist Thought,” in Late Ottoman Society (Routledge, 2013): 36-49.
 

[7] Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik; Murinson, “The Strategic Depth Doctrine of Turkish Foreign Policy,” 951.
 

[8] Official Website of Turkey Diyanet Foundation, https://m.tdv.org/en-US/. See also: Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, “Turkey’s Diyanet Under AKP Rule: From Protector to Imposer of State Ideology?” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, 4 (2016): 619-635; Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s Bid for Religious Leadership: How the AKP Uses Islamic Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-01-10/turkeys-bid-r….
 

[9] Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, “Islam and Democratization in Turkey: Secularism and Trust in a Divided Society,” Democratization 16, no. 6 (2009): 1194-1213.
 

[10] Tol, “Turkey’s Bid for Religious Leadership.”
 

[11] Ibid. 
 

[12] Daren Butler, “With More Islamic Schooling, Erdogan Aims to Reshape Turkey,” Reuters, January 25, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/turkey-erdogan-educ…; and Tol, “Turkey’s Bid for Religious Leadership.”
 

[13] Carlotta Gall, “Erdogan’s Plan to Raise a ‘Pious Generation’ Divides Parents in Turkey,” The New York Times, June 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/world/europe/erdogan-turkey-election….
 

[14] Yusuf Sarfati, “Religious Authority in Turkey:  Hegemony and Resistance,” Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, 15, https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/c873dd82/cme-pub-luce-….
 

[15] Ibid.
 

[16] Pınar Akpınar, “From Benign Donor to Self-Assured Security Provider: Turkey’s Policy in Somalia,“ IPC Policy Brief (2017).
 

[17] Ash Rossiter and Brendon J. Cannon, “Re-Examining the ‘Base’: The Political and Security Dimensions of Turkey's Military Presence in Somalia,” Insight Turkey 21, 1 (2019); John Calabrese, “The Bab el-Mandeb Strait: Regional and great power rivalries on the shores of the Red Sea,” Middle East Institutehttps://www.mei.edu/publications/bab-el-mandeb-strait-regional-and-great-power-rivalries-shores-red-sea; Marwa Maziad, “The Turkey-Qatar Alliance: Through the Gulf and Into the Horn of Africa: The Rise and Fall of Turkey’s Regionally Expansionist pan-Islamism. In Robert Mason (ed.), The Gulf States and the Horn of Africa: Interests, Influence and Stability (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2020); Amr Yossef, “Gulfization of the Middle East Security Complex: the Arab Spring’s Systemic Change,” in Philipp O. Amour (ed.), The Regional Order in the Gulf Region and the Middle East: Regional Rivalries and Security Alliances (London and New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2020).
 

[18] Philip Marshall Brown, “From Sèvres to Lausanne 1,” American Journal of International Law 18, 1 (1924): 113-116.
 

[19] Bülent Batuman, “The Shape of the Nation: Visual Production of Nationalism Through Maps in Turkey,” Political Geography 29, 4 (2010): 220-234; Behlül Özkan, “Turkey, Davutoglu and the idea of pan-Islamism,” Survival 56, 4 (2014): 119-140.
 

[20] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Back to enmity: Turkey-Syria relations since the Syrian Uprising,” Orient, Journal of German Orient Institute (2015).
 

[21] Henri J. Barkey, “The Kurdish Awakening: Unity, Betrayal, and the Future of the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-02-12/kurdish-awake….
 

[22] Michele Kambas and Sabina Zawadzki, “Exxon’s Cyprus Gas Discovery Adds Another Giant to East Med Collection,” Reuters, February 28th, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-exxon-mobil-cyprus/exxons-cyprus-gas….
 

[23] Turkish Ministry of Defense Press Release, MoD Akar’s Speech Regarding the Blue Homeland Military Exercise, March 22, 2019, https://www.msb.gov.tr/en-US/Press/BasinAciklama/mod-akar-s-speech-rega…; Hellenic National Defense General Staff, “Violations of National Airspace – Infringements of Air Traffic Regulations (International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO), data tracker of daily incidents of violations of national airspace: http://www.geetha.mil.gr/en/violations/violations-of-national-airspace-….
 

[24] Marwa Maziad, “The Turkish Burden:  the Cost of the Turkey-Qatar Alliance and Hard Power Projection into Qatar’s Foreign Policy,” in The Arab Gulf States and the West:  Perceptions and Realities, Opportunities and Perils (New York: Routledge, 2019).
 

[25] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “Road to Peace in Libya Goes Through Turkey,” Politico, January 18, 2020.