Turkey’s Political Compass: Realities and Expectations

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Mehmet

Jumada' al-Ula' 17, 1442 2021-01-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Mehmet (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1442)

Muslim unity is one of the cherished goals of most Muslims worldwide. At the level of the Ummah (masses), there is instinctive solidarity with oppressed Muslims everywhere, such as those under occupation in Palestine or Kashmir. Among the better-informed Muslims, this also extends to non-Muslims suffering oppression whether in the US (Black Lives matter) or in Venezuela that is targeted by US imperialism. Thus, any steps toward unity are welcomed by the vast majority of Muslims.

The problem is that Muslims are divided into nation-states. This was not always the case. The colonial-imposed nation-state structure is inherently anti-unity but this is a reality that Muslims have to face and must find ways to work around it.

Last month Crescent International analyzed the importance of Iran and Turkey in avoiding tensions and doing everything possible to form a strategic regional alliance. While it would serve the Muslim world’s political, economic, social and religious interests if Ankara and Tehran were to form an alliance, such expectations must be tempered by realism. However, this does not imply that being realistic means excluding or being overly skeptical about the creation of an Iranian-Turkish alliance.

One of the steps in achieving this beneficial regional political set-up is to understand the obstacles and limits it would face and examine their potential solutions.

The primary obstacle in the emergence of a comprehensive Iranian-Turkish regional cooperation is Turkey’s history. After the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate, West- centric thought has played a major role in Turkey’s domestic politics and the society in general.

Ever since Turkey was stripped of its Islamic political identity after the dissolution of the Sultanate, Turkey and the society at large underwent a very comprehensive secular social reengineering program that lasted decades.

As pointed out by middleeastmonitor.com, “secularism in Turkey didn't have a natural birth. It was neither the product of a social conflict between the clerics and the politicians, nor the result of a conflict between religious and secular authorities, as was the case in Europe. It was the result of a common desire between the founders of the post-Ottoman Turkish republican regime and Europe, which wanted the country to be based on the separation of religion from the state. There was also a desire to exclude political and military leaders from the Ottoman era from the republic.”

Decades of forced Westernization of Turkey’s political, social and economic structures left a deep scar on Turkey as a state and society. While the current Turkish ruling establishment is doing far better in differentiating between what constitutes Turkey’s actual national interest as opposed to Western designed “national interest” of Turkey, Ankara still sets its political compass in alignment with a West-centric global order.

The latest most obvious manifestation of the reality that Ankara still views its strategic political identity in a West-centric global order is the recent statement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On November 21 he stated that “we don’t see ourselves elsewhere but in Europe… We envisage building our future together with Europe.” This statement and a careful analysis of Turkey’s policies in the Muslim world over the past 20 years provides a clear assessment of Turkey’s current political compass.

This is something leading Western experts on the subject understand well, but regrettably, many Muslims don’t. Prior to becoming the foreign minister of Austria, in a 2007 interview Dr. Karin Kneissl pointed out that “actually I think that this kind of government [AKP] was pushed more by the United States of America rather than by the Europeans. The reason for this is that the US wants to show that AKP party is the right model of an Islamic party. I personally don't think that the AKP party is a typical model of an Islamic party. The US and Britain, who pushed for the AKP victory wanted to show that the path for all Islamic parties to follow was the path taken by the AKP.”

With the above reality in mind, some of our readers might ask whether it is realistic to even picture contemporary Turkey as a genuine opponent of neo-colonialism and an ally of Islamic Iran? Ankara-Tehran regional partnership is possible primarily because of AKP leadership’s expedient and populist mode of conducting politics. Being a shrewd populist leader, Erdogan cannot ignore the Turkish society’s drift or return to its Islamic socio-political identity. One of the primary reasons why the AKP was able to come to power is because it was able to ride the wave of Turkish people’s desire for greater Islamization of Turkey at all levels. This includes crucial matters on the foreign policy front.

It should be noted that within Turkey, there is an array of organic social forces which envision an Iranian-Turkish partnership as a natural regional phenomenon. These social forces, often represented by organizations, prominent intellectuals and activists have a significant following within the AKP’s immediate constituency base and Erdogan cannot afford to ignore them. This phenomenon is inadvertently admitted even by proponents of Western domination over the Muslim world.

Hudson Institute, the neo-con think tank with close ties to the US regime, states that “in the eyes of Turkish Islamists, the revolution in Iran strengthened the idea that the creation of a new “Islamic” order in Turkey was possible. Aside from some small sectarian Sunni groups, this notion was met with enthusiasm by Turkish Islamists who followed Iran’s post-1979 political evolution closely. Prominent Turkish supporters of the Iranian revolution—including Ali Bulaç, Ercüment Özkan, Kenan Çamurcu, Nurettin Şirin, and Atasoy Müftüoğlu—expressed and debated their views in various publishing outlets. These ideologists contributed to the spread of Khomeini’s ideas and to interpreting the Iranian regime’s policies for a Turkish audience. But, contrary to popular opinion, most were not agents of the Iranian regime, but rather organic Turkish sympathizers who embraced the view that an Islamic revolution could take place in Turkey as well.”

The West’s dissatisfaction with the current Turkish ruling establishment is not that it takes a stance on Palestine’s occupation, while also providing an economic lifeline to Israel and implements Western security objectives in Syria. It is because the AKP is taking a more balanced approach in its foreign and internal policy than previous Western proxies in Turkey.

Western calculation is that by appeasing the growing religious sentiment of Turkish society to the level that the AKP does, it is legitimizing the Islamic socio-political discourse, and this creates an opening for the Muslim masses in Turkey to push into power an authentic Islamic movement. Thus, frictions between the current Turkish government and NATO are real and authentic, as the latest US sanctions on Turkey clearly show. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to assume that the current Turkish government is willing to immediately attach itself to a vision of the Muslim world without significant Western political, economic and military presence. Not now and it will take time to see this happen.

Unfortunately, decades of forced comprehensive secularization have left a deep negative impact on Turkey which will not be easily reset. To understand the depth of such negative impact left by previous Western proxy regimes, one should simply think about how cultish leaders like Fethullah Gulen and Adnan Oktar managed to gain influence while possessing minimal or no Islamic knowledge and conduct. While Gulen and his ilk are not as influential as the Western media make them appear, they manifest a significant degree of Islamic movement’s subversion in Turkey.

Such subversion has created groups, cults, pseudo-scholars and activists that are actively undermining Islamic revival in Turkey and have managed to penetrate the circle of influence within the current government. One aspect of this subversive penetration can be observed in seeing an ignorant and clownish “sufi imam” Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, known as Cubbeli Ahmet Hoca, regularly on pro-AKP media platforms and rubbing elbows with the AKP’s political elite. For those not familiar with Cubbeli Hoca and his views, the best analogy would be to describe him as Turkey’s religious Donald Trump.

The procedure for resetting Turkey’s political compass is a process which cannot be implemented by relying primarily on Erdogan and his inner circle and expect drastic changes in this direction. It is the grassroots Islamic socio-political activities that will accelerate the resetting of Turkey’s orientation. The grassroot Islamic movements in Turkey can utilize the favorable conditions created for them by the current establishment over the past 20 years and utilize their support base in nudging the ruling establishment away from a West-centric political orientation.

Despite the well-known minuses, Erdogan-led Turkey is a far better option for the region and Turkey than the Western-backed regimes which ruled Turkey earlier. However, the AKP project should not and is not seen by the Muslim masses and Islamic activists in Turkey as the end goal. The Turkish masses and Islamic activists that represent them, view the current political establishment as a steppingstone towards reconfiguring Turkey’s political compass. This is something the pro-Western and secular elites of Turkey also understand, and is a phenomenon that worries the Western imperialist regimes.

It is unrealistic to expect Turkey to implement a drastically anti-imperialist state strategy. Nevertheless, by maintaining the current stance, Ankara is actively contributing to the formation of a multipolar global order, which in itself is a positive development. Neither is it unrealistic to expect that at some point in the medium to long-term, Turkey will reorient its political compass away from Washington and its surrogates.

As noted by Mustafa Akyol, a prominent proponent of secularism in Turkey, Dr. Hayretin Karaman, who is considered an ideologue of the AKP and a staunch supporter of Erdogan’s government, does not view the current socio-political set up as a satisfactory end goal of an Islamic system. Such factors act as strong indicators of Turkey’s path to move away from the West-centric political orientation. The process is taking place at the grassroots and upper echelon levels. Naturally there will be attempts to sabotage and co-opt this process.

While there are many positive indicators in Turkey’s ability to maintain so far its line in distancing itself from a decades-long imposed West-centric mindset, one of the biggest potential disrupters of this process is unfortunately Erdogan himself. His destructive policies in Syria, flirtations with Israel, half-hearted opposition to the Saudi regime, populist methodology bordering on opportunism, can at any point create a blunder which can lead to regional turmoil.

The latest of these indicators was witnessed in Baku when Erdogan recited a poem implicitly challenging Iran’s territorial sovereignty. While it is unlikely that Turkey will actively pursue the outdated and largely discredited Pan-Turkic narrative in its foreign policy, such blunders create openings for external sabotage.

Erdogan’s repeated blunders might be a sign that he is not cut-out for the leadership role to bring about the strategic reconfiguration of Turkey’s political orientation. Thus, Turkey’s authentic Islamic movements would be well advised to think long and hard about an organic replacement to Erdogan as the standard barrier of Islamic revival in Turkey.

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