Turkey is currently pursuing the following aims: 1) becoming a Eurasian regional power; 2) later uniting all Turkmen ethnic groups from Anatolia to Xinjiang; 3) finally becoming a leading country in the Sunni Muslim world.
With specific reference to the first aim, the relationship between Turkey and the United States is at the lowest ebb since the last ten years.
The Turkish leader blames the United States for the Turkish Lira crisis of August 2018 – and not without reason – while he does not clearly take into account the US strategy in Syria, where Turkey has reached a stable agreement with the Russian Federation and – in December 2018 – also with Iran.
In Syria Turkey wants above all to avoid the stabilisation of a large Kurdish internal area.
Initially Turkey thought that in Syria, as elsewhere, the Arab “spring” would favour the Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which would enable the Anatolian country to increase its role and expand its influence throughout the Arab world.
This could explain Erdogan’s initial harshness against Syria.
Nevertheless the situation in Syria developed in a different way and Erdogan readily adapted to be on the winners’ side.
The Turkish leader has recently hit the Kurds in Afrin, Syria, because he wants to win the next local elections scheduled for March 31 next.
Anti-Kurdish nationalism is still a winning factor at electoral level.
Moreover, the AKP government of the President (of the Turkish Party and of the State) is increasingly dependent on the coalition National Movement Party (MHP) (also known as the Nationalist Action Party) which is both heir to Atatűrk’s ideology and a very strong opponent of any negotiation with the Kurds.
The assassination of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, that took place in Turkey, was an issue handled by Erdogan to harm the Saudi power throughout the Middle East and hit the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Once again, however, he was not successful.
Saudi Arabia preserved its Arab and Middle East sphere of influence and the United States remained its staunch ally.
The Saudi Kingdom has also recently refused to grant to Turkey the possibility of building a base on its territory, while it is instead building its own military centre in Djibouti.
Another important strategic factor is the evident support provided by Turkey to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact, Turkey is funding many mosques in Africa and Latin America and it is thus reviving the myth of the Ottoman Empire, as the last bulwark of Sunni Islam and of the Turkish nation.
Turkey still hosts many Muslim Brotherhood’s operative leaders who fled Egypt after Morsi’s fall and Al Sisi’s coup.
Erdogan’s support for Hamas is well known, and Hamas is Ikhwan’s Palestinian armed wing, which recycles large funds, preferably in Turkish banks.
Moreover, Turkey supports many Muslim Brotherhood’s organizations also in the United States.
Obviously, Erdogan’s clear support for the Muslim Brotherhood puts him in trouble with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, but it also creates a strong strategic relationship with Qatar, as we have already seen in the Libyan crisis.
The very recent agreement with Iran is based on the fact that Turkey and Iran have the same interests in Syria, i.e. to support Syria without this country harming their interests.
Many years ago the confrontation focused on a Turkish-Israeli link as against a bilateral relationship between Syria and Iran.
Erdogan, however, no longer wants close relations with the Jewish State, and the Iranian and Turkish vision on the Palestinian issue is the same.
The Turkish project for a joint Islamic seat at the United Nations is still in place, but it would demonstrate a now reached, but impossible, Turkish hegemony over the whole Islamic world.
In Syria, however, the Turkish government is pursuing what the United States has already accomplished, unconsciously, with its leaving Syria, i.e. the weakening of the Syrian Democratic Forces, militarily led by the Kurds, that still control slightly less than a third of the Syrian territory.
Furthermore, the United States has recently sold the Patriot anti-missile networks to Turkey.
The Turks’ war against the Syrian Kurds will be a long-lasting war, also protected by the naive West.
This will create a further opportunity for hegemonic mediation by Russia, which has great credibility for both the Turks and the Syrians and Kurds.
However, how many Turkish-origin populations are in Asia and Africa whom Erdogan wants to use in his neo-Ottoman project?
There is a large majority of Turks in Azerbaijan, who account for 62.1% of the population.
There is also a significant number of Turks in Uzbekistan, but there are still no reliable statistics in this regard.
There are approximately 150,000 Turks in Kazakhstan, but the so-called “ethnic” Turks are even more.
In Turkmenistan, almost all inhabitants are original Turks, i.e. 4,248,000 people.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz people themselves are an ethnic group of Turkish origin, who account for 70.9% of the whole population.
The strategy implemented by Erdogan to build the Asian “Greater Turkey” is based above all on soft power.
This obviously means large trade and economic exchanges in the “Turkmen” regions of Central Asia, especially in the construction, textile and service sectors.
In particular, however, the Turkish soft power is strengthened with the distribution of popular TV series, as well as with university exchanges and Islamic proselytism, in clear competition with Saudi Arabia.
There is also a military side in this soft strategic influence: Turkey trains several officers from the Central Asian Republics, in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
At economic level, Turkey provides funds, technologies and its Mediterranean ports to the Turkish ethnic groups in the Central Asian region, while it receives oil and gas in exchange.
There is also the TÜRKSOY, a sort of UNESCO for Turkish-speaking countries, and a Turkish Council, i.e. a multinational Parliament for the Turkish-speaking countries.
Mention should also be made of the Turkish Academy and of the Turkish Business Council.
Obviously Turkey’s penetration is disliked by Russia, but so far there have been no specific tensions between the two countries.
Among the Central Asian countries, Turkey has the most significant relationship with Kazakhstan, with which it has also established a Strategic Partnership.
Furthermore, Turkey actively supported the accession of this Asian country to the WTO, as well as to the OSCE.
A corridor between Turkey and the Caucasus was also built.
Economic relations, however, are mainly held through close relations with the AKP, the Turkish majority Party that is at the core of the State.
Nevertheless aid to Central Asia must consider and come to terms with the large sums that Turkey spends on aid to Africa.
With specific reference to the expansion of Turkish Islam in Asia (and Africa), two factors must be taken into account: the Muslim religious renaissance after the fall of the USSR and the large spreading of the mystical tradition typical of the naqshibendyya or naqsbandyyain Central Asia.
It is an Islamic mystical order that claims to be based on the tradition of Caliph Abu Bakr, namely the first Companion of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
It is a religious line of descent that is also linked to Abu Talib bin Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, the first Shia Imam, through Jafar al-Sadiq.
However, historically, the initial and also the current teachings of the Brotherhood derive from Yussufal-Hamadani.
The line of the Brotherhood is above all mystical, such as to spread the Qur’anic teaching and the Sunnah “sayings” in the mind, behaviours and feelings, up to reaching a complete Imitatio Prophetii.
For example, as soon as the Soviet State materialism was over, the new Central Asian regimes reopened the memorial of Bahauddin Naqshband (the founder of the sect) in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
In Kazakhstan, the new regime publicly follows the dictates of Ahmed Yassavi, the founder of Yasawiyya, an Islamic poet and mystic who was the first to have great religious influence on the whole Turkish-speaking world.
All these initiatives, in addition to other similar ones, were carried out with Turkish funds.
It should also be recalled that there is a large presence of Turkish-speaking populations who still live in the Russian Federation, such as the Tofalar in Southern Siberia, apart from the four Central Asian Turkish-speaking republics and the only one that speaks Persian (Farsi), namely Tajikistan.
In Russia, there are also Turkish-speaking areas on Central Asia’s borders, with the Tatars in Crimea and on the border between the Chinese Xinjiang and Central Russia.
Clearly the core of Turkey’s geopolitics in the region is the union of all Turkish-speaking areas.
It should also be recalled, however, that at the beginning of the first millennium BC, the Turkish populations spread in Central Asia starting from the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia.
They were subsequently absorbed by the previous nomadic populations.
In the eleventh century AD, however, the Turks reappeared on the borders of Asia Minor, in Anatolia, at the time controlled by the Greeks.
Many Turks of the time were mercenaries serving Arabs and Persians, but in 1037 the Seljuk Empire was established, i.e. a State of Turkish ethnicity, born in North-Eastern Iran, which quickly conquered Iran itself, as well as Iraq and much of the East, in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.
It is worth recalling that, at the time, the Turks were a minority that ruled a large majority of other Turks, Iranians and Arabs.
Later, with the dissolution of the Central Asian Byzantine and Armenian Empires, the Turks – the only well-armed and homogeneous group -rose to power also there and led to a Turkification of the masses, starting from their ruling elites.
Hence this is what is currently happening in Central Asia, with Erdogan’s new cultural, ethnic and political expansion of Turkey.
It is the return of current Turkey to its historical and political-military origins.
The fallacy of soccer’s magical bridge-building qualities
Imagining himself as a peacemaker in a conflict-ridden part of the world, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sees a 2022 World Cup shared by Qatar with its Gulf detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the magic wand that would turn bitter foes into brothers.
It may be a nice idea, but it is grounded in the fiction that soccer can play an independent role in bringing nations together or developing national identity.
The fiction is that soccer has the potential to be a driver of events, that it can spark or shape developments. It is also the fiction that sports in general and soccer in particular has the power to build bridges.
Mr. Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite.
In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield. Examples abound.
The 2022 World Cup; this year’s Qatari Asian Cup victory against the backdrop of the Gulf state’s rift with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt; the imprint the Palestinian-Israeli conflict puts on the two nations’ soccer; or the rise of racist, discriminatory attitudes among fans in Europe.
The Bad Blue Boys, hardcore fans of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, light candles each May and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. They mark the anniversary of a riot during the 1990 match against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, their club’s most controversial match, as the first clash in the wars that erupted a year later and sparked the collapse of former Yugoslavia.
Fact of the matter is that sports like ping pong in Richard Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with China or the improvement of ties between North and South Korea in the most recent Summer Olympics served as a useful tool, not a driver of events.
Sports is a useful tool in an environment in which key political players seek to build bridges and narrow differences.
The impact of soccer in the absence of a conducive environment created by political not sports players, is at best temporary relief, a blip on an otherwise bleak landscape.
The proof is in the pudding. Legend has it that British and German soldiers played soccer in no-man’s lands on Christmas Day in 2014, only to return to fighting World War One for another four years. Millions died in the war.
Similarly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites poured into the streets of Iraqi cities hugging each other in celebration of Iraq’s winning in 2007 of the Asia Cup at the height of the country’s sectarian violence only to return to killing each other a day later.
Soccer’s ability to shape or cement national identity is no different. In other words. football can be a rallying point for national identity but only if there is an environment that is conducive.
The problem is that soccer and the formation of national identity have one complicating trait in common: both often involve opposition to the other.
That is nowhere truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer has played and plays an important role in identity formation since it was first introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Qatar has been in some ways the exception that proves the rule by plotting its sports strategy not only as a soft power tool or a pillar of public health policy but also as a component of national identity. That element has been strengthened by the rift in the Gulf and bolstered by this year’s Asian Cup victory.
Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its national identity benefits from the fact that the Gulf state no longer operates on the notion that Gulf states have to hang together. Today its hanging on its own in a conflict with three of its neighbours.
Soccer’s role in identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa was often because it was a battlefield, a battlefield for identity that was part of larger political struggles.
Clubs were often formed for that very reason. Attitudes towards the country’s monarchy in the early 20th century loomed large in the founding of Egypt’s Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most storied clubs.
Clubs in Algeria were established as part of the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ottoman and Iranian rulers used sports and soccer to foster national identity and take a first step towards incorporating youth in the development of a modern defense force.
Zionists saw sports and soccer as an important way of developing the New Jew, the muscular Jew. To Palestinians, it was a tool in their opposition to Zionist immigration. And finally, soccer was important in the shaping of ethnic or sub-national identities among Berbers, Kurds, East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians.
In other words, soccer was inclusive in the sense of contributing to the formation of a collective identity. But it was also divisive because that identity was at the same time exclusionary and opposed to an other.
The long and short of this is that soccer is malleable. Its impact and fallout depend on forces beyond its control. Soccer is dependent on the environment shaped by political and social forces. It is a tool that is agnostic to purpose, not a driver or an independent actor.
Edited remarks at Brookings seminar in Doha: Lessons from the 2019 Asian Cup: Sports, Globalization, and Politics in the Arab World
Syrian Coup de Grâce
The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.
The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays. The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.
Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.
What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”
The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.
With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.
Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.
The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.
The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch
When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.
Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.
Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”
Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”
Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”
Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.
The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.
As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.
Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.
Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.
It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.
On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.
The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.
Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.
Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.
Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.
Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.
While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.
The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.
The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.
The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.
To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.
The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.
“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.
The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.
Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..
Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.
“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.
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