By Michael A. Reynolds*
Although the AKP garnered only 34 percent of the popular vote in 2002, Turkey’s electoral rules awarded the party an outright parliamentary majority of 363 seats out of 550. In the following two parliamentary elections—2007 and 2011—the AKP retained its parliamentary majority and increased its share of the popular vote to 47 and 50 percent, respectively. In the June 2015 elections it suffered a reverse, netting just under 41 percent of the vote and winning only 256 seats in parliament, a number insufficient to allow it to form a government on its own. Nonetheless, it still finished well ahead of its rivals. Moreover, its former party chief, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, remains ensconced in the presidential palace after handily winning Turkey’s first popularly contested presidential elections last year. At the time of writing, Turkey will hold early elections in the fall of 2015 in an attempt to break the logjam created by the June elections. The AKP will have a chance to again win an outright parliamentary majority. Even if it does not, however, the AKP, or certainly its supporters, will remain a major presence on the Turkish political landscape for years to come.
The AKP’s rule over the past thirteen years has produced a clear, albeit contradictory record on its own compatibility with secularism and with liberal democracy. The question of Turkey’s capacity to tolerate an Islamist party has been settled. By outflanking and neutralizing their strongest political rivals—the self-appointed guardians of Turkish secularism that are the Turkish Armed Forces—the AKP’s leaders fundamentally changed Turkish politics. Yet the AKP has not changed the secular basis of Turkey’s social and political order, although it has certainly altered the social and political atmosphere by permitting and encouraging greater religious symbolism and imagery in politics.
During the same period, however, Erdoğan has revealed himself both willing and able to silence and persecute his opponents and critics inside and outside the party. Thus, although the AKP’s governance has not lead to the demise of Turkish secularism, it has failed to reinforce the norms of liberal democracy as promised. Undoubtedly, the authoritarian tendencies of some of its leaders, exemplified by the jailing and sentencing of hundreds of military and naval officers and critics of the party on trumped up charges, have damaged the rule of law and the democratic culture in the country.
In addition to overseeing major changes in domestic politics, including a major initiative to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question, the AKP has presided over unprecedented economic growth and pursued an activist foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Ankara’s foreign policy dynamism has at times intrigued and excited American policymakers, but it has also confused, frustrated, and alarmed them. Support for Iran, quarrels with Israel, backing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and tepidness in confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are just some of the issues that have concerned Washington.
In assessing the AKP, and the impact it is likely to have on Turkish politics in the years to come, it is worthwhile to examine the worldview of the party’s leadership, especially its two dominant figures, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu (although Erdoğan as president of Turkey is not permitted to maintain a party affiliation, he continues to retain enormous influence over the AKP).3 At the core of Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s worldview lies Islam. Both men openly affirm Islam as the central factor that shapes and defines their perspective of the world. Accordingly, their understanding of Islam has shaped their politics.4 Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are neither highly unusual nor especially original in their interpretations of Islam. They are representative of a line of thought that has evolved in Turkey over the span of several generations.
Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do not adhere to a doctrinal or dogmatic political Islam. Rather, theirs is a historically informed interpretation that arranges Muslim populist and pan-Islamic sympathies in a framework drawn from the Ottoman experience. It often equates Ottoman history with the history of Islam, and at times unconsciously filters events through a Turkish nationalist perspective. It seeks simultaneously to soothe lingering metaphysical anxieties concerning the relationship between Turkey, the Islamic world, and the West and to resolve Turkey’s contemporary security challenges.
Significantly, this political Islam holds as a basic tenet the idea that the civilization of the Muslim world is fundamentally different from that of the West; in fact, it regards Western culture and values as inassimilable. It further regards the Middle East as an organic whole and romanticizes the Ottoman era as a golden age for the region and its inhabitants, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. By contrast, it judges the period from the deposition of Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1909 to the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002 as an infelicitous aberration when the alien principles of the West were mistakenly imported into the Middle East. And it regards the creation of the Turkish Republic as an error, and its founder, Mustafa Kemal, as less a visionary statesman and more a mistaken military officer whose horizons were limited by the falsehoods of his time. Accordingly, this worldview sees the key to Turkey’s security and prosperity as closer integration with Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors and the wider Muslim world.
And yet, despite their ambition to transcend the Kemalist legacy and restore the Middle East to its former properly Islamic equilibrium, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are themselves products of the nationalism Kemalism inculcated. The Islamic unity that they believe to be a defining characteristic of the Middle East is more myth than reality. Although they imagine the Ottoman past as a time of harmony and prosperity underwritten by Islam, the Ottoman order, as impressive as it was, rested on coercion no less than any other imperial order. More practically, few in the region—and least of all Islamists outside of Turkey—recall the Ottoman era as a golden age or see today’s Turks as rightful successors to the Ottomans in exercising regional leadership.
As a result, Ankara has experienced significant foreign policy setbacks in the past several years, particularly in Syria and Egypt, but also in its relations with Armenia and Israel. The AKP’s habit of sympathetically misreading anti-Western and Islamist movements has been a notable source of woe. For example, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu embraced the Assad regime with exceptional enthusiasm in 2009, only to recoil two years later when Assad unleashed ferocious violence against Sunni Muslims in Syria. Ankara also adopted an indulgent attitude toward ISIS. In 2014, it refused to evacuate its consulate in Mosul even as ISIS was closing in on the city. But instead of finding itself as an interlocutor between the West and ISIS, Ankara found its fifty-something consular staff taken hostage in what became a major domestic embarrassment.
Born of Trauma: Nationalism and Secularism in the Turkish Republic
In making sense of the world and their place in it, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu exhibit a strong historical sensitivity. The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 as a secular nation-state, the manifestation of a claim to sovereignty on behalf of a new entity, the Turkish nation. To Western eyes, the emergence of the Turkish Republic appears as part of the natural order of things, an almost inevitable development.5 Its founders and their opponents alike considered it a radical break with the past.
The Republic’s founders, led by Mustafa Kemal, did more than just establish new institutions. They introduced a new way of conceptualizing statehood and the collective identity of the population. Previously, sovereignty had belonged to a six hundred year old dynasty ruling in the name of Islam with Sharia, the law of Islam, nominally as the supreme standard of justice and source of authority. That dynasty, the house of Osman, ruled over a population that was highly heterogeneous in terms of religious belief, ethnicity, and way of life. The Osmanlıs, or Ottomans, administered their populations according to religious categories. They recognized four fundamental communities, known as millets: Sunni Muslim, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Armenian Apostolic Christian, and Jewish. The Ottoman state made no formal administrative recognition of linguistic or ethnic communities, a fundamental difference from practice today in most of the world.
An initial aim of the Republic’s political elite was to reorient Turkish society away from doctrinal religion to the novel concept of secular nationalism. It was a radical ambition, reflected in the scope of the reforms introduced by the new elite in just over a decade. They declared Turkishness, not Islam, to be the bond joining state and society. In a testament to that shift, they moved the capital from the grand metropolis of Istanbul to a dusty town in the center of Anatolia, Ankara, which was to be transformed into a modern city along European lines. They substituted a new Latin alphabet for the Arabic-Persian script the Turks had used for centuries, and purged their language of thousands of Arabic and Persian words. They even banned the ezan, or call to prayer, in its original Arabic, permitting it only in Turkish translation, an innovation that was as grating aesthetically as it was sacrilegious. Moreover, these strident secularists applied new regulations to daily dress, abolished religious courts, and brought all religious schools, properties, mosques, and indeed the corpus of religious authority under state control. In undertaking these sweeping reforms, the Republican elite looked to western European states, and France in particular, as models.
These reforms are collectively known as the “Turkish Revolution.” The term revolution is wholly justified in terms of the reforms’ scope and impact. But as radical as these changes were, the making of the Turkish Republic had not been an overnight affair. It had been long in coming. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Ottoman imperial state began restructuring itself along western European lines in a bid to fend off its rivals, defuse or suppress separatist tendencies, and preserve its territorial integrity.
Official Turkish historiography credits Mustafa Kemal— who took the name“Atatürk” or “Father Turk” as part of his 1934 reform mandating Turks to adopt surnames —as virtually the sole progenitor of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, it presents him as the very embodiment of the Republic’s principles of nationalism and secularism. But critical to Atatürk’s success in winning the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) that made Turkey viable as an independent country was a broad cadre of army officers and civil servants who shared his conviction that radical reforms were necessary to prevent Anatolia from falling like the rest of the Empire to partition and rule by non-Muslims. Constituting the bulk of that cadre were former members of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress, the political party that had dominated Ottoman politics in the last decade of the Empire’s existence. The Unionists had received European-style education and were often literate in one or more European languages. Their education exposed them to materialist philosophies and critiques of religion, which had a profound impact on them. As officers and civil servants, they were results-oriented, pragmatic, and dedicated to the point of obsession. If nothing else, they intended to hold their state and territory together. The overwhelming majority, as much as over 80 percent, came from the Balkans and the coastal region of western Anatolia—the part of the Ottoman Empire that was most developed in terms of economic and educational infrastructure. Importantly, the Balkans had also suffered most directly from the process of imperial disintegration in the Empire’s last century.6 It is probably not a coincidence that this part of Turkey even today consistently favors secularist nationalist parties.
The Unionists concluded that the preservation of what remained of the Empire required the vigorous adoption of Western governance, especially the centralization of government administration and law, the rationalization of bureaucracy, and the mobilization of mass society in the service of the state, particularly during war. Among their core beliefs was that religion, including Islam, was a source of error and superstition stunting technological progress. They decided, therefore, that Islam must be subordinated to the state. It could be used to support the state, but it was not to direct it. As Mustafa Kemal later preached, the surest guide to everything in the world is positive science, not religion. Moreover, the Islamic teaching that the community of Muslims, the ümmet, is one and the Ottoman sultans’ claim as caliph to head the ümmet only served to embroil Turks in conflicts across the globe. For the sake of saving the state, Kemal and his followers were willing to forego Muslim solidarity in favor of a secular ethno-nationalism.
Mustafa Kemal explicitly envisioned Western Europe as the model for Turkey. To those who argued that Muslim Turks could never become like Europeans, his answer was clear: civilization is one. Its exemplars may vary across historical eras, but civilization is universal for each era. For the twentieth century, Europe defined civilization. Therefore, Turkey must emulate Europe.
It is important to understand that the conversion of Mustafa Kemal and his colleagues, and that of Turkish society more broadly, to the idea of a secular nation-state was far from a purely intellectual exercise. Bitter experience was a key driver behind the transformation. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was an extended process of warfare and dislocation as successive waves of Muslims fled or were expelled from imperial borderlands into Anatolia. This process of collapse culminated in the “Ten Years’ War“—the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), World War I (1914-1918), and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922). From the Turkish perspective, these wars were part of one extended struggle for survival characterized by total war, mass killing, and ethnic cleansing. The mortality rate for the Muslim population in some Anatolian provinces during World War 1 was astronomical, reaching up to 40 percent.7 Although cast by the Republic’s founders as a triumphal act of creativity, the establishment of Turkey was just as much an outgrowth of desperation and trauma.
That desperation and trauma impressed upon Turkish elites the need to apply radical reforms. Just as importantly, it readied the population to accept them, for the most part. Uprooting the influence of Islam from public and social life was a key goal of Mustafa Kemal. He and his reformers identified Islam with the old Ottoman regime. They were self-described revolutionaries, and like all revolutionaries they regarded the old regime as a colossal failure, even an embarrassment. They believed Islam to be too powerful, too influential, and too dangerous to be left untouched. But the Turkish faith was so intertwined with Turkish culture and daily life that something like a Bolshevik-style purge of religion was impossible. To attempt to eradicate Islam would only have invited counter-revolution. The Republican elite, therefore, sought to neutralize or tame Islam by subordinating it to the state. Thus, rather than destroy the religious establishment, they placed all religious personnel, property, and institutions under state control. Turkish secularism was never neutral toward religion or insistent on the separation of politics from religion. Rather, it was about ensuring the state’s control of religion.8
Roots of the AKP Worldview: the National Vision
By and large, the Kemalist Revolution of the 1920s and 1930s was remarkably successful. Nonetheless, the state’s rigid secularism, tinged at times with hostility and contempt for Islam, rankled much of the population. Thus, when Turkey held its first openly contested elections in 1950, voters awarded the Democrat Party of Adnan Menderes a decisive victory over the reigning Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP), in no small measure because they understood it to be pro-Islam. Among the first acts of the new government was to restore the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic. Ten years later, a conspiracy of military officers overthrew Menderes in a coup, and then executed him, in part for violating the constitution by mixing religion and politics.
Menderes’s death did not mean the end of challenges to Turkish Republican secularism. Over time, the hard edge of Republican secularism softened as Turkish politics democratized and right-leaning parties exerted influence. Moreover, Turkish leaders recognized the utility of Islam for maintaining social cohesion, especially as they combated communism and other leftist ideologies. But the Turkish state continued to exercise strict control over the exercise of religion.
A significant stratum of Turkish Islamists remained dedicated to an Islamic restoration. One such Islamist was Necmettin Erbakan, a German-trained engineer turned politician. In 1969, he started a political movement; in 1975, he penned a manifesto laying out the movement’s goals. In keeping with the injunction against introducing blatantly religious language into politics, he gave his movement and manifesto the seemingly pallid title of Milli Görüş, or The National Vision.9 The English translation, while technically correct in rendering the modern Turkish meaning, misses the title’s subtle religious undertone: the word milli translates from contemporary Turkish as “national” but is an adjective that derives from an older Ottoman Turkish word of Arabic origin, millet. The primary meaning of millet was “one’s belief, faith, nation.” As noted earlier, the Ottoman administration used it to denote recognized religious collectivities or congregations. With the rise of nationalism in Ottoman discourse, millet and its adjectival form milli were employed roughly as “nation” and “national,” respectively. But the two words never entirely lost their older religious connotations. Erbakan was using the term to evoke a religiously constituted and populist collective identity unmoored from rigid categories of ethnicity and race.10 The manifesto’s subtle title notwithstanding, Erbakan’s ultimate aspiration was a social order based on Islamic principles and law. Despite his engineering background and experience in Germany, Erbakan dismissed Western epistemology as both alien and inferior to Islamic.11 In the realm of foreign policy, his manifesto called for Turkey to revive its ties to its Muslim neighbors, preserve its Muslim culture, and reject the European Union as an alien Catholic and Zionist project.12 His outlook was Pan-Islamic, but assigned leadership of the Muslim world to the Turks. As a former member explained, in Erbakan’s imagined union of Muslims, “the Turks are the bosses.”13
To realize his vision, Erbakan entered politics and founded a series of political parties. His first party, however, was shut down in 1971 on charges of violating constitutional provisions relating to secularism. His second party met the same fate in 1980 following a military coup. As head of his third party, the Welfare Party, he managed not only to enter parliament but also to become prime minister in 1996. Erbakan’s religious outlook, policies, and political success all disturbed the Turkish General Staff. As a result, they compelled Erbakan to resign under the threat of a military coup in 1997. The next year Turkey’s courts banned Erbakan from politics and disbanded the Welfare Party.
The Break from the National Vision
Predictably, Welfare Party members registered a new party, the Virtue Party. It was at this time that a cadre of former Welfare Party members decided to break with Erbakan—and his legacy of dead-end parties—and to create a new entity, one that abjured the restoration of Islamic law and accepted Turkey’s secular order. The leader of the group of pious reformers was the young, charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the party they created, the AKP.
Born in 1954, Erdoğan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 as the candidate of the Welfare Party. As mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan proved himself a pragmatic and highly effective administrator. The Welfare Party’s first-place finish with nearly 22 percent of the vote in Turkey’s national elections the following year and its entry into the governing coalition, however, unnerved the Turkish establishment. When Erdoğan recited a poem containing religious imagery, the establishment pounced and convicted the rising star in 1998 for inciting religious hatred. The sentence put an end to his term as mayor and earned him four months in jail, along with a ban from politics.
The ban left Erdoğan on the sidelines during the AKP’s first elections in 2002. The newly formed parliament, however, promptly voted to lift his ban, enabling Erdoğan to win a parliamentary seat in a by-election before becoming prime minister in March 2003. For over a decade, Erdoğan has stood astride Turkey’s politics like no other figure since Mustafa Kemal. After leading AKP to convincing victories in two parliamentary elections, he trounced his opponents to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president in 2014.
Erdoğan’s continued electoral success, however, has come at the cost of a renewed polarization of Turkish society. At its inception, the AKP held out the promise of bringing together Turkey’s fractured citizenry not only by demonstrating the ability of devout Muslims to participate fully in a liberal democracy, but also through a politics of democratic consensus and inclusion.
Moreover, the AKP pledged to scrupulously respect the rule of law. The shorthand for the party, “AK Partisi,” hinted at this good governance pledge: Ak is a Turkish word meaning “white” or “pure.” Central to this promise was the AKP’s aspiration to reverse the traditional relationship between the Turkish state and its citizens by making the latter masters of the former. As a result, the AKP initially added secular-leaning liberals, business leaders, and Kurds to its base of socially conservative and practicing Muslim Turks.
After the 2011 victory, Erdoğan and the AKP began encountering political turbulence in the form of popular protests, corruption scandals, and a bitter struggle with the powerful Hizmet movement of the preacher Fethullah Gülen. Rather than modify his policies, or even his rhetoric, in an attempt to maintain his broad coalition, Erdoğan opted to focus on rallying the AKP’s base of religious Turks by whipping up their long-standing resentment of the Republic’s liberals and former secular elites. In his rhetoric, Erdoğan has gone so far as to denounce his opponents and critics as traitors.14
Erdoğan’s dominance of his party reflects a recurring pattern in Turkish politics.15 This is not particular to the AKP. When the AKP first emerged, one of its most refreshing and distinguishing characteristics was that it did not operate as the “fiefdom” of an autocratic party chairman.16 Although Erdoğan’s primacy was clear, the party contained a number of other outspoken and formidable politicians who at least appeared to function as a team bound by a common vision for Turkey’s future. Over time, however, Erdoğan consolidated his personal control over the party, neutralizing other leading politicians such as Abdullah Gül, his former foreign minister and predecessor as prime minister and president. Indeed, even today, after resigning the chairmanship of the AKP in order to comply with the requirement that the president have no party affiliation, Erdoğan’s grip on the AKP remains strong.
The Dynamic Duo
Essential to Erdoğan’s success has been his former foreign minister and his successor as prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. A former professor of international relations and long-time columnist for multiple Islamist publications, Davutoğlu has been an unusually close and trusted associate of Erdoğan. From 2003 onward, he served as a foreign policy advisor to Erdoğan; in 2009, he became Erdoğan’s foreign minister. In 2011, Davutoğlu was elected to parliament as an AKP member. Unlike other AKP members, Davutoğlu was not a politician, let alone an ambitious or gifted one. He therefore posed no threat to Erdoğan’s leadership of the party. But Davutoğlu did share with Erdoğan a worldview that was centered on Islam and that viewed neo-Ottomanism as a means to restoring Turkey’s greatness and even leadership of the Muslim world. Moreover, Davutoğlu’s professorial background and soft-spoken demeanor complemented Erdoğan’s self-constructed image as the tough, unpretentious, and pious populist from the hardscrabble streets of the working-class Kasımpaşa district of Istanbul. Davutoğlu’s energetic diplomacy in bilateral, regional, and global forums between 2009 and 2012 gave Erdoğan a truly international profile as the leader of an up-and-coming power. As a reward for his personal loyalty, and to retain a grip on the party he founded, Erdoğan anointed his loyal foreign minister his successor as prime minister and party chairman in August 2014.
Working together, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu remade Turkey’s profile, transforming their country from a status quo power anxious about its territorial integrity into an actor with regional and even global ambitions. In late 2011, Davutoğlu explained to the Financial Times that formerly Turkey had resembled “a man with strong muscles, an empty stomach, a small brain and a shaky heart.” In other words, Turkey had a strong army but also a faltering economy and poor strategic vision. Worst of all, it had no self-confidence. The AKP changed this: through a combination of economic growth and vigorous diplomacy, Turkey became a major factor in its neighborhood. It also expanded its economic ties and its diplomatic outreach to such far-flung places as East Asia, Africa, and Latin America.17
The change has not been solely one of greater confidence or heightened energy, but one of orientation and goals. Whereas traditionally Turkish policymakers had zealously guarded Turkey’s status as a nation-state and affirmed an ultimate, albeit sometimes ambiguous, goal of integration with the West, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have pursued a vision of civilizational manifest destiny centered on their understanding of Islamic history. They view the Islamic Middle East as an organic whole with Turkey as its natural, rightful leader. And they regard the West as irreconcilably alien.
The Elaborator of the Vision: Ahmet Davutoğlu and his Worldview
To be sure, structural factors like the sustained growth of the Turkish economy since 2002 and external developments like the Arab Spring must be part of any comprehensive account of the AKP’s foreign policy. Turkey’s growth made foreign policy activism possible, and changes in its security environment—especially the absence of an existential threat comparable to the USSR and the fall of regimes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya—invited assertiveness. The unprecedented challenges and opportunities that emerged in Turkey’s surroundings over the past thirteen years demanded innovation from Ankara. Undeniably, the particular character traits of key players, including Erdoğan’s imperiousness and Davutoğlu’s inclination toward intellectual grandiosity, have also had an impact on Turkish policy making.
Yet it is also clear that a coherent ideational framework has informed and guided the policies of the AKP. This framework is rooted in a reading of politics and history that ascribes primary importance to Islam as the wellspring of the civilization of which Turkey is a part. In sharp contrast to past Turkish practice, the framework acknowledges no divergence between the interests of the Turks and those of the broader civilization of Islam. Indeed, it urges Turks to pursue a manifest destiny defined by Islam for their own sake. Neither Davutoğlu nor Erdoğan invented this worldview. It predated their rise and its existence made possible the otherwise highly improbable collaboration between the introverted professor and the pugnacious and charismatic politician. It will persist after their departure.
Davutoğlu has been the key architect of the remaking of Turkish foreign policy. Although he is not the originator of the ideas behind the revision, he has repackaged and popularized them in books and countless articles. According to Davutoğlu, Turkey’s fundamental problem—and that of the Middle East more generally—is that for the past century it has been trying to assimilate Western norms and values. But because the metaphysical assumptions of Islamic and Western civilizations are irreconcilable, any effort by a Muslim society to absorb Western norms is bound to fail. The baleful effort to graft onto Turkish society Western norms reached a milestone in 1908, when the Committee of Union and Progress engineered the army mutiny that compelled the sultan to reinstate the Ottoman Constitution of 1878. That event, known as the Constitutional or Young Turk Revolution, marked the ascent of an elite with radically materialist, secularist, and nationalist orientations. In 1909, the CUP deposed Sultan Abdülhamid II, a figure whom Turkish Islamists revere for his personal piety and pan-Islamism.
Although the Unionists’ rule ended with defeat in World War I, their influence did not. Indeed, Mustafa Kemal and his party continued the Unionist tradition of using state power to reshape society according to modernist principles. Kemalism, in this view, represents the refinement and crystalizing of the Western, modernist project begun under the Unionists. This tradition, according to Davutoğlu, dominated the politics of the Turkish Republic until the ascendance of the AKP in 2002.18
Whereas the Republic told a redemptive story of the Turkish nation resurrected from the ashes of the backward, corrupt, and vanquished Ottoman Empire thanks to science, secularism, and nationalism, Davutoğlu asserts that the assimilation of Western ideas and concepts led Turkey into a geopolitical, cultural, and intellectual dead end. In his eyes, the electoral triumph of the AKP in 2002 was a historic moment not because it heralded the accommodation of Turkish Islamism to liberal democracy and secularism, but because it signified the reassertion of the popular Muslim will that had been suppressed since 1908.
Davutoğlu’s cheerful demeanor and smooth rhetoric has at times belied his theme of the dire incompatibility of Islam and the West. He wears Western business suits, speaks English, and exudes an ebullient air. He exhibits little of the somber gravitas or sneering disdain that radical Islamists sometimes adopt. Indeed, Davutoğlu in his term as foreign minister projected an air of optimistic self-confidence, one that is quite different from the vengeful pessimism and apocalyptic tones of fundamentalist Islamists. In instances where Ankara has acted at direct cross-purposes with the U.S., one can glimpse the existence of a principled opposition to American hegemony. Yet Ankara has made no formal break with the United States or Europe, and indeed continues to collaborate with the West in numerous areas.19 Davutoğlu’s ressentiment, however, should not be discounted; his worldview, and that of Erdoğan and millions of AKP supporters, differs profoundly from that of the West and violent radicals alike. It is distinct also from the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Davutoğlu and Erdoğan both sympathize.
There are several distinguishing characteristics of Davutoğlu’s worldview. The first is that Davutoğlu’s Islamism is based not on doctrine but a mix of history, culture, and sentiment. Analysts and commentators typically overlook the last element, but it is an essential, even defining ingredient of Davutoğlu’s perspective. A sense of loss pervades Davutoğlu’s worldview, and it is the desire to retrieve what has been lost that motivates him.
Davutoğlu was born in 1959 in the central Anatolian town of Taşkent, a little over one hundred kilometers south of Konya, the former capital of the Seljuk Turks and the site of the tomb of one of the Muslim world’s most famous mystic poets, Jelaluddin Rumi. When he was five years old, Davutoğlu moved to Istanbul with his father, but he would often return to visit Taşkent with family.20
Davutoğlu recalls his childhood in Taşkent with fondness. Several elements defined his upbringing there. One is the warmth of close family ties. Davutoğlu lost his mother at a young age, but had the fortune of growing up with a loving stepmother and a dedicated and hardworking father, who was a shoemaker. The oldest of four siblings and the only male, Davutoğlu felt an early responsibility for his three sisters, and maintained that sense of filial duty even as he pursued his studies in Istanbul. His father, though uneducated, was keen to see his only son succeed in school.
A second element was the young Davutoğlu’s sense of wonderment and enchantment with the natural world. His childhood fascination with the beauty of the hills, cliffs, and skies etched in him a certain religiosity and awe of the divine.21 A third element was the contrast he identified between the grand and colorful heritage of Islamic civilization and the grey monotony of the Turkish Republic. He later recalled, for example, the finely carved door of a neighbor’s house, which had been the work of an Armenian. Such craftsmen had been part of the Ottoman landscape, but had been swept away in the Empire’s last years with the arrival of Turkish nationalism and the founding of the Republic. Where the Turkish Republic taught its citizens the grim message that “a Turk’s only friend is another Turk,” life in Taşkent taught him that in a previous era Turks had been part of something bigger in terms of geography and culture. From his grandparents’ tales and stories, he acquired a sense of connection between his village and their Turkic nomadic ancestors. His grandmother, for example, would recite an old nomads’ prayer: “May you and your son be like a horde / May you and your daughter be like a tribe / May the world’s states come to your feet / May they make the world submit to you.”22 Davutoğlu intuited that as the Turks migrated from Central Asia through Khorasan and the Iranian plateau, they had borrowed and assimilated much of their customs and wisdom from Persia.23
Bright and hardworking, Davutoğlu at age thirteen gained entrance to a German boarding school in Istanbul, one of the city’s highly prestigious Western high schools. He was not a passive, unquestioning recipient of the German curriculum. In fact, it was here that he began to systematically compare the West and Turkish-Islamic civilization. Introduced in the classroom to such authors as Goethe, Kafka, and Brecht, he made sure to read the Turkish classics on his own. He suffered the ridicule of classmates for his piety and rural mores. Even worse, emboldened by the Kemalist elite’s hostility to religion, leftist youths at the school would haze their more religiously observant fellow students. The students who suffered the harassment, however, admired and loved Davutoğlu for his willingness to defend them.24
Davutoğlu resisted the fundamental message of his high school and university that the Western way of education and life was to be admired and assimilated. One high school teacher remembers his repeated critiques of Western modes of knowledge. Davutoğlu, however, was no angry and disruptive radical. He studied hard and performed well. He subsequently gained admittance to what was then Turkey’s most prestigious institute of higher education, Bosphorus University. Originally founded by American missionaries, its language of instruction and administration was English and it served as the training ground of Turkey’s Western-oriented secular elite. It manifested the Kemalist belief that while culture is peculiar to each nation, civilization is singular and universal. In the twentieth century, Mustafal Kemal had taught, universal civilization was Western: secular, scientific, and liberal. Bosphorus University’s faculty, generally liberal or leftist, sought to inculcate those values. Although Davutoğlu was not persuaded, he did not reject his university. To the contrary, he stayed on to pursue a doctorate. In 1994, he published his dissertation: Alternative Paradigms: the Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory. He states his argument clearly:
The fundamental argument of this book is that the conflicts and contrasts between Islamic and Western political thought originate mainly from their philosophical, methodological, and theoretical background rather than from mere institutional and historical differences. In fact, historical and institutional differences are counterparts of these philosophico-political bases and images.25
In sum, Davutoğlu rejects categorically the idea that there is a “universal civilization.” The ways in which the West and the Islamic world approach and understand politics differ fundamentally, and these differences are rooted in sharply contrasting ontologies. They are neither accidents of history nor irreconcilable.
From the assertion that two civilizations are distinct in their essence it does not necessarily follow that they must collide. Yet in an essay completed in 1992, Davutoğlu warned of “an increasing tendency towards a civilizational confrontation between Islamic and western civilizations.”26 This was one year before Samuel Huntington popularized Bernard Lewis’s phrase of “clash of civilizations” in the pages of Foreign Affairs.27 In the same work Davutoğlu attacked the thesis of Francis Fukuyama that liberal democracy represents the final stage of human political development. Muslims, he contends, are attached to the “Islamic belief system” and will remain so, contrary to Fukuyama’s theory. The inability of the triumphalist “endism” so popular in the West to accommodate this fact, according to Davutoğlu, is the real problem. Thus, Western analysts frame the resilience of Islam as Islam’s “revival” and construe it as a threat that must be combatted. Theories like Fukuyama’s represent a hollow optimism that is not only false but that also sustains an international order in which the “Euro-Christian and Judaic powers” dominate Muslims. It should be noted that Davutoğlu in the early 1990s did not argue that major conflict was inevitable or desirable. A “civilizational vivacity,” or mutual co-existence, is possible, he affirmed, but only as long as the “civilizational challenge” did not generate “prejudices and pragmatic hypocriticism [sic].”28 Conflict is not foreordained, but tensions can only be contained, at best.
Davutoğlu’s belief that a metaphysical rift separates Islamic from Western civilization was not a passing intellectual fad. It has been the theme of his career. Thus, for example, in the introduction of a book on Ottoman history published in 2012, Davutoğlu informs his reader that the “greatest methodological obstacle to understanding the Ottomans is the dominant universalizing paradigm that begins with ancient Greece and Rome and passes through the Christian Middle Ages to the modern age.” Too many historians, he warns, have consciously or unconsciously employed the Roman order as the guide by which to judge and evaluate other historical subjects. The application to the history of the Ottoman Empire of the conceptual and chronological frameworks that emerged out of the study of Western history is illegitimate and must inevitably fail.29 The use of the West as a template for historiography is problematic when writing the history of any of the several non-Western civilizations, but it is especially so when writing Ottoman history, as the Ottoman looms only as a foil, a disruptor, or “spoilsport” in the “egocentric” historical narrative of the West.
Davutoğlu posits that multiple geographical “basins” have given rise to full-fledged civilizations. Among the birthplaces of civilization Davutoğlu identifies are Anatolia, Palestine, Central Asia, Tibet, and Indo-China. A defining characteristic of Ottoman civilization is that it was a new representative of the ancient. He sees the Ottomans as having had the mission of recovering an ancient consciousness and gathering together the heritages of multiple peoples. To illustrate this point, he invokes the varied nomenclature for Ottoman sultan. In addition to sultan, an Ottoman sovereign was known also as caliph (Islam), padishah (Iran), hakan (Turan), and Caesar (Rome). The Ottoman mission of reviving and preserving ancient consciousness contrasts starkly with the program of the West. The roots of Western civilization, Davutoğlu writes, lie far from the elements of ancient civilization. Indeed, in order to reinforce its own hegemony, the West seeks not to preserve but to dissolve ancient cultures. Accordingly, the West came to see the Ottomans as the last point of resistance.30 Needless to say, Davutoğlu’s formulation of the basic impulses behind Western and Ottoman civilization points to the West as an entity whose influence must be resisted and rebutted.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Davutoğlu’s take on Ottoman civilization as purely academic and irrelevant to policy. The theme of Davutoğlu’s major work, Strategic Depth, is the importance of history to understanding policy. It is a theme he continues to sound as a policy maker. Hence, when he addressed in 2013 an audience in Diyarbakir, the center of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, he titled his remarks, “The Great Restoration: Our New Policy Understanding from the Ancient World to Globalization.” In his address, Davutoğlu called for the rebirth of the pre-World War I Ottoman order, in which he claimed Turks, Arab, Kurds, Christians, Chaldeans, and Yezidis served and fought together against the invading Europeans. The dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, however, condemned the Middle East to nearly a century of division and despotism. In the wake of the war, the imperial powers imposed their will upon the peoples of the Middle East, dividing them up into artificial nation states. They then subjugated the Middle East by propping up despotic regimes. He declared the past one hundred years since the rise of the CUP an aberration, a “parenthesis” that “must be closed.” As Davutoğlu warned, “[t]he future cannot be built with recently created concepts of state that are based on nationalist ideologies wherein everyone accuses everyone else and that first appeared with the Sykes-Picot maps, then with colonial administration, and then on artificially drawn maps. We will shatter the state of mind that Sykes-Picot created for us.”31
Although for Davutoğlu and the AKP the last decades of the Ottoman Empire are a tale of tragedy and collapse, they do find in the period a hero and role model: the deposed sultan, Abdulhamid II. The esteem the AKP holds for the sultan is unusual. Kemalist historiography portrayed Abdulhamid as a villainous figure, and did so for several reasons. Most obviously, he ruled as a despot, not only blocking efforts to liberalize Ottoman politics but also expanding the autonomy and autocratic powers of the sultanate. He suspended the Ottoman Constitution of 1876 just a little over a year after its promulgation and disbanded the Ottoman General Assembly, or parliament. He forcibly suppressed dissent, censored newspapers, and incarcerated and exiled his critics. His repression drove reform minded civil servants and military officers underground where they formed secret societies and conspired against him. The CUP was the most prominent of these underground organizations. It targeted Abdulhamid and his regime as the major obstacle to the salvation of the Empire. In fact, the Unionists engineered the army mutiny in the Balkans that compelled him to restore the constitution in 1908. The following year they forced him to abdicate his throne.
Although Abdulhamid had no major diplomatic achievements, he was a champion of Islam. He was personally devout, and also made conspicuous public use of Islamic rhetoric and symbolism to rally the support of Muslims inside and outside his empire. Most famously, he revived the largely dormant practice of using the title of “Caliph” alongside that of Sultan.32 The possibility that war with the Ottomans might impel the Muslim subjects of the European empires to rebel was one of the few deterrents against Great Power attack that he possessed.
Where conventional Turkish historiography condemns Abdulhamid for being a paranoid ruler more concerned to build up his autocratic regime and suppress opposition than overhaul the empire’s structures and rejuvenate its strength, Davutoğlu hails Abdulhamid as a visionary statesman. Davutoğlu contrasts the empire’s maintenance of territory under his reign after 1878 to the loss of territories in North Africa and the Balkans after 1908.33 Although the conventional portrayal of Abdulhamid as a simple reactionary was misleading in its own right—in fact, he energetically pushed through a number of modernizing reforms—Davutoğlu’s case for greatness is unconvincing. Abdulhamid’s ability to hold on to territory owed more to a favorable international environment than to his own efforts, and his unwillingness to enact fundamental military and other reforms over the course of some three decades contributed to the disastrous Ottoman defeat in the first Balkan War of 1912-13. In other words, Davutoğlu’s reverence for the sultan is informed more by his role as a symbol of Islam and bugbear for Kemalist secularists.34
A Republican Problem: Kurds
As Davutoğlu suggested in his 2013 speech in Diyarbakir and throughout his writing, the founders of the Republic were at best misguided in their embrace of secularism and ethno-nationalism. At worst, they were active collaborators in the perpetuation of the West’s division and domination of the Middle East. On this fundamental point Davutoğlu’s vision departs radically from that which guided the Republic. Whereas Mustafa Kemal and the founders of the Republic believed that creating a homogenous nation through the cultivation of Turkish nationalism among the inhabitants of Anatolia would strengthen the state’s grip on its territory, Turkey’s Islamists concluded from Turkey’s chronic struggle against Kurdish separatism that this approach was conceptually bankrupt and counter-productive.
The overriding goal of the founders of the Turkish Republic was to halt the process of dissolution and partition that had destroyed the Ottoman Empire. Toward that end, they renounced the imperial Ottoman order and sought to replicate the Western model of an ethnically homogenous and secular nation-state inside Anatolia. Far from acting as a prophylactic against disintegration, however, the Kemalist adoption of the Western model only perpetuated the process of fissure. Republican Turkey’s suppression of Kurdish identity has not assimilated the Kurds; just the contrary, the emphasis upon Turkishness as the sole public identity for Muslims awakened and stimulated ethnic consciousness among the Kurds and alienated them. The result has been a protracted violent conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish organizations. The most sustained armed challenge to the Turkish Republic has come from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which began mounting a sustained campaign of violence, including terror and guerrilla tactics, in 1984. The inability of the Turkish Republic to vanquish the Kurdistan Workers’ Party even after the capture, trial, and imprisonment of its founder and leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999 underscored Kemalism’s failure on the Kurdish question.
For decades, Republican elites refused to acknowledge that ethnicity was an irreducible part of the Kurdish conflict. Instead, the preference was to blame outside agitators and a lack of socio-economic development. While these causes have played a role—Turkey’s neighbors such as the Soviet Union, Syria, and Greece lent active support to Kurdish separatists and poverty was a source of discontent in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast—they are not the drivers of the conflict. Turkey’s Islamists were among the first to acknowledge openly that there was an irreducible ethnic component to the conflict.35 As the war with the PKK entered its seventh year, Erdoğan, then a member of Erbakan’s Welfare Party, commissioned a report on the Kurdish issue. Among the report’s conclusions was that what the Turkish establishment preferred to call the “Southeast question” was in fact the “Kurdish question.” The Kurds were a people who spoke a language distinct from Turkish, and Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces were part of historical Kurdistan. Describing the approach of Turkey’s official ideology as “denialist, assimilationist, and oppressive,” the report called for the Welfare Party to openly question that policy and condemn “state terror” alongside the PKK’s terror. The Kurds, it advised, did not want to break from Turkey but to live in a free and equal society. The report urged party members to pay attention to human rights, use the word “Kurd,” and emphasize common religious bonds.36
Recovering the Leading Role
A central foreign policy aspiration of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu has been for Turkey to recover the Ottomans’ primacy in the Middle East. This is not, as skeptical outsiders often assume when pejoratively invoking “neo-Ottomanism,” simply a bid for Turkish hegemony, even if this aspect is not entirely absent. The aspiration instead springs from a reading of history that sees the Ottoman period as a felicitous era in which the region’s inhabitants, including non-Muslims, thrived under the benevolent rule of the sultans. Ottoman legitimacy rested on the organic bonds fostered by a shared Muslim identity and the Ottoman knack for melding the traditions and customs of their neighbors. Central to this enterprise was the guiding wisdom and justice of the sultan.
The disintegration of that order was a calamity not only for the Turks but for all of the sultan’s subjects. It follows that a strong and dynamic Turkey should again provide leadership and restore order to the region. As Davutoğlu has emphasized, today’s Turks have a “historical responsibility” to take the lead in the region. Thus, when speaking in 2012 about crises stretching from Tunisia in North Africa through the Balkans, Davutoğlu tied the disorder and suffering to the Ottomans’ loss of the Tripolitanian and Balkan wars a century earlier. He informed his Turkish audience that “we carry a great historical responsibility upon our shoulders” and “whatever lands we lost between 1911 and 1923, from wherever we withdrew, we will in those lands meet again with our brothers between 2011 and 2023.”37 His choice of 2023 is not arbitrary: that year marks the centennial of the Turkish Republic.
Whereas the Kemalists taught that Turks should zealously guard their sovereign independence from the affairs of their neighbors and outside powers, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have consistently sought to frame Turkey’s fate as inextricably linked with those of its neighbors. Curiously, they have done this most dramatically not while abroad or during press conferences with visiting foreign leaders, but in their campaign victory speeches. When celebrating the AKP’s victory in the parliamentary elections of 2011, Erdoğan hailed the inhabitants of “Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Sarajevo, Skopje, Baku, Nicosia and the capitals of all friendly and fraternal nations.” He went on to say: “Believe it, Sarajevo was as much a winner as Istanbul in these elections, Beirut has won as much as Izmir. Damascus has won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, the West Bank, Jerusalem, [and] Gaza as much as Diyarbakir.”38
Erdoğan’s framing of the AKP’s triumph in Turkey’s national elections as the general will of the Middle East was not a one-time flourish. Following his election to the presidency in 2014 he employed the same rhetoric: “My brothers, today not just Turkey, but Baghdad, Islamabad, Kabul, Sarajevo, and Skopje have also won. Today Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, today Ramallah, Nablus, Gaza, and Jerusalem have won.”39 As the rhetoric of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu makes clear, they see the AKP and its cause as part of a larger drama that extends across a geographic and historical space much bigger than the Turkish Republic. After the AKP’s disappointing showing in the national elections of June 2015, Davutoğlu posed the following question to the party membership: “Will you push forward this holy march that has gone for centuries from Malazgirt?”40 Malazgirt is a reference to the decisive battle of Manzikert in 1071, when Turkish tribes overwhelmed the Byzantine army and opened Anatolia to Turkish settlement.
In these speeches, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu rarely employed crude or aggressive rhetoric. With the exception of Erdoğan’s references to cities inside Palestine and Syria, the invocations of peoples and lands outside of Turkey are celebratory and reinforce the AKP memberships’ self-perception as the vanguard of an imagined populist Islamic revival unfolding throughout the greater Middle East. It is not a principally illiberal vision, although its historical and geographical dimensions clash with the nation-state, arguably the essential arena for liberal politics. It is worth noting that in line with the interpretation of the Ottoman period as the pinnacle of Muslim glory and a pluralist civilization wherein non-Muslims thrived, Erdoğan in his presidential victory speech underscored that Turkey’s Muslims, Christians, Jews, Assyrians [Christians], and Yezidis were before all citizens of Turkey, as were members of all Turkey’s constituent ethnic groups. Similarly, both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu stress that they see themselves as the leaders of all Turkish citizens.41
Inevitably, however, the political and historical animus from the days of the National Vision reveals itself. In his 2011 election speech, Erdoğan diminished the historical role of Mustafa Kemal, pointedly employing the phrase “Ghazi Mustafa Kemal and his friends.” This formula belittles the cult of Atatürk in three ways. First, the mention of “friends” both undermines Mustafa Kemal’s image as a lone demigod while cleverly reducing the founders of the Republic to a small clique based on personal relations. Second, by declining to use Mustafa Kemal’s adopted surname, Atatürk, Erdoğan snubbed his secularist and nationalist revolution. Lastly, by including the religious title “Ghazi“—bestowed by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1920 upon Mustafa Kemal for his efforts defending Anatolia’s Muslims—Erdoğan reminds his listeners of the historic role Islam played in bonding Turks (and other Muslims) together.42
A more recent example of Erdoğan’s displacement of Mustafa Kemal in favor of Islam as the element that binds and drives Turkish society is a video produced to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of Gallipoli of 1915. It was Mustafa Kemal’s prominence in this titanic nine-month battle that catapulted him to fame throughout Anatolia and beyond. Whereas conventional Turkish historiography celebrated this battle as a triumph of the Turkish nation and of Kemal in defense of the homeland, the centennial video portrays the battle as one for Islam. In a voice-over, Erdoğan reads a poem filled with religious imagery—a twist of fate the formerly jailed Turkish president must certainly have relished—while the video shows a soldier issuing the call to prayer. Throughout, the images fluctuate between depictions of soldiers in battle and contemporary Turks in prayer, making clear that Islam is what inspired the soldiers and what has tied Turkey together over the generations. The image of Mustafa Kemal does appear, but for mere seconds and only at the end; he is an afterthought overshadowed by Erdoğan’s voice and the sight of Erdoğan praying over the graves of dead soldiers.43
Perhaps more minatory has been Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s willingness to revive historical sectarian divides and link Mustafa Kemal’s CHP to Syria’s Baath Party. Erdoğan has not hesitated to associate today’s CHP with the repression and atrocities of Turkey’s past. From the beginning of the Republic in 1923 until the country’s first freely contested election in 1950, the CHP presided over a single-party state. Among the most controversial acts of the Republic in that period was the army’s suppression of an alleged Kurdish rebellion in Dersim province in 1937.44 Discussion of the Dersim operation was long taboo; in 2011, however, Erdoğan and the AKP decided to use the episode to paint the CHP as repressive and intolerant. The line of attack was simple: the CHP was the author of a savage act of repression. As one pro-government newspaper summarized it in a headline: “At Every Level of the Dersim Massacre the CHP is Present.”45
To drive home the attack, Erdoğan read aloud in parliament several state documents on the repression of Dersim. In case anyone missed the point, he turned to the head of the CHP party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and declared, “The owner of this bloody work is the CHP.” Next, after apologizing to the people of Dersim in the name of the state, he challenged Kılıçdaroğlu to apologize in the name of his party.46 It was a devilishly clever political move. Whereas Erdoğan and his followers had always posed as victims of the Kemalist state and had nothing to lose by apologizing in its name, Erdoğan knew that the head of the CHP could never disown his party’s history so easily. The fact that Kılıçdaroğlu is himself a native of Dersim made Erdoğan’s critique all the more biting.47
One great irony is that most of Dersim’s inhabitants are Alevi Kurds. Alevis are not Sunni Muslims, and as such had a long history of conflict with the Ottomans, who did not recognize their belief and regarded them with suspicion. The Dersim Alevis’ presumed reputation for disloyalty carried over into the Republican period; at that point, however, their Kurdishness became the more problematic aspect of their identity.
Double-Edged Blades: Sectarian Identities, Domestic Politics, and Syria
Turkish Islamists of varying kinds have long nurtured suspicions about the country’s Alevi religious minority. In particular, they suspect the Alevis of having avidly supported the Kemalist order for the sake of keeping the Sunni majority down. It is not an allegation without logic. The introduction of a secular order undoubtedly did have a special attraction to the Alevis, as it promised relief from persecution on the basis of religion and offered them the opportunity to participate fully in public life. No empirical research, however, confirms this, and the fact is that the Kemalist order drew plenty of support from Sunni Turks as well.48 This suspicion does, however, cohere with Davutoğlu’s argument that from 1908 onward, Turkey and the rest of the Middle East began to fall under the control of minority elites who were agents of the West and hostile to Islam. The imperial powers, so the argument goes, used these elites to subdue and control the region’s Sunni majority.
Historically, the Baathist regime in Syria has drawn heavily on its Alawite religious minority for support. The Baath Party’s emphasis on ethnic Arab identity allowed Baathist Alawites to identify positively with their state and their Sunni Arab fellow citizens. The current civil war in Syria, however, revived sectarian strife and, according to some in Turkey, laid bare Alawite suppression of the Sunni majority. The spillover of sectarian tension into Turkey was perhaps inevitable. But AKP leaders have at times deliberately fanned the flames. In September 2011, when Kılıçdaroğlu criticized Erdoğan’s condemnations of Assad as meddling in Syria’s internal affairs, AKP members of parliament and Deputy Party Chairman Hüseyin Çelik blasted the CHP head by stating openly what many AKP members already believed:
There is a genetic relationship between the CHP and the Baathist regimes in the Arab countries. The CHP is Turkey’s Baath Party. And the Baathist parties with their authoritarian structures are, you know, of the same character as the CHP’s rule in the past.49
The CHP has consistently opposed a Turkish intervention in Syria. The principle of abstaining from interference in the affairs of Turkey’s neighbors was a staple of Kemalist foreign policy, summed up in the well-known aphorism of Mustafa Kemal, “Peace at home, peace in the world.” Allegations of a link between the CHP and the Baath Party, however, insinuate that the motive behind the CHP’s reluctance is not so much concern about getting trapped in a neighbor’s civil war as a sectarian sympathy for the Assad regime, and even a loathing for its primary victims, Sunni Muslims. Lest one dismiss Çelik’s allegations as overheated rhetoric from an unlettered populist nationalist, it is worth noting that he is a former professor of Ottoman history who studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the author of multiple books on history, and a Turkish citizen of Arabic and Kurdish descent.50 AKP members, including Davutoğlu, have continued to accuse their political rivals of being in league with Assad. Campaigning in Urfa before the June 2015 elections, Davutoğlu disparaged the CHP and HDP as Alevis and Kurds, respectively, and even went so far as to condemn them as “Assad’s representatives in Turkey.”51
Exploiting the Alevi-Sunni rift can rally the AKP’s base of devout Sunni voters, but it clashes with the party’s, and Davutoğlu’s, more general message of inclusion. To be sure, the conviction that they represented a pious Sunni majority that had suffered persecution for roughly a century facilitated the AKP’s embrace of the rhetoric of democracy and pluralism. They were able to invoke the concepts of liberalism and tolerance to justify loosening or dismantling parts of the Kemalist state, such as the Turkish Armed Forces’ oversight of politics and bans on headscarves in schools and the workplace. Democracy in this context meant primarily the right of the majority to assert itself politically.
Similarly, the AKP’s enthusiasm for inclusion rests not so much on a principled respect for variation in lifestyles, identities, and faiths as much as it has on the belief that, as expressed in Davutoğlu’s writing, Islam in the Middle East has always constituted a natural and organic bond between peoples and will in the future. In other words, attributes such as ethnicity that have been used to divide and rule the populations of the Middle East will recede in salience once Islam is permitted to flourish again. Appeals to Muslim solidarity and shared religious, cultural, and historical ties are tools that the AKP has used to attract Kurdish voters with some success. Prior to the 2015 elections, the AKP was the only non-Kurdish party to compete successfully in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast. Although support for the AKP in the southeast fell sharply, the party continued to employ the tactic of appealing to the Kurds’ Muslim identity.
Davutoğlu and Erdoğan have been particularly enthusiastic about invoking the name of Saladin, the famous founder of the Ayubid dynasty and Muslim commander who recaptured Jerusalem and Palestine from the Crusaders in the twelfth century. In May 2015, they presided at the opening of the Selahaddin Eyyubi Airport in the remote and underdeveloped southeastern province of Hakkari.52 By recalling the exploits of Saladin, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu appeal not only to Kurdish pride but also subtly claim his legacy as a liberator of Jerusalem, thereby also reminding audiences of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, they underscore to Muslims inside and outside of Turkey that Islam is a multi-ethnic religion encompassing many nations. Indeed, Davutoğlu even went so far as to declare he would no longer refer to the chief of the pro-Kurdish HDP Selahattin Demirtaş by his first name because that name recalled the Kurdish liberator of Jerusalem. As he put it, “He [Demirtaş] calls Jerusalem ‘the holy site of the Jews.’ Ignoramus, be ashamed in the name of Saladin, Jerusalem is our holy land.”53
The AKP, Palestine, and Israel
The AKP’s understanding of Palestine, Israel, and Turkish-Israeli relations is a large topic in its own right. These questions tie together several strands of Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s thinking. The sharp deterioration in relations between Israel and Turkey during the AKP era is, although by no means solely the work of Ankara, one of the most dramatic illustrations of the shift in Turkish foreign relations. In Strategic Depth, Davutoğlu makes clear his principled opposition to Israel. The rise of Islam formed the Middle East into an organic whole, one with a distinct culture and civilization. It maintained this unity largely until the end of the Ottoman era, when the Western powers introduced and imposed ethno-nationalism among other alien ideologies. In his view, Israel’s presence in the Middle East is inherently destabilizing because that country is non-Muslim and because in its Zionism it embodies nineteenth century European nationalism. Moreover, Davutoğlu believes that Israel has not only worked actively to keep the Muslims of the Middle East divided, but it has also, like the Western powers, collaborated with regional authoritarian regimes to suppress Islamist movements. As Davutoğlu notes, it was no coincidence that Turkish-Israeli relations were at their closest when the Welfare Party was driven from government and shut down.54
The belief that the Western powers have helped suppress Islamist movements, including their own, is a central component of Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s worldview. As Davutoğlu argued in 1997:
The logic is simple: A democratic system in the Muslim world can open the way to anti-Western regimes. Such reasoning reveals that the basic motive of the West is more its own interests than democratic values. Retrograde military-bureaucratic elites of some Muslim countries have exploited this fear and have collaborated with global system forces to destroy the democratic processes in the Muslim world.55
This perspective helps explain the AKP’s sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. The AKP sees those organizations as grassroots movements of pious Muslims who were disenfranchised and suppressed, often on trumped-up and false charges of terrorism and subversion. Under the AKP, Ankara has been supportive of Hamas. In Egypt, General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s toppling of Muhammad Morsi’s government in 2013 both infuriated and frightened AKP members who recalled their own history of military coups. In striking fashion, Erdogan has repeatedly identified himself and the AKP with the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to Sisi. At AKP political rallies, for example, he would often employ the four-fingered hand signal that symbolizes resistance to Egypt’s military government.56
Children of the Turkish Revolution
In their political rhetoric and policies at home and abroad, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have distinguished themselves from their predecessors by their willingness to eschew a narrow Turkish nationalist perspective in favor of pan-Islamism or liberal cosmopolitanism.57 Erdoğan and Davutoğlu draw guidance for their more inclusive vision from the teachings of their Islamic faith and inspiration for their vision from Ottoman history. They believe that peoples of varied ethnicities and religions lived side by side in relative harmony under the sage rule of the Ottoman sultan, who governed in scrupulous accord with the precepts and strictures of Islam. A saccharine interpretation of history is not held any less passionately. Erdoğan famously lambasted the directors of a Turkish television soap opera set in the court of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent—for depicting scandalous palace intrigues in classic sensationalized soap opera fashion: “We do not have any such ancestry.”58
Significantly, Erdoğan does not see his country’s lineage as ending or beginning with the Ottomans. In a bizarre yet telling display at the sprawling new presidential palace, Erdogan greeted the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, while accompanied by sixteen men dressed in historical costumes. Each man was supposed to represent a famous Turkic state in history. While Erdoğan beamed with pride, Abbas appeared disoriented, and understandably so. Whereas Ankara’s neo-Ottomanism pays homage to four centuries of Turkish-Arab unity, Erdoğan’s prideful display of Turkic states from Central Asia and elsewhere could only alienate a Palestinian leader, since it underscores the differences between Turks and Arabs in their ethnic origins and historical experiences. Additionally, it is worth noting that the very notion of sixteen Turkic states was the invention of a Turkish nationalist who in 1969 sought to give an apocryphal explanation for why the seal of the Turkish presidency has sixteen stars. Additionally, the very notion of sixteen Turkic states was invented and popularized by a Turkish nationalist in 1969 to give an apocryphal explanation for why the seal of the Turkish presidency has sixteen stars. Unwittingly, Erdogan revealed at a stroke how Turkish nationalism has stamped his view of history and identity.
Over the course of more than a decade, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu have together decisively changed Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign relations. The two formally and openly proclaim Islam to be at the center of their identities and worldviews. Guiding their conduct of policy has been a vision of Turkey’s past and future that is inextricably intertwined with their interpretation of Islam and that differs starkly from those of their predecessors. According to that vision, the interests of Turkey and the broader Muslim world are bound together and mutually reinforcing. The fundamental sources of political instability, economic underdevelopment, and conflict that have plagued Turkey and the Middle East are Western political domination and Western ideas.
As Davutoğlu contends, Turkey constitutes an organic and inalienable part of Islamic civilization. Since the metaphysics of Islamic civilization differ fundamentally from those of Western civilization, the two civilizations and their institutions are irreconcilable and incompatible.
By definition, this is a radical view, but it is important to underscore that, in Davutoğlu’s case, it is not anger or militant righteousness that colors his outlook, but rather a sentimental attachment to his birthplace, people, and faith. He also possesses a keen sense of loss as it pertains to the richness of Ottoman Islamic culture under the Kemalist order. Thus, Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s worldview is rooted in a quasi-mythological understanding of Turkey’s past and its Ottoman legacy. In this way, it is substantially different from the most common forms of Islamism in the world. Even so, the two instinctively sympathize with Islamists, including radical ones, seeing them as fellow Muslims who have suffered at the hands of Western-backed authoritarian regimes (even if, as in the case of Syria, the description of “Western-backed” is an enormous stretch). This misplaced sympathy undoubtedly informed Ankara’s relatively indulgent attitude toward ISIS, even if that policy is also bound up with Ankara’s efforts to contain Kurdish separatism in Syria. Davutoğlu’s instincts are not, however, entirely impervious to reality. Speaking at an AKP party meeting to discuss Turkey’s military operations against ISIS and the PKK, he described ISIS as not only a physical danger to Turkey, but “a threat directed at our faith, an ideological threat.” Yet it is also noteworthy that for Davutoğlu the dimensions of that ideological threat are limited to the damage that ISIS does to the image of Islam.59 Reckoning with the profound doctrinal and theological splits in contemporary Islam would undermine the unity that he and Erdoğan assume to be an essential aspect of Islam.
The Arab Spring initially held the promise of becoming the clearest fulfillment of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s vision. Soon after Turkey began expanding its ties through the Arab world, popular Sunni Arab movements mobilized under slogans of democratization and Islamism against their authoritarian regimes. The emergence of a united and democratic Sunni bloc in the Middle East and North Africa with Turkey at its head appeared to be in the offing. Instead, the aftermath of the Arab Spring has revealed its flaws. Syria is perhaps the best example of this. Whereas in 2009 Erdoğan and Davutoğlu expressly declared that the two countries share a single history and future and began pursuing a strategic partnership complete with joint ministerial cabinet meetings, by the end of 2011 Erdoğan was calling for Assad’s overthrow. Assad’s resilience, however, has upended Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s ambitions. Turkey now finds itself honoring its cultural and religious ties to its neighbors by hosting 1.7 million Syrian refugees, a tremendous economic and social burden.60 Ankara’s pan-Islamic orientation has led not to strong and productive ties with Muslims abroad but instead to domestic sectarian tensions. It also facilitated ISIS’ emergence on Turkey’s border and inside Turkey, complicating Ankara’s current struggle against the radical Islamist entity. Whereas ideas of religious solidarity and fraternity rooted in history may have spurred the AKP in 2009 to undertake a major and unprecedented opening to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question,61 Ankara’s reluctance to aid Syrian Kurds in Kobane against ISIS decisively alienated Turkey’s Kurds from the AKP.62 Attempts to rally Kurdish votes through such gambits as celebrating Saladin as a hero for liberating Jerusalem proved fruitless in the 2015 elections, and can serve only to antagonize Israel needlessly. The AKP’s soft Islamist vision, filtered through an Ottoman and Turkish historical experience unknown to younger generations of Arabs and others outside Turkey, can have only limited appeal.
Despite these mounting difficulties, there is no indication that Erdoğan or Davutoğlu have reexamined the assumptions underlying their policies. This is unsurprising, as those assumptions are built into identities they forged decades ago. Although their personalities and working relationships are unique, the worldview they represent, with its mixture of Ottoman-inspired pan-Islamic cosmopolitanism and Turkish national pride, is not. Many, probably most, AKP voters subscribe to it as well. It will retain influence in Turkish politics for some time to come.
About the author:
*Michael A. Reynolds
This article was published in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology and the Hudson Institute.
1 This article employs the word “Islamist” in a broad fashion to refer to any individuals or groups who aspire to refashion or reform society in such a way as to bring it more in line with what they regard as Islamic. The term here is not limited to those who seek the imminent establishment of Islamic law or rule. ↝