Khilafah and Turkey’s Growing Influence in the Muslim World

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Selahettin

Muharram 13, 1442 2020-09-01

Special Reports

by Ahmet Selahettin (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 7, Muharram, 1442)

Turkey is basking in the glory of the Khilafah. Many Muslims link it to this crucial Islamic governance institution. This is precisely the reason why an article arguing for the re-institution of the Khilafah in Gercek Hayat magazine (owned by the pro-government Yeni Safak media group) sparked lively debate inside Turkey and the wider Muslim world.

The proposition that the AKP government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is capable and willing to implement this vision is at best a fantasy. Ankara is merely trying to ride the Khilafah wave and expand its influence in the Muslim world. How is Turkey doing this and what are the chances of its becoming Ottoman Sultanate 2.0 needs analysis.

The growth in Turkey’s influence has to do with a simple fact: among ‘Sunni’ Muslim countries, Ankara’s model offers some hope as an alternative to regimes that are staunchly anti-Islamic and completely beholden to the US. Turkey’s semi-assertive policies, which do not cross NATO’s strategic red lines, combined with its Ottoman heritage, attract a great deal of popular support and attention.

Turkey does not aim to utilize this support for a regional Islamic or even an anti-colonialist project. The AKP agenda can be characterized as Machiavellian and is centered around the statehood of contemporary Turkey established on NATO terms. This conclusion can be deduced from reading the policy statements of high ranking Turkish officials such as the interview of Deputy Prime Minister Cevdet Yilmaz in July.

In fact, the current Turkish leadership may view the popularization of the Khilafah idea as a geopolitical and economic liability. Geopolitically, it would subordinate Turkey to a higher political benchmark expected of a Khalifah (Islamic ruler), which Ankara’s present set-up is unable to meet. It will also result in Europe imposing some economic constraints on Turkey due to the historic bad blood with the Istanbul-based Sultanate which called itself the Khilafah. Thus, it is not surprising that a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AKP party, Omer Celik, immediately rejected the ideas outlined in Gercek Hayat.

If the Khilafah project is pursued, the AKP leadership will essentially drive itself into oblivion domestically. Gercek Hayat, which seems to represent a more Islamic oriented constituency in the AKP, highlighted that “there is one condition for the success of the Khilafah project: those who have been educated in Western institutions cannot be the leaders of this goal.” This point was emphasized by the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui repeatedly in his writings and speeches decades ago.

The current AKP leadership takes pride in the fact that its leaders are the products of Western universities and educational systems. Thus, if the AKP embarks on converting its constituency to support the Khilafah project, it will essentially sideline itself domestically.

Also, Turkey’s adoption of the Khilafah goal would entail that it would have to challenge both NATO and Russia. Ankara will not challenge NATO, as it views its membership in the organization vital and tensions with Russia will undermine Ankara in Syria and the Caucasus. While the presence of takfiri militias in Idlib appears to be Ankara’s leverage against Syria, in reality it is Western leverage over Turkey. These militias can be easily directed towards launching destabilizing acts inside Turkey. The ideological brain center of the takfiris are the Saudi “Islamic” institutions which are subordinate to Washington through their chain of command.

The Russia factor in Turkey’s foreign policy must be taken into account. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Sultanate often had conflict with Russia in one form or another. Historically, the Turkic states of Central Asia served as ground for competition between Turkey and Russia. This will be no different if Turkey decides to expand its influence by adopting an openly supranational strategy today. Central Asia is a natural arena for the expansion of Turkish influence since people have the same ethnicity, language, religion and customs. Moscow is open about the fact that it views the countries of the former Soviet Union as its strategic and privileged sphere of influence. Thus, Ankara does not have the power or stamina to embark on a foreign policy strategy which would turn both NATO and Russia against it.

While Turkey’s current political set up will not embrace an Islamic system of governance, it will continue to utilize the misplaced perception of the Muslim masses that Turkey is working to establish the Khilafah. Ankara’s aggressive intrusion in Libya, Syria and to a lesser extent in Egypt and Yemen are clear signs that Turkey is asserting itself politically and militarily. Despite the deficiencies of its ruling elite, Turkey’s ascendance has contributed to the emerging multi-polar global order and American imperial decline. While this is a positive development, Muslims should not fall for the media hype and overestimate Turkey’s current role and potential. Nor should it be underestimated.

If the Turkish leadership chooses to utilize the concept of the “Khilafah” to reassert itself and disrupt the US-built unipolar political architecture in the Muslim world, this would be a positive factor. However, NATO regimes will not remain idle; they will attempt to reignite the outdated Ottoman-Safavid regional narrative in order to instigate rivalry between Turkey and Iran. If Ankara facilitates this Western scheme, it will get trapped in a regional quagmire. So far, the Turkish leadership has adopted a prudent and constructive path in managing its differences with Islamic Iran, as witnessed in Syria. While Tehran and Ankara are on the opposite side, Turkey has not allowed its differences with Iran over Syria to spill into other areas.

We must also remember that due to the current socio-political climate in the Muslim world, the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, which Western pundits and academics like to bring up when discussing Iran and Turkey, is deliberately projected through the foreign imposed Sunni-Shia sectarian narrative. There is another important aspect to the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, historically far more accurate that is not rooted in the Sunni-Shia but Turkic framework. Both the Safavids and the Ottomans were Turkic, vying for dominance over the region as well as the Turkic tribes. Seljuk vs Oghuz, nomadic vs settler Turkic people were often the issues which created tensions between them; madh-hab was often irrelevant. The Safavid-Ottoman conflict was essentially an intra-Turkic civil war for regional dominance.

If Turkey utilizes its Khilafah brand to bring down US proxy regimes in the Middle East, Ankara has a promising regional role to regain. As the US empire’s decline continues and its Arab puppets lose all political and military credibility, any Turkish move against those despotic regimes would be widely welcome by the Arab masses. It appears that this is recognized by the AKP government and nothing manifests it better that Turkey’s recent moves in Yemen and Libya. It also explains why the topic of bringing Makkah and Madinah under Turkish control is being widely discussed in Turkey at the societal and media levels.

Another point to bear in mind is that the article published in Gercek Hayat on the reinstitution of the Khilafah, is its intellectual and soft-power angle. The article was published in a mainstream publication allied to governing circles in a Muslim country. It indicates that the blow intended to be delivered to the Muslim psyche utilizing the terrorist outfit ISIS, failed to achieve its objective.

As Western regimes allowed ISIS to grow, at the peak of its murderous rampage, the Western corporate media was awash with reports about the so-called ‘Islamic’ basis of the outfit. The US magazine, The Atlantic, published the most diehard pseudo-intellectual piece attempting to portray ISIS as Islamically legitimate. This narrative was propagated relentlessly and in a well-organized fashion.

Nevertheless, it appears that the attempt failed to persuade the Muslim masses and intellectual elites to abandon the Islamic governing system as a viable option. This is a significant achievement against great odds for which Muslim scholars, intellectuals and activists deserve credit. The global Muslim leadership managed to be not intellectually co-opted and formulate an independent conclusion on the importance of an Islamic system of governance.

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