Language and race are precious tools in Erdogan’s imperial project
If you happen to have lived in the city of Kirkuk in the late seventies and early eighties, you would have realised the type of anxiety that has been driving the Turkmen population since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern Iraqi state.
This is a small but quite influential ethnic minority that speaks Turkish and is ethnically Turkic. Its importance exceeds the number of community members spread all over Kirkuk and the towns and villages close to it.
This minority has long lived with its hatred of the Kurds and its fear of Baghdad, but has defended its well-deserved presence in the city of Kirkuk and insisted on preserving its language and Turkish connections.
Its concentrated presence in a major city such as Kirkuk has not helped it much. It has instead led to it being targeting by others, from the Kirkuk massacre of 1959 to the referendum of 2017.
The presumptive Turkish protector has warned against that for a long time. But all the fears of the Turkmen have come true. Here, the minority has been caught between Kurdish pressure and infiltration by Arabs from the south since the seventies, and the central government’s keenness to keep matters between it and the Kurds over Kirkuk in limbo without looking carefully at what all this means for the Turkmen, or even the Kurds, who assert that historical Kirkuk is theirs and that they themselves are victims of displacement.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows what it means for the Turkmen to hold on to their Iraqi identity and their ethnically Turkic connections.
He is too smart to miss an opportunity like this. National sentiment and linguistic affinity are two obvious weapons that cannot be overlooked.
The simple case of Kirkuk is just an example. Erdogan’s project is broader and more sophisticated. The Turkish president has provided it with a lot of material backing. But he is now investing in its immaterial dimension.
He believes that time has come to re-establish a Turkish empire with new specifications; that is a virtual empire based on a web of interests and connections tied to established and influential countries or with states waiting for his support.
Erdogan does not need to go back too far in history. He needs only to look at a particular chapter in the early 1990s to learn from a strategic mistake made by the late Turkish President Turgut Ozal.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a collection of countries that stretched from the borders of China to the edges of Turkey was out looking for a spiritual father.
Turkey was ideally positioned to offer its parental lineage, but it was in a European frame of mind and missed the opportunity to establish its own sphere of influence.
Now Erdogan is more than ready. He has paved the way for this, both politically and economically. He prepared the ideological setting for the project by endorsing a mix of Turkish nationalism and political Islam. He backed his position with the input of a Turkish economy that had been on the rise for decades, until it drifted into a cycle of borrowing and imprudent moves engineered by the likes of his in-law, former Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.
What politics, ideology and the economy could not provide was left for the intelligence services or the army to offer.
The country’s intelligence apparatus has been operating without interruption since the time of the Seljuk state, some 900 years ago, while its army sees itself as an extension of the Janissaries.
There remain two things that Erdogan recently picked up: the Turkish language / Turkic nationalism and the ideological spin over Turkish power.
The Turks tell you they went to Misrata to protect ethnic Turks. The inhabitants there are Libyan citizens with Turkish affinities. After Turkey stood by them, it gained a foothold in North Africa.
The people of Misrata do not speak Turkish. But Turkish affinity is palpable, and it has increased even more with the unreserved support extended to them by Erdogan.
They also went to Azerbaijan. Azeris are Turks’ heart and soul. But they are Shias, which suggests that they would normally be closer to Iran.
Erdogan realised the importance of race and language and the primordial role of these factors, as they take precedent over sectarian affiliation. He intervened with his drones and experts and settled the war with Armenia while Iran indulged in fence sitting.
Now is the time to revive the Turkish imperial project.
Take the first example: Erdogan is now talking openly about “the Turkish world.” He means a world that is Turkish, ethnically and linguistically.
Without hesitation, he told the Azeri prime minister, “The Turkish world has shown the importance of solidarity, cooperation and joint action, at all levels, from the Karabakh Heights war, to the coronavirus pandemic stage, to diplomacy and defence, to health, agriculture, tourism and energy.”
He launched a campaign titled “Turkish is a global language” to commemorate Turkish poet Yunus Emre’s legacy. The language, according to the Turks, “is the one that guards the homeland first, then the army.”
It was noteworthy to hear him refer to the army in an event that was supposed to celebrate language and poetry. It was also noteworthy that he was speaking to young people and inviting them to restore their Ottoman Turkish heritage.
He told them: Learn to read gravestones because they are written in an alphabet that has been replaced, and do not heed the too many English and French terms thrust into the Turkish language.
He then thanked the representatives of Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia to the UNESCO for their support for Emre’s project and his world year. He was hinting that he intends to thank more countries soon.
Ideological narratives require remembrance of past victories. The Turkish army is now in a strong position after achieving victories in Libya and Azerbaijan. But its spirits must be lifted considering its faltering war against the Kurds.
So, there is Erdogan’s recollection of Janissary history. He found there the almost mythical character of the godfather of the Janissaries, Haji Bektash Veli, who lived 750 years ago. Erdogan brought him back from the history books and devoted a special year to him.
The Bektashiyya was part of the ideological organisation of the Janissary army, which was the backbone of the Ottoman army and the striking force in the hands of the sultans.
This Sufi order was key to the recruitment of the Janissaries from different races and from a predominantly Christian background.
The sultans used it very efficiently, and it became one of the most important roles played by Sufi orders in the organisation of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan did not lose sight of the fact that Haji Bektash Veli was born in Nishapur in the Khwarazmian empire. To Azerbaijan, he was saying Turkish connections are present, as well as Alawite lineage.
This connection is important when it comes to a sheikh of the Sufi order, who recruits Christian children in the Balkans and integrates them into battalions of Janissaries. Haji Bektash Veli has become an identity.
Erdogan wants to complete the rosary of his empire. This is a historic opportunity for him that cannot be lost. He has withdrawn from the European project.
He has bequeathed influence in Europe to millions of Turkish residents and naturalised expatriates, and to hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have been influenced by his thought and method, whether because they are Muslim Brotherhood members or just people looking for a hero. Time has come for the Asian Caucasian connection to take shape.
No one knows if Erdogan has looked at the rise and fall of the Nasserite project.
But there are for sure Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members who could advise him to learn about Gamal Abdel Nasser’s experience — his nationalism and early success, and then the accumulation of mistakes in domestic, regional and global policies, leading to defeat and collapse.
Erdogan makes many mistakes, but he learns quickly from them and adapts fast.
Kirkuk and Turkmenistan are important, and Misrata and the origins of their children are even more important. But Erdogan’s map is much broader.