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The Sultan and the Sultan

November 8, 2017

I’ve written a long-ish article for History Today on historical revisionism in Turkey around the figure of hard-line late Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II – who many are keen to imagine as a precursor of President Erdoğan.

Abdülhamid has long been venerated as ‘Ulu Hakan’ (the Supreme Sultan) by conservative ideologues within Turkey, but the reverence has reached fever pitch under Erdoğan. An idealised memory of Abdülhamid, which casts him as the last proudly Islamic Ottoman leader standing up to the West, has become part of the government’s narrative of civilisational ‘restoration’, in which Turkey is once again a great power that shapes history. Abdülhamid is often glorified as a symbolic precursor of Erdoğan – proof that historic forces are at play today. …

When he first became sultan in 1876, Abdülhamid appeared to be an enlightened reformer. He supported the Ottoman constitution, giving the empire its first experience of constitutional democracy. The next year he opened the first session of an elected Ottoman parliament … But the experience of ruling a vast, decaying empire hardened him into an absolutist, and he became convinced that he needed to rule with a stronger hand to protect it from further dismemberment. …

The parallels with Turkey’s current president are obvious. Erdoğan was once lauded in the West as a moderate Muslim reformer, raising the country’s democratic standards and advancing its economy. But his international reputation has since deteriorated badly. Authoritarianism, rent-seeking and demagoguery mark his era. The state administration is subject to the whims of capricious one-man rule. A cult of personality is in full swing, with Erdoğan embodying the frustrations, hopes and grievances of Turkey’s conservative masses, bound by a powerful sense of shared identity. …

Erdoğan’s supporters see the decline in his reputation abroad as part of a dark international plot to halt this forward march. Conspiratorial thinking runs rampant. Orhan Osmanoğlu, a fourth-generation descendent of Abdülhamid, claims that Turkey is today witnessing a ‘repetition of history’: ‘Meddling foreigners now call our president a dictator, just as they used to call Abdülhamid the “Red Sultan.”’ Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman compared last year’s coup attempt to the dethroning of Abdülhamid in 1909: ‘They wanted to do the same as they did when they overthrew Abdülhamid, but this time they couldn’t succeed.’

I’ve been meaning to write this article for ages so do go and read the whole thing (there are also some nice visuals).

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Turkey Book Talk episode #43 – SONER ÇAĞAPTAY on his book “THE NEW SULTAN: ERDOĞAN AND THE CRISIS OF MODERN TURKEY” (IB Tauris).

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My review of this book is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement. Not sure of the publication date so keep your eyes peeled for that.

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I’ve written a piece for the New York Times to mark President Erdoğan’s visit to Washington on the blockbuster series “Diriliş: Ertuğrul,” broadcast on Turkish state TV channel TRT.

A few years ago at the height of so-called neo-Ottomanism there were loads of articles published about Turkish TV serials being exported all over the world. It became quite a tired cliche but the popularity of various shows is in fact a good bell-weather for the political mood. And audiences take the messages that these serials pump out seriously. On a visit to Polatlı, a small town outside Ankara a couple of years ago, I vividly remember how a local coffee house arranged its seats in rows at night once a week to screen the latest episode of the ultra-macho action serial “Valley of the Wolves.” In a provincial town with little else to do, it was clearly a major weekly event.

Get a flavour of Diriliş: Ertuğrul by watching the intro:

If you’ve got too much time on your hands you can stream every episode on the TRT website 🍿🍿🍿

If you missed it, here’s an article I wrote about another dubious cultural product: The Erdoğan biopic “Reis” (The Chief), which flopped at box offices in March.

I’ve written a piece for Politico about Turkey’s critical general election. Specifically, the article looks at the shift by President Erdoğan and the government in recent months from emphasising economic competence to peddling bombastic conspiracy theories:

“While signs of this paranoiac shift have long been evident, the AKP’s earlier years in power mostly focused on making an economy-based pitch to voters. Economic competence and extending services to the poorer sections of society – along with an appeal to the conservative religious values held by many Turkish citizens – proved a winning combination for a string of crushing election victories. But while the party still pledges to spur development, its rhetoric leading up to Sunday’s election has tilted decisively in favor of a combination of conspiracy theories laced with historic posturing about reconnecting Turkey with the glory of the Ottoman Empire. When you’re on a glorious path, the AKP’s leaders suggest, you will inevitably have enemies.”

Read the whole thing over at Politico.

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Is Turkey’s new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu a pan-Islamist ideologue, with imperialist ambitions to reshape the Middle East into a post-national order based on Turkish and Sunni religious supremacy? That is the blockbuster thesis currently turning heads both inside and outside Turkey, thanks to a series of recent articles by Marmara University Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan.

Özkan, a one-time student of Davutoğlu’s from the latter’s time as an international relations professor, bases his provocative conclusion on close study of 300 articles penned by Davutoğlu in the 1980s and 90s. He first made his case in an essay for the August-September edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ journal“Survival,” before introducing it to a wider English audience with pieces on Al-Monitor and in the New York Times.

In his NYT op-ed “Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy” published last week, Özkan remembered Professor Davutoğlu as a hard-working and “genial figure” who “enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students.” In contrast with his academic peers, however, he believed that Turkey would “soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential … encompass[ing] the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and include Albania and Bosnia”:

Mr. Davutoglu’s classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis. He cited the historical precedents of Britain, which created a global empire in the aftermath of its 17th-century civil war, and Germany, a fragmented nation which became a global power following its 19th-century unification. Mr. Davutoglu was confident that his vision could transform what was then an inflation-battered nation, nearly torn apart by a war with Kurdish separatists, into a global power.

He crystallized these ideas in the book ‘Strategic Depth,’ in 2001, a year before the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., came to power. In the book, he defined Turkey as a nation that does not study history, but writes it — a nation that is not at the periphery of the West, but at the center of Islamic civilization … Mr. Davutoglu saw himself as a grand theorist at the helm of his country as it navigated what he called the ‘river of history.’ He and his country were not mere pawns in world politics, but the players who moved the pieces.

Özkan rejects that Davutoğlu’s ideas amount to “neo-Ottomanism,” as often accused. Instead, he gives Turkey’s new prime minister the even heftier label of “pan-Islamist”:

The movement known as Ottomanism emerged in the 1830s as the empire’s elites decided to replace existing Islamic institutions with modern European-style ones, in fields from education to politics. By contrast, Mr. Davutoglu believes that Turkey should look to the past and embrace Islamic values and institutions.

But, ironically, he bases his pan-Islamist vision on the political theories that were used to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945. While purporting to offer Turkey a new foreign policy for the 21st century, his magnum opus draws on the outdated concepts of geopolitical thinkers like the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Briton Halford Mackinder and the German Karl Haushofer, who popularized the term “Lebensraum,” or living space, a phrase most famously employed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to emphasize the need to expand its borders.

According to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart.

After becoming Turkey’s foreign minister from 2009, Davutoğlu had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice – with disastrous results:

As foreign minister, Mr. Davutoglu fervently believed that the Arab Spring had finally provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to put these ideas into practice. He predicted that the overthrown dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional ‘Muslim Brotherhood belt’ under Turkey’s leadership.

He sought Western support by packaging his project as a ‘democratic transformation’ of the Middle East. Yet today, instead of the democratic regimes promised three years ago, Turkey shares a border with ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Two months ago, its fighters raided the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage. Mr. Davutoglu, who has argued that Turkey should create an Islamic Union by abolishing borders, seems to have no idea how to deal with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, who have made Turkey’s own borders as porous as Swiss cheese.

To repair this dire situation as prime minister, Özkan says Davutoğlu needs to pragmatically reconnect Turkey’s regional policy with reality:

The new prime minister is mistaken in believing that the clock in the Middle East stopped in 1918 — the year the Ottoman Empire was destroyed — or that Turkey can erase the region’s borders and become the leader of an Islamic Union, ignoring an entire century of Arab nationalism and secularism. What Mr. Davutoglu needs to do, above all, is to accept that his pan-Islamist worldview, based on archaic theories of expansionism, is obsolete.

Turkey's new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Turkey’s new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Özkan’s thesis certainly seems to have struck a chord, with plenty of prominent figures declaring their admiration. Still, the reception has not been universally positive. In Radikal, political scientist Fuat Keyman expressed skepticism about the use of any catch-all term such as “pan-Islamist” to accurately describe Davutoğlu’s worldview:

As someone who has read many – if not all – of Davutoğlu’s works, it’s difficult to understand how Dr. Özkan has drawn the conclusion that Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist (which is problematic as a term anyway).

It shouldn’t be forgotten that such expressions have only recently started to be used for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. It could be said that irresponsible, anti-Semitic writings and comments made [by others] in Turkey recently have contributed to the increased use of terms like ‘pan-Islamism’ abroad.

Still, I don’t think terms such as ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘sectarian,’ or ‘pan-Islamist’ are useful or appropriate when describing Davutoğlu’s worldview, or his approach to foreign and domestic politics … Criticism of Turkish foreign policy should instead focus on the strategic errors that have been made, the exaggeration of Turkey’s power, and recently its distancing from democracy.

In Zaman, meanwhile, Şahin Alpay similarly questioned the validity of any term that sought to place a rigid label on the often multi-dimensional policies of Davutoğlu and the AKP:

The foreign policies pursued by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do not fit into the mold of ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘pan-Islamist,’ or ‘Sunni sectarian.’ It’s difficult to apply a single ideological label for a foreign policy that started negotiations to join the EU, gave NATO permission for its Kürecik bases, received prizes from the Israeli lobby, struck up a personal friendship with Bashar al-Assad, recommended secularism to Egypt, and felt Tehran to be its own home. Rather than being based on certain principles, the policies pursued by the AKP, domestically and abroad, can be said to be either pragmatic, populist, opportunistic, or aimed at securing or protecting power. But if an ideological tag is necessary, Islamic Kemalism or religious nationalism could be used.

A deeper and more academic critique of Özkan’s work that has attracted particular attention was posted on the personal website of Ali Balcı, an associate professor at Sakarya University. Balcı doesn’t take issue with Özkan’s use of such a blanket term as “pan-Islamist,” but voices more substantial reservations about the underlying fundamentals of his work:

Özkan argues that the ‘pan-Islamic’ conclusions and analyses made by Davutoğlu as an academic in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s can be used to understand Davutoğlu’s later foreign policy. This strongly indicates a ‘once an Islamist always an Islamist’ assumption, suggesting that Davutoğlu’s essential core is unchanging in the face of different times and conditions … The work’s fundamental problem is that despite all of the changes in conditions [since Davutoğlu wrote], it still puts forward that a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist – a reductionist and essentialist reading.

Balcı says it isn’t clear why Özkan searches for proof of Davutoğlu’s “pan-Islamism” in his old academic articles, while he supports the “neo-Ottoman” label for former Turkish President Turgut Özal using evidence from the latter’s period in office:

Examples of Özal’s neo-Ottomanism given by the writer can also be given for the AK Parti’s time in power and in Davutoğlu’s period as foreign minister. As stated by the writer, Özal applied for EU membership in 1987, worked to broaden influence in the Caucasus and the Balkans, tried to solve the Kurdish problem through reforms, and worked to establish control in its relations with Iraq. If all of these practical realities have also emerged during the AK Parti and Davutoğlu eras, how can Özal be considered a neo-Ottoman while Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist? In answer to this question the writer only presents certain criticisms of Özal made by Davutoğlu. But while proving Özal’s neo-Ottomanism with practical examples, [Özkan] doesn’t answer why he looks for examples of Davutoğlu’s pan-Islamism in articles written while he was an academic.

Some of these criticisms are valid, but some are wide of the mark. It may not be true that “once a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist,” but there is plenty of evidence that today’s Davutoğlu still sympathizes with the views expressed in his old academic work. While he certainly has demonstrated a keen sense of pragmatism and adaptability in the past, there’s can be little doubt that he has steadily moved away from this realism and back to a far more dogmatic and ideological approach in recent years. It may be less articulate than Balcı’s blog post, but the government’s hagiographical short film that accompanied Davutoğlu’s recent nomination as prime minister was equally germane to the issue: “He is the awaited spirit of Abdülhamid,” the lyrics say at one point, referencing the 19th century sultan who deployed Islamism to combat the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. “For the nation, for the ummah, for Allah.”

Now that Davutoğlu is in the prime minister’s chair, the question is whether he will continue to be seduced by his ideological convictions and lose touch with his former pragmatism. If he does, then Özkan’s thesis will look even more prescient.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its key congress on Sunday (Sept. 30), the slogan of which was “Büyük Millet, Büyük Güç, Hedef 2023” (Great Nation, Great Strength, Target 2023). Throughout his emotional two-and-a-half hour speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in full neo-Ottoman mode. He told the 10,000 delegates packed into the Ankara arena that the government was following the same path as Sultan Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and Selim I (“The Grim,” who expanded Ottoman territories to the east during the 16th century). He even went so far as to declare – tongue only half in cheek – that the AKP’s new target was 2071, linking the party back to the first Turkish Anatolian state-builders of the 11th century, 2071 being the 1,000th anniversary of Seljuk Turkish leader Alp Arslan’s entry into Anatolia.

It was a speech high in stirring rhetoric. The day after, government supporting newspapers fawned over the “renewal” and “refreshing” emphasis of a new “ustalık” (mastership) era. Daily Sabah focused on what it called the embracing, inclusive nature of Erdoğan’s speech and his words on the Kurdish issue: “Let’s draw a new roadmap together.” Zaman’s front page headline enthusiastically quoted a line from Erdoğan’s speech: “Come, let’s open a new page, let’s say ‘no to terror.’”

The contentious presence of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional leader Massoud Barzani at the congress was rather less trumpeted by Sabah and Zaman. He even gave a speech to the delegates, but the announcer in the arena refrained from using the word “Kurdistan” when introducing him. Indeed, rather than Barzani, it was Erdoğan’s words on the Kurds that received most attention in the pro-government press. This reminded me of one of Nuray Mert’s recent columns in the Hürriyet Daily News:

“The idea of the Ottoman Empire has induced a nostalgic longing for the days when Turkish sultans ruled diverse people in vast lands. For Ottomanists, the idea of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic haven for diverse cultures and populations is rather misleading, since the basic idea has always been to recall the times when diverse populations lived under ‘Turkish rule.’”

The conspicuously Islamic nature of the congress was also much discussed in the Turkish press – both by those approving and those dissenting. Beside its headline declaring “Great Strength Manifesto,” Islamist daily Yeni Şafak featured an admiring front page box quoting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, controversially (or perhaps not) invited to speak at the event: “‘You are not just the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of the Islamic world,’ Meshaal said, receiving extended applause from the crowd.” Indeed, when announced to the audience Mashaal received some of the loudest cheers of the day, (the EU dignitary who was introduced after him didn’t stand a chance!)

Liberal daily Taraf agreed that the congress constituted a Turkish-Islamic “minifesto,” but struck a rather more sceptical tone: “There was a strong Turkish and Muslim emphasis, a mouse with its face turned to the East was born,” (in Turkish, “a mouse was born” means that something underwhelming took place). The paper also noted plaintively that Erdoğan had failed to mention the European Union even once during his speech.

Meanwhile, seven national newspapers were refused accreditation to attend: Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel, Birgün, Aydınlık, Yeniçağ, and Özgür Gündem. These publications have diverse sympathies: from left to right wing, from Turkish to Kurdish nationalism. The only thing shared by all is antipathy towards the government.

In response, Monday’s Cumhuriyet included a front page editorial titled “From Cumhuriyet to Public Opinion,” which said some unsurprisingly harsh things:

“Established six months after the founding of the Turkish Republic, our newspaper has been published for 88 years. During periods in the past when democracy has been suspended by the ruling powers our newspaper has been closed down, but outside of this we have always published under the principles of freedom of the press, in the name of people’s right to know. In 21st century Turkey, our newspaper is now exposed to censorship by the ruling powers.

“We will not stay quiet in the face of the anti-democratic implementations applied against us that violate both the constitution and the law.”

The piece went on to detail two constitutional and legal articles that it alleges the congress ban violated: Article no. 69 of the Turkish constitution, which states that internal political party activities, arrangements, and workings must not run counter to the principles of democracy; and Article no. 93 of the Law on Political Parties, which states that decisions taken and actions performed by party central administrations and affiliated groups must not run counter to the principles of democracy.

The International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee issued a statement about the issue on the day of the AKP Congress, on behalf of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey:

“The news that reporters and journalists from some press organs are not allowed to enter the AK Party’s Congress is very worrying.

“Monitoring this historical event of the ruling government party on the spot and transferring it to its readers and viewers are primary duties of news media.

“We have previously protested the accreditation limitations at other institutions. But now, it is very disappointing that the same accreditation is being applied by a political party whose existence depends on democracy.”

In May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced to the Turkish media his desire to see a “giant” mosque built on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill. In his latest “crazy plan” for the city, Erdoğan said he wanted it to be a mosque that could “be seen from everywhere,” and declared that construction would begin within two months. Çamlıca is situated on the Asian side of the city, and despite currently being the site of a number of enormous television and radio reception towers, the hill is one of Istanbul’s few remaining green, unpopulated spaces. On June 8 the Environment and City Planning Ministry announced that a 250,000 square metre area on Çamlıca Hill had been identified for the project.

The Turkish press is predictably divided along secular/religious lines on the issue. There are, however, a few voices amongst government-supporting newspapers questioning the necessity of a mosque when there are no residents nearby for it to serve. Such objections miss the point that a new mosque on Çamlıca would undoubtedly afford TOKİ developers a golden opportunity to roll up their sleeves in the area(!)

An appropriately crude impression of how a mosque on Çamlıca Hill might look.

Late in June, liberal daily Radikal featured an interview with Ahmet Turan Köksal, professor of architecture at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, to discuss modern tendencies in mosque-building and his thoughts on the Çamlıca plans. He is skeptical: “A mosque should be for the community, not for show. For me, being a mosque architect means only doing work that has a function for the community …. If they want to make a mosque like an Olympic stadium on Çamlıca Hill and want to show off to their friends and rivals, then I’m against this,” he said.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of July, Milliyet included an interview with architect “Hacı” Mehmet Güler, who said he had been charged by the prime minister to make preparations for the new mosque. Güler said it would be designed in a “classical style,” and – in a fine example of “Muslim modesty” – that plans were being drawn up to have it feature the world’s tallest minarets, even surpassing those of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

Following this interview, the issue seemed to fall off the agenda. It was thus quite a surprise to find a number of Turkey’s religion-friendly newspapers recently carrying advertisements announcing: “Çamlıca is searching for its architect!”  The advertisements appeal to architects to submit their design ideas, in a competition to find an architect for the new mosque.

The competition opened on July 23, and will be accepting submissions until Sept. 3. According to the website of the organization in charge of the project – the rather clumsily named “Association to Build and Maintain Istanbul Mosques and Educational-Cultural Services” – the winning design will be “suitable for Istanbul’s silhouette and texture, reflect the Ottoman-Turkish style, extend traditions to the future, add value to Istanbul, and become one of Istanbul’s symbols.” The winner, the association has announced, will be awarded the honour of designing the ‘Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’ as yet unnamed mosque, as well as 300,000 Turkish Liras in prize money.

As declared in advertisements for the ruling AKP at the last parliamentary elections, alongside a picture of a vatic looking Erdoğan: “It was a dream, it came true!”

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