Turkey: Nation or Empire
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 17 Feb 2013 1 Comment

Two images meet the eye of any informed observer of Turkey. The contemporary reality is that of a Mediterranean nation which stretches up to the Caucasus and almost touches Central Asia. The historical perspective reveals a vast empire. Out of the five main ones created by Turkic people in the last thousand years, in Central  Asia (Kipcak), Transoxiana and Eastern Turkestan (Jaghatai-Timurid), Iran, India and Asia Minor, the Ottoman realm survived almost as long as its Qajar contemporary in Persia. It reached farther into Europe than its Mongol cousin-states had in the Middle Ages and it sought, even after its decline had begun, to encompass the Roman empire whose succession it laid claim to.


The Turkish state was dual or even multiple, at once Altaic and Levantine; Arabo-Persian and Graeco-Roman, Balkanic and Anatolian. It borrowed elements and trappings from many of the nations it annexed and reflected the ethnic synthesis for which the Mare Nostrum was a melting pot, while preserving a mosaic of cultures, languages and religions for which the Turkish brand of Sunni Islam heavily influenced by Iranian and Seljuk mysticism, Persian court civilization and Byzantine administrative practices provided the unifying cement. The very name “Istanbul” evokes that synthesis as it unifies the Persian word “istan” (place, seat) with the Hellenic “polis” as an echo of the very ancient cultural fusion that was achieved across both shores of the Aegean before and under Achaemenid and Seleucid hegemony. Coincidentally both those words come from “Indo-European” (Samskrit) roots: sthana and pura respectively which both apply to human (fortified) settlements.


The Ottoman Turks, long battered by the expanding Western Europeans and the conquering Russians, their challengers for the Byzantine throne, were gradually forced to give up their empire. Ataturk embodied the revolutionary nationalist rejection of the old cosmopolitan, hybrid identity as part of the desire to become a country like others. Following in the footsteps of the “Young Turks” of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) - and before them, the Tanzimat Reforms initiated in 1839 - in wanting to modernize the nation, he fought to separate Turks from their former subjects and to draw the borders of a nation state, in the wake of the 1920 Sevres Treaty, across a complex map made up of interlocking linguistic and religious enclaves.


The Young Turk government during the first world war had cleared Eastern Asia Minor of  Armenians, religiously and culturally attracted to Russia and Iran, as of Christian Assyrians while promoting the expansion of Kurdish populations in that  area. The Greeks left en masse the western shores of the peninsula while Turks came back in large numbers from the Balkans and the Aegean islands. Some contested territories remained in Thrace and Cyprus and, as in most cases, the boundaries set in the south east were disputable as they established an artificial divide between Iraqi and Turkish Kurds and between Turkish and Syrian Alawis.


Many citizens of the new Turkish Republic felt deeply the loss of Aleppo, Nineveh and Mosul – imposed by the British who wanted to control the oil rich area of Kurdistan - while Syrians still mourn the fact that Antioch, an age-old metropolis central to their nation since the dawn of history, fell to their northern neighbour together with the areas occupied by the kingdom of Commagene in Antiquity and more recently the ephemeral Republic of Hatay. Only the personal mystique of Ataturk as the Moses of a new secular chosen nation could temporarily soothe the pain of amputation of an age-old polity under the pressure of foreign occupying powers.


However, there were reasons to believe that this hold of a hallowed personality over the country’s ethos would wane one day, reviving an older sense of identity in its stead. As a matter of fact Kemalism in a formal sense in Turkey survived Lenin’s worship in Russia by only twelve years and like its neighbours, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and now Syria, the nation is moving away from the secularism that became dominant in the region a century ago under the influence of the western colonial powers. It is hence no accident that the present, neo-Islamic Government, though it did not directly participate in the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussain’s Baath regime, has played an active role in supporting Islamist resurgence in the last three nations while it has grown closer to Iran.


Ataturk was a product and a student of the dominant ideology of his age; secular positivistic nationalism with its cult of European modernity shaped the reforms he carried out in his country so much so that he equated westernization even in clothing and head-dress with progress and civilization, as most of his contemporaries did. Contrary to expansionistic Pan-Turanism which emulated its Pan-Slavic, Pan-Germanic and Pan-Anglo-Saxon contemporaries to claim continental hegemony, Ataturk’s nationalism, in line with the “Association for the Defence of Anatolia and Rumelia”, sought to frame national identity within the geographic borders of Asia Minor and of that corner of Europe which is the last fragment of the Ottoman empire beyond the Bosporus and embodies the age-old connection with Thrace and the Balkans.


In order to achieve peace and stability and heal the long suffering “sick man of Europe” he shed imperial claims and drew inspiration from the French “pre carre” (backyard) that was in its day invoked in opposition to the notion of a Holy Western Roman Empire. However, he borrowed the notion of “jus sanguinis” from Germany to define Turks in racial terms, as distinct from the multi-ethnic subjects of the Sultanate or inhabitants of Anatolia. He even relinquished Turkey’s religious primacy in the Muslim world when in 1924 he abolished the Caliphate in the face of considerable opposition at home and abroad. Can we imagine a comparable gesture in Italy where it would imply a decision to renounce Rome’s position as the seat of the Papacy and dissolve that institution altogether?


The Quests for Roots


As an alternative to the Islamic past, Kemal revived the memories of pre-Hellenic civilizations of Anatolia and of remote Turkic ancestors in the Altai range – the legendary valley of Ergenekon - through a very nationalistic promotion of archeology. However it is doubtful if that rather elitist quest for long-vanished peoples and religions had a great impact on masses raised in the Muslim culture.


One aspect of “empire shedding” was the endeavour to “free” or “purify” the culture and language, as far as possible, from foreign elements seen as remnants of a cosmopolitan supra-national past. Hence not only was the Persian-Arabic alphabet supplanted by a modified Roman one, but many borrowings from Persian and Arabic had to be replaced either by archaic words derived or revived from Central Asian ethnic origins, prior to the Iranisation of Seljuk culture, or by transliterations from Latin languages. In doing so, the new Turkey unwittingly created in a situation similar to many colonized Asian countries (such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam) which built composite national languages with alphabets borrowed from their western rulers. Other Turkic polities, also standing on the borders of larger geo-cultural areas, have since changed their writing systems to suit their new images of themselves. Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan come to mind among those which replaced Cyrillic with Latin script in order to distance themselves from their Tsarist and Soviet past.


The essence of Ottoman civilization was Islamic and therefore Ataturk, both as an agnostic and a modernizer, wished to if not abolish at least restrict religion as much as he could in his new society. The effect of this rigid secularism from a de facto dictatorial ruler who enjoyed an iconic status was predictable. It led to a form of religious repression or even persecution as well as to the institution of a state-sponsored hero worship of the “Father of Turks” who could not be criticized in any aspect of his public action or private life.


In some ways the Turkish armed forces acted both as the zealous clergy of that new civic creed and as the custodian of the state culture and institutions Kemal had promulgated. Thus he became a sacred omniscient figure, although he would not have approved of such deification. Yet, his reforms denied an essential part of his people’s collective soul and created a lasting if insidious identity crisis that became manifest early in the harsh measures he applied against both traditional spiritual orders and Islamic reformers such as “Bediuzzaman” Said Nursi whose popularity he clearly feared.


It has been observed in a collective work, “Democracy in what state” ed., George Agamben (tr. By W McCuaig, New York, 2011) that democracy requires a “civic religion” acting as “a functional equivalent to theocracy”, to “bless its political creation”. The cult of Ataturk provided for almost eighty years the theocracy of the nation’s political dispensation and lent legitimacy to the periodic military takeovers justified by the need to protect the secular fabric of the state and preserve the legacy of the founder. However that positivistic theocracy has now lost its shine and been replaced, for at least a good half of the population by a yearning for greater popular participation and ideological diversity but also by tangible Ottoman nostalgia. The post-secular age has dawned in the former seat of the Islamic caliphate and Istanbul remembers it was the second (Christian and then Islamic) Rome just as Moscow recalls that it was the third. The current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) has tapped into that fountainhead of the national psyche.


As could be expected of a rapidly established and personality based system, broadly contemporary with European Fascism and Soviet Socialism, - all of which were based on distinctly western concepts of man and society, though Ataturk pointedly disapproved of both and sought to move towards multi-party democracy - Kemalism had shallow roots and was more middle class than popular, more urban than rural. Those who had either been bypassed by the socio-political modernization or economically left behind remained broadly faithful to their traditional Islamic faith, except for a minority that joined leftist movements. The latter tended to be severely repressed by the government which carried on with the father of the Republic’s increasingly pro-Western stance (i.e. inclined towards Britain, France and the USA) from 1937 on, partly out of economic conservatism and partly from fear of the sprawling Soviet neighbour.


The Turks never forgot that Russia, with its ancestral ambition to reclaim Constantinople, had been for three centuries the greatest threat to their political survival since the eclipse of the Holy Germanic empire. After seeking the support of France and England first and then Germany in the 19th century, they gradually enlisted in the Euro-American camp following the Second World War when they no longer had to choose between the Atlantic Alliance and the defeated Central Powers which had been their partner of choice since the late eighteen hundreds.


In his fight against the Western (French, British, Italian, Greek et al.) occupiers Mustafa Kemal had sought and secured substantial aid from the Bolshevik government which supported the Turkish war of liberation. However, while trying to maintain equable relations with the Soviet Union, the first Turkish president grew increasingly wary of Communism and evolved towards a form of neutrality friendly to the Anglo-Saxon powers while he liberalized his earlier pragmatically statist economic policies.


Ataturk’s consistent attempts to forge a regional neutral bloc with his country’s neighbours did not yield lasting results due to the geopolitical circumstances of the times. The Balkan Federation did not survive the beginning of the Second World War and the 1939 Treaty of Saadabad signed between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, subsequently reemerged as CENTO, a pro-Western military pact in the orbit of NATO, which was not what its defunct godfather had intended.


Post-Secularism and Neo-Ottomanism


It is well known that since the 1970s there was a lingering, long repressed yearning for an alternative to ossified Kemalism which Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party had come to signify, mainly in its hostility to religion and protection of the privileges of a political oligarchy, loosely alluded to as the Deep State (exposed by the Susurluk scandal of 1996) and closely tied to the military, especially the mighty National Intelligence Service or MIT. The Refah (Welfare) Party, a reincarnation of the ostracized Islamic political bloc came to represent that alternative defined in its leader Necmettin Erbakan’s Milli Gorun manifesto of 1969, but it could only come to power in 1996 and had to relinquish it the following year in the face of the army’s opposition. However, the situation had changed since the early eighties when, following the Iranian Revolution, political Islam reasserted itself from Afghanistan to West Africa so that Refah could not be kept in the wilderness much longer, though it had to change its name again after being banned in 1998.


In 2003, Erbakan’s heir and rival, the charismatic though somewhat dour mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, and his second in command Abdullah Gul, took to power the AKP, a splinter of that hitherto suppressed movement which represented the social and economic convictions of a large proportion of the population. This time the army could not stage a coup although it tried to overthrow the AKP government in the aborted Operation Sledgehammer.


The rise of the AKP, supported by conservative Arab monarchies in the Gulf, coincided with the advent of post-secular politics in many parts of the world, from Islamism in the Middle East to neo-Orthodox Russia and to neo-Confucian and Buddhist China, not to mention the new brand of Christian fundamentalist Republicanism in the USA. Its programme was to recognize the central role of the Muslim religion in the culture and polity while liberalizing the economy and reducing the mechanisms of state control over it associated with Kemalist rule.


There is no doubt that Turkey is now ruled by a neo-ottoman ideology, in part inspired by Ataturk’s bete noire Said Nursi, and in particular by his economically liberal and scientifically inclined vision of Islam. That new trend provides an alternative to the frustrated desire to enter the European Union which was the main project of precedent regimes and remains nominally on the agenda of the present government. The humiliating feeling of rejection is soothed by the assumption of a leadership role in the Islamic world, all the more since earlier attempts to take a pole position in post-Soviet Turkic Central Asia have met with mixed results because of Russian opposition, Iranian and Arab competition, Chinese influence and the prickly sensitivity of certain national leaders who fear Ankara’s resurgent hegemonic ambitions.


Since the onset of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s role has become extremely active and visible all around the Mediterranean and West Asia under the impulse provided by the ambitious and temperamental Foreign Minister Davutoglu who makes no secret of his desire to bring many Arab and Muslim states under his country’s sphere of influence. Particular targets have been Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, the Palestinian State, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.


In many of those nations, Ankara has alternatively collaborated or competed with the USA, the main European powers, Iran, Russia and even Saudi Arabia by providing either strategic backing, financial aid, political support or all of them, while offering its own brand of democracy with an Islamic touch as a model to follow.


One long and deft arm of Turkish soft power has been the global organisation operated by Fethullah Gulen who is believed to be close to the AKP, although he sometimes expresses views that differ from the Government’s policy. Gulen’s Nurcus movement draws its inspiration from Nursi and inherited his opposition to Kemalism and military rule as well as a staunch nationalism, hostile to Communism, materialism and atheism. However, that somewhat “Anatolian” brand of Islam, which hails the great Persian mystic Jelal ed Din Rumi as one of its patron saints together with the pole stars of the Bektashi order Haji Bektas and Yunus Emre, does not seem to be quite acceptable to Arab populations and is at odds with the Islamic Brotherhood and Wahhabi and Salafi persuasions which are waxing in strength all over the Muslim world.


Another feature of Erdogan’s policies is Turkey’s continuing cooperation with the US Government, irrespective of Ankara’s deepening rift with former ally Israel, compounded by the growing closeness between the Jewish state, Greece and (Greek) Cyprus. Washington feels the need to support Turkey’s brand of Islamic politics which remains favourable to American interests in spite of the overwhelmingly negative opinion of the US that prevails in Turkish society.


On the other hand Erdogan and Davutoglu know that they cannot hope to lead the Muslim bloc as long as they don’t oppose Israel and its expansionistic policies. There have been many irritants and clashes between Ankara and Tel Aviv in recent years, including the May 2010 Israeli aggression on the merchant Turkish vessel Navi Marmara in international waters while on a humanitarian delivery mission to Gaza sponsored by a charitable foundation close to the AKP. However, beyond emotional resentment, a rational calculus of diplomatic and strategic imperatives motivated the AKP Government to distance itself from the Jewish state which is seen in the region and beyond as a militaristic holdover of European colonial occupation and an oppressor of its Arab neighbours.


It should be added that Erdogan’s decapitation of the shadowy Ultra-Nationalist and anti-Islamic Far Right, closely tied with the top echelons of the Armed Forces, has worried the US Government, its long time and critical patron and paymaster, and has also weakened the formerly all powerful military.


Davutoglu’s professed ideal of “zero problems with all neighbours”  harked back to Ataturk’s motto “peace at home and peace abroad” but it has painfully failed, given the increasingly problematic equations between Ankara and almost all surrounding capitals. Turkey has not been able to overcome the old misgivings that often set it at loggerheads with Greece in the past despite Ataturk’s own largely successful efforts at building cordial relationships with that former tributary nation.


A Tangled Regional Equation


No state, unless it occupies a relatively small island, is as homogenous as the conventional political theory of nationalism would like it to be. As a crossroads between continents and peoples, Turkey is an eminent case of a polity overlapping all its neighbours from the Balkans to the Caucasus and from the Aegean islands to the Syrian desert. This situation is both a source of strength as also vulnerability. A government that controls Asia Minor can make the economic survival of Greece very difficult in view of geography and has the ability to take indirect control of the Syrian and Mesopotamian areas whose populations critically depend on the Tigris and Euphrates, both originating on Turkish soil, for their survival as states.


The comparatively dense population of Turkey gives it an overwhelming strategic advantage over its smaller neighbours. Apart from Russia on the other side of the Black Sea, only Iran, which has a share of Kurdish and (Azeri) Turkic populations, can match the successor state of the Sublime Porte in terms of size and military potential and surpasses it in economic strength due to its immense fossil fuel reserves. For its energy, Turkey is hence dependent on Russia (with which Ankara has negotiated a $25 billion nuclear power development agreement and the passage of the critical South Stream pipeline), Iran and Iraq, while to maintain domestic peace it must either win the assent or be able to control its Kurdish, Alawite and Arab minorities.


Attempting to reassert its centuries-old hegemony over Syria and Iraq is tempting but fraught with peril for the stability of the Turkish state which may be torn apart by civil war if those ethnic or religious minorities refuse to accept Ankara’s rule. The Kemalist state was not able to ever fully control the Kurdish secessionist organization which had its roots in Sheikh Said’s Uprising of 1924 and the AKP government has not been able to solve the problem either. Instead, Turkey’s blatant policy of supporting the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Syria and replacing it with a pro-Turkish Sunni one has already led to a reassertion of PKK Kurdish militancy, with Syrian Kurds declaring virtual independence and joining hands with their cousins across the border who also enjoy sympathy and support from the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, set up under US and Israeli patronage and protection, to Ankara’s dismay.


Farther away, the Muslim Brotherhood Government in Egypt seems unwilling to concede any preeminence to Turkey in regional affairs and Erdogan’s obvious attempt to acquire decisive influence over Libya, and particularly over the energy rich eastern province of Cyrenaica  during the NATO-backed revolt against the regime of Colonel Qaddafi, was partly wreaked by the ensuing chaos and assertion of extremist guerrillas and tribal militias that have greater affinities with other Arab states and factions.


From Morocco to Oman, Muslim monarchies are naturally uncomfortable with Turkey’s republican form of government which they see as a bad example for their own populations and many keep unpleasant memories of Ottoman paramountcy. Like other countries with an imperial history - think of China, Russia, Germany and Brazil – Turkey has found it difficult to allay the suspicions of smaller surrounding states that fear falling back under its direct or indirect rule.


Can there be a “Conjuctio Oppositorum”?


The RPP headed state was backed within the army and society by powerful “ultra-secular” forces which seem to have given rise later to the Ergenekon secret organisation, at times linked with the CIA-backed counter-guerrilla para-military network, under the umbrella of the shadowy Gladio anti-Soviet organisation set up after World War by Washington all over Europe to prevent communist takeover. The wellspring and anchor of the Kemalist ideology was the Donmeh elite made up of Sephardi Jews of Hispanic origin who were nominally converts to Islam but remained in petto faithful to the 17th century heretical messiah Sabbatai Zevi, also converted to Islam under pressure from the Porte. The secretive, wealthy and endogamic Donmeh, whose stronghold was Kemal’s home town of Salonica, played a decisive role in the emergence of the “Young Turk” Movement and three of them, Enver, Talaat and Essad Pasha rose to the top of the CUP and exercised power during the final years of the Sultanate.


That “progressive’ westernizing faction was closely connected with Turkish and International Free Masonry. The Donmeh were co-opted by Ataturk (rumored to be one of them although that has not been established) in his fight against the aristocratic and religious supporters of the old imperial regime and he surrounded himself with several, including at least one of his prime ministers, Tevfik Rustu Arak. However that pro-British and pro-American fiercely secular oligarchy has been gradually undermined by the Islamist popular reaction under the aegis of the AKP supported by “green petrodollars” from the Gulf monarchies. As a result of the Armed Forces being cut down to size by Erdogan and of the rise of  new Muslim business plutocrats from among the devout Anatolian small town middle classes, the Kemalist “deep state” has lost some of its power as its ideology became increasingly discredited amidst growing evidence of corruption, cronyism and subservience to western interests.


What does the future hold for Turkey now? The AKP is working to make its hold on power permanent by ensuring that the socio-economic and political changes it has brought about become irreversible. Could that lead to increased internal tensions and divisions within this complex nation (called a “swing state” in a recent US strategic report) which is, if we may use this clichéd expression, a palimpsest of ten thousand years of civilization, enshrining the suspected sources of both Indo-European and Semitic languages and encompassing them within an Uralo-Altaic matrix?


While it would be unrealistic to expect a recreation of the Ottoman realm, there may be no more attractive alternative than the gradual development of an international commonwealth of the Eastern Mediterranean, as desired by Ataturk, that would gather in a neo-byzantine framework many of the states which share that common heritage. However whether such a “catholic” vision can come into being in our post-secular age, despite age-old rancours among the regional states and enmities between the monotheistic religions that hold sway in that area, is anybody’s guess. The economic bonds between Russia, Turkey and the other states around the Black Sea are multiplying fast and could form the warp of a new multi-religious space for inter-civilisational dialogue and cooperation. The Greek Porphyrogenetes, the Osmanli (Ottoman) Sultans and the “Father of the Turks” might thus be reconciled through a synthesis of their respective political and cultural legacies.


The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal. In 1999, he co-founded the Telesis Academy in Switzerland, dedicated to the study of the ancient wisdom of East and West in the contemporary scientific context

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