Turkey’s Middle East policy still driven by Ottoman hang-ups
Less than a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed the role of unofficial spokesman of the Islamic world to protest US plans for Jerusalem, his spokesman lashed out at the United Arab Emirates, betraying an impulse of “Ottoman Islamism” still driving Turkish policy in the Middle East.
The new argument comes as Ankara claims a place among powers shaping the fate of the region. Modern Turkey is heir to the Ottoman Empire, whose sultans ruled the Middle East for centuries and carried the religious title of “caliph.”
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and close adviser to Erdogan, used his Twitter account on December 19 to respond to a retweet by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan that said the Ottomans had stolen money and manuscripts in Medina during the first world war.
Turkey feels a strong bond with its Ottoman heritage. The country’s leaders often claim the Middle East was better off and more peaceful under the Ottoman rule that collapsed a century ago than it is today.
In a speech about Jerusalem in July, Erdogan said “our ancestors had acted with such great delicate touch and sensitivity that it is impossible not to remember them with gratitude and longing given today’s cruelty.” Ottomans “never thought of denying other religions the right to life throughout their rule of the city for 400 years,” he said.
Two years ago, Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s prime minister at the time, promised to bring the “order and justice of the Ottomans” to today’s world. He also famously declared that “not a leaf” could stir in the Middle East without Turkey knowing it.
Turkey’s relationships with countries in the region have fluctuated with “pendulum-like swings” in recent years, said Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of international relations and European studies at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Through all the changes, “Ottoman Islamism” has emerged as a strong theme in Turkey’s Middle East policy, she wrote via e-mail.
“I believe Ottoman Islamism still best describes the set of beliefs that underpins Erdogan’s approach to the Middle East and domestic and foreign policy in general,” Hintz wrote. She described Ottoman Islamism as “a perception of Turkish national identity rooted in Sunni Islam that understands Turkey’s role in the region through a lens of former imperial might and religious legitimacy as the former home of the sultanate and the caliphate.”
Hosting an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on December 13, Erdogan assumed the role of spokesman for Muslims everywhere and declared that acceptance of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US President Donald Trump was a “red line.”
Trump said on December 6 that the United States was planning to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In response, the Istanbul summit followed Erdogan’s call to declare East Jerusalem the capital of Palestinians. Several days later, Erdogan announced that Turkey would open an embassy in the eastern part of Jerusalem, although he did not spell out when that would happen.
Turkish ambitions for a larger role in the Middle East are much older than the 15-year rule of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor at St Lawrence University in the United States and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington.
“I think the problem with the AKP’s ambitions is that they have proposed Turkey as a model or leader for the Middle East, which is an entirely more ambitious — and given the divides within the Middle East — unrealistic goal,” Eissenstat wrote in e-mailed remarks.
When an open confrontation between Qatar and four neighbouring countries — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — erupted last June, Erdogan took Doha’s side. Turkey has helped Qatar overcome problems caused by the ensuing economic blockade and the pro-government media in Turkey have accused the UAE of supporting anti-Erdogan coup plotters.
Eissenstat said moves like that show how ill-advised some Turkish forays into the Middle East have been. “Turkey’s decision to embroil itself so directly in the spat between Qatar and the other Gulf states is an example of the ways Turkish policy in the Middle East has been overly ideological and personalised,” he wrote.
Hintz said Turkish-Ottoman nationalism was a useful concept allowing Ankara to justify different courses of action. Close ties with Israel could serve as an example of Ottoman-inspired “harmony among religious groups” in the region, while differences with Israel could show “Turkey as the Sunni brother defending the protection of Palestinians,” she wrote. “Iran can be a Muslim ally or a Persian Shia rival.”