Turkey/Middle East
Turkey on the Fault Lines - Middle East

Turkey on the Fault Lines

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

Pic shows Ottoman Empire at its peak


This is not the first time Turkey, as a nation of people, may have felt the fault lines that can divide or disintegrate it – it has happened many times before!

As of antiquity, the land of Anatolia, being at the crossing of the two great landmasses of Europe and Asia, has been the necessary cradle of many civilizations that moved between the two.

The Hittites, who made their empire in the 14th century BC, can be called one of the original inhabitants of the land. Earlier than that in the Indo-European migrations era from 4000 to 1000 BC, the whiter race had expanded from the Mesopotamian ‘cradle of civilization’, towards the east and the west. Theoretically, in the first wave of migration towards the east, these people who were pushed as far as the Mongolian steppes, we call them the Mongolians today. And in the second wave, these people spread all across Central Asia, extending right into the Mongolian lands, and we call them the Turkic people today.

After the Hittites, Anatolia came under the invasions of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great (600BC), the Hellenistic rule brought by the advents of Alexander the Great (300BC), and later the Byzantine rule brought under the Romans (~200BC – 700AD). The Byzantine rule was severely fracture by the advents of the Arabs. Thus in this land, was amalgamated culture and beliefs, in from a variety of strains.

Meanwhile the Turkic people had established many strongholds throughout Central Asia and were thought of as a brotherly race among the Mongols. So much so that Genghis Khan forged the initial Mongol Empire in Central Asia (~1200AD), starting with the unification of the Mongol and Turkic confederations of Merkits, Tartars and Mongols. For this reason many empires that the Mongols established are also said to be of Turkic origin – most of the Mongol Empires converted to Islam at their peaks in power.

It was the Muslim Empire of Seljuk founded by Tughril Beg in 1037 in present day Kazakhstan that slowly united the Muslim lands under its rule. And under them, for the first time, almost the whole of Anatolia was in the reign of Islam, pushing the fading Byzantine to its edges (later the Ottomans ended the Byzantines). The Seljuk brought the Turko-Persian culture to Anatolia and settled Turkic tribes therein, leading to the progressive Turkicization of the land – as a white race entered a brown one. And slowly the land of the Anatolians, Armenians, Greeks and Phrygians became the land of the Turks – and perhaps at that time the Turkish impression was successful in erasing the faulting that could emerge between in invading and the invaded.

The Mongols invaded Anatolia in the 1260s and fragmented it into small emirates called beyliks. One of these Beyliks, was given to Ertugrul, of the Turkic Kayi tribe that had fled the Mongol onslaught in Central Asia into Anatolia. After Ertugrul, his son Osman Bey, started expanding his territory towards the north – Osman announced independence of his small principality from the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in 1299 – without a hint that 200 years down his line, he would be called the founder of the great Ottoman Empire.

Certainly one century of the Seljuk and almost six centuries of the Ottomans was nothing short of a blessing for Anatolia, making the Turks as much the people of the land as any predecessors. But the racial fault line is one that always serves to make cracks – cracks that become prominent whenever the surface is weak.

Like at the end of the Ottoman period, when the British and French were competing for colonies all over the world, owing to their advances from the Industrial Revolution – and when the Ottoman’s had become too decadent to catch-up with the military might or economic progress of the new invaders – at this time the whole Arab World came out against the Ottoman’s, blaming them to be white, non-Arab hegemons, responsible for all their losses.

The Ottomans who had at their peak ruled all land from Somalia to Algiers, from Baku at the Caspian Sea to Budapest in Hungary and from Athens to the Horn of Africa – had been thrown into a series of losses since Napoleon’s brief invasion of Egypt in 1798, the 1830 conquest of Algeria by France and with the Crimean War, in 1853. The Ottoman’s were overwhelmed by the speed and fire-power of their opponents and found no other way to save themselves but by opening themselves to Western culture and technology, which they tried in the Tanzimat period (1839–1876). In the Tanzimat, constitutional reforms led to modernize the army, allowing banking system reforms and the replacement of religious law with secular law – but apparently at that time the Tanzimat failed.

Yet how was a 600 years long tradition of religion, backed by another 800 years of continuous Caliphate that goes right to the origins of Islam – abnegated? What had compelled the last caliphs of the moribund empire to even entertain an idea such as embracing not only the technical advances of the West but also their culture, law and way of life?

It appears that the onslaught of Europe over the Ottomans was not only a military one – but also political, economic and social. Politically the British and French played games of intrigue with the Ottomans. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, the British came to the Ottomans’ help because French positioning on Egypt would mean British losing trade in the Mediterranean and endangering trade route to India for them. Later in 1882 the British brought in their forces to Egypt in the premise of quelling the Urabi Revolt for the Ottomans – but as soon as they won the war, they practically occupied the land.

The British and the French posed to be friends of the Ottoman against the Russian Empire, who had been eating away its territories at its northeast extremes. In the 1853 Crimean War, they made alliance with the Ottomans to defeat the Russians, preventing it from fully controlling the Black Sea. So at occasions the weak and un-visionary Ottoman king had to befriend and oblige the British and the French – who were playing on a very wider chessboard.

Few of such occasions when the Ottomans had to oblige the British and French were; giving them trade concessions, allowing them to open their banks in their lands, introducing cash-crop farming that suited the industrial economy of the foreigners and allowing the return and settlement of Jews in Palestine at British request. Slowly but effectively the banks cripples the Ottoman economy - historian Eugene Rogan wrote, "the single greatest threat to the independence of the Middle East" in the nineteenth century "was not the armies of Europe but its banks". The Ottomans declared bankruptcy in 1875 and had to allow a European council to manage their debt, which they did by fully penetrating into the economy to the detriment of local Ottoman interests.

But the penetration was not just economic – France was master of another game too – Revolutions. Like many ‘Young’ movements that were fathered by France, the Young Turks originated in 1908, in France too. Previously called the Young Ottomans, the Young Turks had their origins in secret societies of progressive medical university students, military cadets and in Ottoman army officers and diplomats posted to France and other European countries. The First Congress of the Young Turks as an Ottoman Opposition was held in Feb 1902, at the house of Germain Antoin, a member of the Institut’ de France, under the auspice of the French government. The Second Congress of Ottoman Opposition took place in Paris, France, in 1907.

Many other nationalist movements were planted all across the Ottoman lands. And while Arab Nationalism was anti-Ottoman on the pretext that the Ottomans, who were white Turks not Arabs, were the reason for all their misery and backwardness – the Young Turks granted the burden of the age-ridden caliphate and conservative Islam as the reasons for the stagnancy of the otherwise fertile Turks. And the Ottomans found themselves cleft in the fault line between Arab hate that was puling all Arab lands away from it and Young Turks’ racial nationalism that was adamant on destroying the very legitimacy upon which the Ottomans had ruled the hearts and minds of all its people – the caliphate.

Kamal Ataturk, an army officer of the Ottoman forces, was one of the pioneer members of the Young Turks, he was one of the leaders of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution which seized power from Sultan Abdülhamid II and restored the Tanzimat constitution.

In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed, with Kemal Ataturk as president. The new ideology put all the blame of degeneracy on Islamic teaching and codes of behavior and upon the Ulema (learned men of religion) who had hindered reform and progress in the Empire. Kemalism meant to emancipate the women and to eradicate the influence of Islam in education, law, and public administration. Guided by positivist ideas of ‘reason’ – the new administration abolished the Shariat Law, women were given equal rights with men in matters of marriage, divorce, custody over children and inheritance. Polygamy was outlawed. The veil was banned for women who were government employees and generally discouraged. All state schools, high schools and universities were made co-educational and religious education was taken out of school syllabus.

It was not that everyone in Turkey was happy about these measures – in fact the populace cherished their Islamic heritage and thought of themselves as heir of the tradition not of modernity. Ataturk is seen by many in Turkey as a ‘benevolent dictator’ –  in his own righteousness, he crushed all political dissent and religious organizations with force and consent was created by decree – to this day the Constitution prohibits denial of Kemalism – and in time many accepted the reforms and the promise of a richer life in Westernization.

With Ataturk the military establishment, that largely supports Kemal’s secularist modernism, has made a firm grip over the country’s politics and is often referred as the ‘deep state’. As of 2007, before the general elections, when Erdogan’s party the AKP was set to win, Chief of Staff, General Buyukanit openly announced, "the Turkish Armed Forces, as up until now, will never sway from its determined stance and its duty of protecting and watching over the democratic, secular... Turkish Republic".

The Justice & Development Party (AKP) founded in 2001 by Tayyep Erdogan, and its constant successes since 2003, is a substantiation of the smoldering want in Turkish society for a return to Islamic tradition. AKP is a voice for political and conservative Islam in Turkey, and its leader Erdogan envisions Turkey’s role as a leading one for the global Muslim community, thus a return to Ottomanism.

So Ataturk’s legacy has created a hitherto permanent fault line in Turkish society, one that divides a modern and ultra-modern sector of society, which has become used to secular liberties – that cherishes its NATO membership and looks forward to one in the EU – and another sector of society that stands with Erdogan’s endeavor to find a balanced middle ground between modernism and Islamism with the power of an elected democracy – a comeback to Islam in the unique Turkish way, now being termed as Erdoganism.

But it has not been easy for Erdogan to establish his ideology as assertively as Ataturk once did. He faces opposition on every step he needs to take, for example there was a big row against the government when they made rules that the wine-industry cannot advertise and its taxes were increased. Similarly Erdogan has allowed wearing of headscarf, which was previously banned under law. Steps like this definitely draw Turkey further away from EU membership. But other factors like US intervention in the Syrian Civil War and the Refugees Crisis have made things even messier for Erdogan. Lately Erdogan has been using the Refugees as a threat to the EU, forcing the EU to play in Syria at his dictation.

Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. NATO membership actually means NATO’s accession of the foreign policy of a country, especially on defense matters. NATO being a largely US and European alliances, who’s members widely see governments of Muslim states as undemocratic, fundamentalist and the barbaric others, has waged interventionist campaigns in many Muslim states post WWII. This behavior was not seem as offensive by the Kemalists, but with Erdogan sentiments have changed. In Nov 2016, Erdogan said that Turkey did not need to join the European Union "at all costs" and could instead become part of a security bloc dominated by China, Russia and Central Asian nations. He said, ‘why shouldn’t Turkey be part of the Shanghai Five (economic group between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan)? And as Erdogan slowly moved his approach towards the Syrian Issues from the US/Saudi/Gulf prospective to the Russian perspective, Turkey has also become disillusioned by NATO. In Jan 2017, Turkish spokesperson told the media, ‘Turkey has the right to shut down its strategic Incirlik Airbase in the southern coastal Adana province’.

But will Turkey’s bid to forsake the West be one without danger! Because after all, being an ally of the West has given Turkey added opportunities for growth. Today, with the wisdom of the Turkish state, Turkey stands with the first 15 strongest economies of the world and the Turkish Armed Forces rank as the 2cd largest standing military force in NATO, after the US Armed Forces. All this has certainly been possible by the pursuit of the worldly and secular and by throwing off the passive conservatism that had enshrouded the Muslim world a century ago. But the worldly does not lie only to the west, it can also be found in the east with Russia and China.

Being out of NATO could immediately put Turkey in the list of America’s foes. And it would place it opposite to the fence where a strong part of the Arab World, consisting of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt, who match their defense strategies with those of NATO, stand. Will that not put Turkey on another fault line, a dangerous one – that might renew the old enmity that the Arabs harbored against it some decades ago? Perhaps the fear of such fault lines was what inspired the recent standoff between the secularists and the Islamists in the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

The balancing act for Erdogan is a strenuous one. Rapidly changing geopolitics has placed him in a Turkey that is not only at the cross way of many trade-routes and gas-pipelines, the cross way of many cultural heritage and ideologies, the cross way between the east and the west – but also a pivot that may decide US future as a hegemon, because if Erdogan’s favoring of Russia proves to be the reason for Russia’s success in Syria – then Turkey would have created a fault line that was not there before, and which it would have now used against its past secular friends – and Turkey would be responsible for toppling the geopolitical plates upon which the present world order is resting.

The question is will Turkish wisdom and Erdogan’s statesmanship save Turkey from being entrenched in fault lines and turn the same into lines of opportunities? The near coming future will tell.