The Caravan

Rebuilding the Turkish Empire: Fantasy or Reality?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

“If you are no longer interested in having an empire, we’ll take it,” I said, speaking recently in Istanbul to a group of U.S. congressmen and women who expressed ample frustration and, in the case of Syria, a clear disinterest in the affairs of the Middle East.

I have been observing with some amusement on recent trips to the United States how diametrically opposed Turkish and American appetites about the Middle East have grown. Since the onset of the Iraq war, and more noticeably with the Obama administration, the American public has come to see our region as a “burden.” In Washington, the route to democracy in Egypt and Libya has dampened the initial excitement about the Arab Spring. Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the main U.S. policy goal is “keep out of the headlines.” To American eyes, current Israeli and Palestinian leadership look too capricious to even bother with a peace process and everyone I meet in Washington talks about Syria as “a mess,” suggesting that the best course is to stay out.

Not in Turkey. In fact, throughout the history of the modern Turkish republic, the appetite to delve into the Arab affairs has never been greater. Turkish diplomats and leaders are shuttling back and forth among regional centers and Turkey is deeply embroiled in the politics of Syria and Iraq. Ankara has lifted visa restrictions for most Arab countries, and trade with the Middle East has skyrocketed to roughly a third of Turkish exports today. Turks are in the process of building bridges with Iraqi Kurdistan –once regarded as the archenemy – and the Islamist ruling AK Party in Ankara regards the resurgence of Islamist parties in the post-dictatorship Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as nothing but a strategic gain for Turkey.

In fact, once destined to enter the European Union, Ankara has diverted much of its focus to the Middle East and is more interested in regional leadership than haranguing for the last seat in an unfriendly – and to Turks, sinking – Europe.

Turkish self-confidence is high these days – perhaps higher than ever in the history of the modern republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk envisioned a pro-western and strictly secular nation-state that would look towards “contemporary civilizations” –that is, Europe –and turn its back on 500 years of coexistence with Arabs.

Today’s Turkish leaders yearn to rebuild the Ottoman Empire –if not in borders, in terms of economic and political sphere of influence. The country’s most popular television drama is the Magnificent Century, depicting life and intrigue at the height of Ottoman power in the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent, and the show has roughly 150 million viewers in surrounding countries. (A journalist friend told me he has seen Syrian rebels stop fighting in Aleppo on Wednesday nights to tune in to the harem.)

This is a monumental change. The Republican era regarded the Arab world as backward and untrustworthy. The Second Republic – a term I use for the new Turkish body politic with the advent of the pro-Islamist AK Party in 2002—is frustrated with the limitations of the Kemalist nation-state and relishes the idea of pax-Ottomanica.

There is more...Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief architect of its neo-Ottoman focus, often describes today’s tremors in the Middle East as the undoing of Sykes-Picot, the secret 1916 accord of Britain and France to carve out Ottoman territory in the Middle East. On a recent trip to Turkey’s troubled Kurdish region, I have heard Davutoglu talk about a period of “restoration” in Turkey and about “closing the parenthesis of a hundred years” that has kept Turks, Kurds and Arabs apart.

Davutoglu’s sentiments were echoed a week later by a public statement on the Kurdish new year by imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, calling on his organization, the PKK, to lay down its arms. This is a far cry from the Marxist-Leninist guerilla struggle for an independent Kurdistan he embarked upon 30 years ago. Much like Turkey’s current leaders, Ocalan envisions the new Turkey reaching beyond Turkey’s current borders and reshaping the Middle East.

Of course, pax-Ottomanica is mostly a political fantasy at the moment. For Turkey to fill the leadership vacuum in the Middle East, decades of economic growth and political integration are required. Arabs now live in nation-states and political identities have become far more layered and complicated than a century ago. Arab states now have independent economic power, and while most envy the Turkish model, they do not long for its hegemony. Still, dreams matter. If it feels like imperial sunset in America, there can be felt in Turkey the pull of old imperial glory.

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