Turkish Islamic soft power strategies

The Turkish foreign policy, as it has been dictated over the past few years, relies heavily in the so-called “Islamic soft-power” strategies that aim to push forward foreign policy interests via the use of Islam-based virtues of charity work and the Islamic ethics in general.


This approach has accelerated since 2007 when AKP political party in Turkey managed to establish firmly itself within the state by winning overwhelmingly its second general elections and since then it has effectively been able to disband numerous Kemalist networks of political and state influence. In terms of foreign policy, AKP places great importance into projecting Turkish interests abroad and especially in the regions of the Balkans, Middle East and Africa through the use of state-sponsored NGO’s, charity foundations and religious organizations.
For example, the original goal behind The Union of NGOs of the Islamic World (UNIW) organization was to perform a new kind of soft-power based foreign policy by the Erdogan’s Administration that aims to enchase Turkey’s role in the globe, by boosting Turkey’s profile as a major Sunni country. In short it plays the card of Sunni Islam, but in contrast to Saudi Arabia in a more moderate fashion, so as to be able to be accepted more easily by the “West” (NATO, EU). In a second level this particular NGO, acts as a hub and forum for the creation of interpersonal relations between a diverse crowd of figures that are involved in politics, business, charity and arts. Thus Turkish diplomacy, as directed by the pro-Erdogan elements- finds itself of new avenues to expand the diplomatic support this country may need for its state purposes. In simple terms, the Turkish foreign policy can “muscle” more supporters for Turkish aims and at the same time being able to grasp in a broader sense the tunes of societal changes in the contemporary globalized world. By having a reach in local societies as far as Seychelles, Indonesia and other countries, Ankara acquires a “global outlook”. In the case of the Balkans this particular organization has considerable reach in Kosovo, FYROM and Albania.
Continuing, there are many advantages of such strategies that blend Islam with foreign policy goals for Turkey.  First of all the building of a “good name” abroad is an expensive process that takes years to be achieved, but once it happens, it provides the country with advantages in issues such as the direction of developmental aid, peace-keeping operations and of course a greater diplomatic clout in the United Nations. The case of Norway is illustrative. A small country of 4.5 million people has managed since the early 70′s to establish a good name for itself in regions such as Africa and South East Asia by providing financing, humanitarian aid and know-how. Thus Oslo has managed to have a reliable international voice and garner diplomatic and political support in international forums, disproportional to its small size as a state. In case of Turkey, a 70 million people country, that connects the Middle East with Southeastern Europe and with obvious ambitions of becoming a regional power; the policy benefits of charity work can be tremendous and as far as the business opportunities are concerned, quite substantial.
However, it should be noted that this use of a “soft-power approach” is not unique in international affairs, and actually it has been a well-established tool for diplomatic services for decades now. There are different sets of powers using soft power approaches. First we have the former colonial powers such as France and UK and to a lesser extent Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. The aims of these countries stem from their bonds with their former colonies, their commercial interest and their will to have a global voice by cultivating linguistic and political ties with these countries.
Then we have the Scandinavian group (Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark) that are interested traditionally in keeping up a stern image of peace-loving nations and supporters of economic development. Scandinavian countries, due to their highly industrialized and technologically advanced societies, who happen to be small in numbers and in the periphery of the Northern Hemisphere, the main manner under which they can have a political impact is by providing charities to the so-called “Third world”. Also these societies have always yearned to be heard globally due to their historical isolation.
Another category is the countries of Germany and Japan. Due to the WW2 effects and the peculiar state of affairs since, their aim has been traditionally to escape from the past and emerge as nations aiming for global security and peace, through charity work amongst other. USA, Russia and China, is another group that performs charities mostly for the sake of political interests, since they all have global ambitions and are keen and cynic players in the world stage.
Lastly we have the category where Turkey is located along with Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Iran, Gulf States, Brazil, India, and Indonesia. These are all emerging market countries with ambitions of acquiring a regional role or a wider global role based mostly on the religious factor, in the case of Turkey, Sunni Islam of the so-called moderate fashion, along with the “Neo -Ottoman” tendency which is frequently being exported as a role model in the Balkan region.
Somalia is the African country where Turkey seems to have the most high-profile role nowadays. Aside from establishing several aid centers, schools, mosques and other facilities in the country, Turkey has given full scholarships to more than 1,000 Somali students to study at Turkish high schools and universities. There have been quite a few developments in Africa in general since 2007, with Turkish delegations having visited and participated in conference, forums and events in almost all Sub-Saharan African states. Nevertheless, the ambitions of Turkey in that Continent are counterbalanced by the ambitions of global players such as USA, China or the well-established presence of former European colonial powers. Somalia is a country devastated by wars, famines and dissolution of the social fabric, therefore the direction of the Turkish foreign policy it seems was to take advantage of the dire straits the Somalia society is in, so as to be able to gain a “soft-power” base rather easily. Estimations point out those similar moves by Turkey to Africa will be directed in the coming period in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria.
Turkey in Africa a rather new presence in the region and the most important countries involved in similar charity or business projects, have a achieved a long-lasting presence by either investing heavily, as is the case of China, or have committed substantial security guarantees, as is the case with USA which has a military Command for Africa (AFRICOM), that is actually very much involved in “Soft-Power” projects. The interesting fact around Turkey is the pace of activity its diplomatic efforts have been for Africa under Erdogan’s Administration, especially after his second electoral victory in 2007. Before that little attention was paid to Africa by Turkey.
It is assumed that Turkey will continue to pay attention to Somalia in particular, due to the piracy issue, since it offers diplomatic capabilities for Turkey to be involved in international culminations in such an important global security issue.
Almost all countries with either global ambitions of some sort (Political, economic), are all involved in establishing their soft power infrastructure into Africa. In the case of China for instance, this has resulted in bringing Africa closer to Beijing in diplomatic terms and has provided ample business opportunities for both sides. In the case of USA, it has resulted in a virtual political control of a significant area of Africa. In the case of European countries and the EU as a supranational organization, soft power has achieved the notion that Europe is a world mediator and a good-will actor, something that often translates into fruitful corporate and commercial arrangements and occasional diplomatic support in the UN, IMF and World Bank through the votes of the African countries.
In other regions the situation is similar, although fluctuations occur. In Latin America China is creating soft power webs of influence in Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru and increasingly Argentina that result often to business deals. In Southeastern Europe, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have invested billions of Dollars into boosting the presence of Wahhabis, with negative results for the local societies, including terrorism incidents. In June 2012 a lecturer in the Police Academy of FYROM relayed to the local press that Al Qaeda-like training camps exist in his country and further attacks against Christians should be expected.
In Central Asia, Turkey tried in the 90′s especially to reach out to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with no success due to the opposition by Russia and by the local elites that viewed any external influence as a danger for their survival. Attempts were intensified in these countries also after 2007, but the local governments reacted fiercely by confiscating assets of Turkish NGO’s and companies or prosecuting Turkish citizens involved.
Soft-power strategies in order to be successful needs a lot of available capital, a sophisticated state and non-state mechanism, political will, strategic global outlook, intercultural knowledge and sensitivity by the actors involved and integration of it, to the long-term visions that the prospective country has in mind. Moreover they need a solid cultural and historical base upon which they can reflect to other cultures. Thus, the tendency to use Ottoman Empire as a historical example by the modern Turkish state since it is viewed as the pinnaculum of cultural achievement by Ankara that could be exported as a “cultural best-practice” abroad.
In overall “Soft power, is not just a show of good-will but rather a carefully planned path that leads to the increase of the diplomatic capability of the country in question. Therefore the states that are able to amass all these qualities and abilities, are the ones that eventually are going to see their soft power approaches bear fruits and remain as such for the long-term.
The question that arises is what may happen if all these actors step up from their soft-power antagonism into a harder approach? History has showed that Africa and other regions will pay the price in terms of social unrest, conflicts and destabilization as each actor will try to advance it interests as it is vying for influence and power. The difference between soft and hard power it’s in the means. The ends are the same and it is the acquisition of power, control and wealth. Of course this  a cynic read of international relations, and as in ever social subject, it is only of subjective nature.
Turkish Soft Power in Albania
- On mid-May 2012 the infamous Turkish Islamic NGO “Humanitarian Relief Foundation” (Turkish name: Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardım Vakfı) organized a mass circumcision ceremony in Tirana-Albania for 500 local children. The organization was held with the assistance of the Municipality of Istanbul which is completely under the control of the AKP party. It was a first time since the 1930′s that such a ceremony was performed in Albania and was covered by Turkish media, although the Albanian ones kept a low profile on it. A delegation of Turkish Muftis and Islamic theologists travelled from Istanbul to attend and more than 3,000 locals viewed the ceremony and participated in the afterwards feast.
- The same period in Tirana an international conference on Sufism in the Balkans was organized by the department of Islamic theology of the Turkish “Konya Necmettin Erbakan University”. A delegation also from Istanbul theologists participated and Albanian Sufi representatives attended and expressed their views on how to enlarge this religious Islamic sect in the Balkan region.
- In early May the President of the Albanian Parliament Mrs. Topali during a visit of her Turkish counterpart Cemil Cicek in Tirana expressed her view that the Turkish nation “Has a lot of Albanian blood” and that “Turkey is a more than just a strategic ally to Albania and is a brotherly nation”. Cicek spoke along similar lines by hailing the “Turkish-Albanian brotherhood”.
- During the visit of Cicek who has accompanied by a delegation of Turkish Members of Parliament, a special trip was organized in the city of Shkondra, where tribute was paid to the monument of Hasan Riza Pasha (1871 – 1913) who was a general in the Ottoman Army. He was the son of Namik Pasha, Vali of Baghdad, and he was born in Baghdad. He was one of the commanders during the Siege of Scutari. He was shot dead by Osman Bali and Mehmet Kavaja, two Albanians who were servants of Essad Pasha. In parallel Cicek visited the Turkish cultural center “Junis Emre” that was established there in early 2012.
- This center is part of a wider “Soft-power” cultural centers network being established over the past few years by Turkey in several countries such as Albania, Iran, Jordan, Belgium, Georgia, UK, Japan, Kazakhstan, Cyprus (Occupied North), Kosovo, Lebanon, FYROM, Egypt, Romania, Syria. It is under the influence of the AKP government and can be considered as one of the basic elements of the “Turkish-Islamic soft power web of influence” presently.

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