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Turkish Islamic soft power strategies

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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.

Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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