Turkey’s imperial vision and its ramifications

One sultan that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a fan of is the empire’s ninth sultan, Selim I, under whose rule the Ottomans grew from a regional powerhouse to a huge empire.

Sometimes, to understand global geopolitical currents on a slightly deeper level, all you need is a set of maps – old and new. Although Halford Mackinder saw the map as a “whole series of generalisations” – subjective, and often a co-conspirator in hiding the whole truth, Robert Kaplan – although he was a fan of geography more than haphazardly drawn political lines on a map, consider a state’s position on the map to be the first thing that defines it; governance, ideology and worldview often follow later. And although this essay is not about maps, this bit of background is needed because those wishing to understand what a country like Turkey is trying to achieve, would need two Eurasian maps – one current and one old map of the pre-Ottoman Empire of World War I.

Develop to survive

The expansionist tendency is a precursor to domination. What would Christianity or Islam be without an expansionist vision? Confined to a rocky desert in the Levant, or perhaps hidden in the deserts of Arabia. The few Christians or Muslims who would arrive in Europe would probably be discriminated against and ghettoized like the Jews. Aggressive expansionism – whether in thought or in action – is to get rid of a conceptual weakness; if one (with this kind of weakness) does not expand, one wastes away (remember Lebensraum). For the same reason, historically, Christianity and Islam have always tried to expand; though Europe seems late – as the standard-bearer of Catholicism, and the world’s Protestant leaders, the United States and the United Kingdom, have lost hope in the face of the persistent Islamic expansionism of the 21st century.

Interestingly, Islam’s potential for global dominance has been matched by its internal schisms and sectarian fault lines that have developed over time. From the initial Ummayid or Abbasid, to the Persians, the Ottomans, to smaller entities like the Central Asian Khanates or the Mughals, and finally to Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), more modern. Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan etc, the cracks have only multiplied over time.

This is what would make the trials for an imperial takeover of Turkey (after the 2023 elections) incredibly interesting to watch.

Why Turkey?

Instability within the Islamic world has always left open the possibility of a dominant nation rising to take over. It is such a real possibility that the world has even seen non-state entities like Al-Qaeda or ISIL try to establish random caliphates here or there. They failed, and may continue to fail, but that wouldn’t negate the fact that the results could be very different if it were a nation-state with a long-term strategy. Turkey seems to be best suited for the job, and they know it.

Indonesia and Pakistan are two of the countries most populated by Muslims, but are they cut out for this role? We know that Indonesia does not have the will. And Pakistan does not have the means. A map is useful during these times. Pakistan is too close to major regional powers like China, India, Russia or Iran – there is no room for manoeuvre; nowhere to expand other than Afghanistan, which ended in failure after the Taliban chose to go their own way. Under such constraints, Pakistan’s nuclear capability or its ties with China take a back seat.

Next come Iran, Egypt and Turkey. Iran – though superb in administration, execution, influence, and decent economics, for some reason is still in the crosshairs of the United States. Constant US sanctions and lawsuits from Tehran to uncover elusive windows of opportunity have kept them on their toes. Other crucial restraining factors are Saudi Arabia and Sunni Wahhabism being on a warpath with Shia Iran, and Israel as a constant (and substantial) source of irritation. Then there is the map. With Saudi Arabia to the west, Iran faces Russia – with a history of complicated relations since Persian times – to the northeast, Turkey to the northwest; and because the Persian Gulf is extremely important to the Western world, there is always a larger-than-life American interest there. Egypt has stopped trying to project power for some time now; and with significant breakthroughs made by the Turkish-influenced Muslim Brotherhood after Tahrir Square, Egypt remains underprepared for the task.

Turkey has several assets that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understands quite well, and intends to exploit them (and in the process, he has also created new ones). Turkey is a big economy. It’s a modern economy, and much bigger than Egypt or Iran. It is currently not doing well at the macro level, but it remains one of the fastest growing post-COVID economies and is likely equipped to weather the current crisis. Geographically, Turkey has plenty of leeway on all sides – a pre-World War I Ottoman map provides vital clues. Being the center of the Ottoman Empire, present-day Turkey has regional influences along the swaths of North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, as well as parts of Eastern Europe, apart from direct access to open waters across the Mediterranean Sea, and a history of naval strength. The other important aspect is that Turkey is part of NATO, has one of the largest standing armies among NATO members and has rudimentary working relations with Russia despite being part of the Atlanticist group. Turkey; because Turkey is best suited.

This map shows the borders and major cities of the Ottoman Empire at the start of World War I in 1914. Image courtesy: nzhistory.govt.nz

From Kemlism to Islamism

Among the many reforms led by Kemal Ataturk, one of the main ones was the expansion of the Basic Organization Law, which served as the unofficial constitution of Turkey before him. This expansion kept in mind the structural weaknesses of the Ottomans: religion and religious elites who enjoyed all the advantages – which was against Kemal’s secular core; and a voiceless population which was the result of the old weakness, and which led to the various nationalist and separatist movements. Kemal addressed these two by creating a secular and democratic Turkey. And for this democracy to work optimally, Kemal narrowed the scope of political authority of any individual by empowering the Grand National Assembly and delimited power by creating a number of laws and processes designed to control the accumulation of power.

The Imperial View of Turkeys and Its Offshoots

File image of banners showing modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, left, and current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, decorate a building as people watch Erdogan’s speech, during a a rally for the upcoming referendum, in his hometown of Rize, in the Black Sea region, Turkey, April 2017. AP

President Erdogan changed all that. After the failed coup on his presidency in July 2016, Erdogan presented Turkey’s new constitution with amendments that significantly weakened the powers of the Prime Minister, the Turkish Parliament, and not only significantly increased the powers presidential elections, but also changed the election. pattern; the president, instead of being elected by the Grand National Assembly, was henceforth to be elected by direct universal suffrage. Moreover, he could appoint or dismiss ministers, civil servants, bureaucrats, declare emergency, unleash violent powers without being neutral as head of state – because the president of Turkey, under the constitution modified, remained free to maintain links with a political party of his choice.

One could find reflections of this in Ottoman history. The empire tried to modernize in the face of competition from industrial Europe, Imperial Russia, and the rise of nationalist sentiments among Greek or Serbian subjects. Unlike the era of Kemal Ataturk, this modernization effort did not work well, and the empire regressed to its traditional modes of governance. It was in the 19th century – at the time of Sultan Abdelhamid II. Erdogan is on the same path.

The Imperial View of Turkeys and Its Offshoots

Archive image of Sultan Abdelhamid II. Wikimedia Commons

Hard power show

Is Erdogan a fan of Abdelhamid? Professor Alan Mikhail of Yale University (author of Gods’ Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World) is of the opinion that the only sultan Erdogan is a fan of is the ninth sultan of the empire, Selim I. , during whose reign the Ottomans grew from a regional power to a huge empire. The three aspects of Selim I and his rule (those Prof. Mikhail warns the world to watch out for in President Erdogan) are:

Strongman politics that led to regional wars

This reflects how Erdogan has become increasingly aggressive in Kurdistan, Syria, Libya or Greece and Cyprus. He sent troops to occupy/control 8000 square kilometers of northern Syria. He intervened in the Libyan civil war. It is stoking the Greek-Turkish dispute now that the Treaty of Lausanne (on Cyprus) ends in 2023. Analysts said this is setting the stage for a gradual takeover of the Turkish half of Cyprus. And he was also found pushing Azerbaijan in its short war against Armenia (which is nominally under Russian influence), perhaps to challenge Russian primacy in the Caucasus.

Attempt to annihilate religious minorities

Erdogan has targeted Turkish Shiites, Christians, the Kurdish population and even journalists or dissenting voices, while developing Sunni extremists to underpin a Turkish identity that resonates with the Ottoman era. In addition, he has forged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood; he was found harboring Syrian rebels or ISIL terrorists (read this report by Emily Milliken); and he also made public his preference for Hamas.

Monopolization of global/regional resources

Reflects how overstretched Erdogan was trying to grab the natural gas resources around Turkey – be it Syria, Libya. It is also expected to launch gas drilling in the Black Sea in 2023. Turkey is acting as a tap in the European immigration crisis, among other things, by controlling the flow of Muslim refugees to the EU. Western Europe already has a stable population of second- and third-generation North African and Turkish Muslim settlers, and Erdogan is pushing for Islamic political parties in different European countries.

The author is a geopolitics enthusiast and the author of Journey Dog Tales, The Puppeteer and A Matter of Greed. He tweets at heartland_ari

This is the first of a two-part series. Come back on Sunday to read the second part of the analysis of Turkey’s expansionary tendencies

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