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Middle East

The neo-Ottoman issue

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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.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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Middle East

Saudi-Turkey Discourse: Is a Resolve Imminent?

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The two prominent Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had an undulating relationship over the course of decades and despite of the geographical and religious proximity, the two have rarely been on the same page. Recent tide over the relation is an outcry by the Saudi Chambers of Commerce to ‘Boycott everything Turkish’. Allegedly the boycott spans over a wide range: level of investment in the country, tourism interchange and even the imports are to be curbed. This was deemed as a “moral responsibility” of every Saudi citizen against the nation’s enemies; as per the statement of Saudi’s Chamber of Commerce head Ajlan Al Ajlan.

The duo have taken opposing sides for decades, especially when it narrows down to regional conflicts. The history relays strong relations between the two Sunni-majority Muslim countries, however, with polar position in the Syrian crisis followed by a blood-ridden civil war, the relations never recovered to a modest degree. The Saudi Kingdom, under the premiership of Muhammad Bin Salman, shifted its Syria policy in late 2018, seeking to normalize Assad’s regime while Turkey continued to support the opposing forces. Meanwhile, in Libya, Riyadh aided warlord Khalifa Haftar, while Ankara intervened to channel militarily assistance to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

The relations between the two Islamic nations were again triggered by the statement of Turkish president, Receb Tayyib Erdogen, accusing the Gulf nations for the instability in the region. This was the statement that incited such a hoarse reaction from the economic entity within the kingdom. The tie between the two was never a strong one but a major incident strained the relations back in 2018. The murder of Saudi citizen and a columnist of The Washington Post, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, back in October 2018 set all fires loose when Saudi government was outright accused of involvement in the brutal murder at Saudi Consulate. The Turkish president went as far as insinuating the involvement of crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in the gruesome murder. Earlier in 2017, Ankara stood as a vital support mechanism, alongside Tehran,to Doha in terms of the rudimentary facets of finance and military when Qatar was excluded and sectionalised by Saudi Arabia and its allies on account of close affiliation with rebellious groups in the region backed by Iran; accounts that were repeatedly denied by the Qatari regime.

The two Islamic republics have been at head once again ever since the recent controversial decision of UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to join hands and normalise relations with Israel came to light. Turkey and Iran, despite of the Shia-Sunni disparity, have relatively been close in ties since both have stood at odds with the foreign involvement in the region while Saudi Arabia has welcomed it with open arms. Even with the normalisation of relations with Israel, UAE and Bahrain met heavy criticism around the Muslim world but majorly championed by Iran and Turkey: former calling the move as a “Stab in the back” while the latter threatening to sever ties with the Gulf states. Both the statements were shrugged by the Saudi representatives as an ‘internal matter’ and warning the duo to refrain from interference. The Saudi position on the normalisation was clear when Israeli flights were allowed to fly through the Kingdom’s airspace en route to UAE.

The growing animosity is not novel between the duo as they have been in contrasting positions on multiple foreign policy issues and have even held starkly different positions over the islamist groups operating in the west European region. Although Saudi government officials have not confirmed the implication of the statement of its Chamber of Commerce, the signs of blooming tensions were sensed earlier this year. Even pre-Covid, the tourism dropped 17% between the countries and Turkey, being the 12th highest trade partner of the kingdom, saw a steady decline in bi-lateral trade. Albeit the externalities of the pandemic, the relations continue to deteriorate, and the signs might turn more apparent over time.

Now with Mr. Joe Biden prepared to take on the United States’ foreign policy, the Middle East would be the prime focus as per his pensive thoughts over the issues of the region. As he mentioned to ‘Reassess’ the relations with Saudi Arabia, the regard is clearly in terms of Saudi’s nefarious role in fanning the steps of Trump in the region, more specifically its involvement in the Yemen civil war and the controversial killing of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi. With isolation looming and need for solid alliance for better foundations for US relations, Saudi Arabia may have started with reconciling with Qatar but Turkey is optimistically the next on the radar.

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Middle East

Why is Melih Bulu Seen as a Pro-AKP “Trustee” Rector?

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Photo: Youth Committees / Twitter

The new year started under the shadow of social tensions triggered by Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Professor Melih Bulu had founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent AK Party in 2002. Bulu who in 2015 became a candidate for being a deputy from AK Party could not gain nomination to run in the elections. Bulu also worked as a rector in two private universities before: İstinye University and Haliç University.

On December 31 2020, Bulu was the rectorate of Haliç University. The abrupt appointment of Bulu as the rector to Turkey’s most prestigious university prompted a major outrage since the move was regarded as a direct interruption of academic freedom.

Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University caused a large unrest among Bosphorus students, graduates and scholars. In addition, people coming from different sectors of society who are critical of Erdoğan administration have also joined the “anti-Bulu” protest campaign on social media. After Bulu’s appointment, Bosphorus University students protested the appointment on social media by using the hashtag #KayyumRektörİstemiyoruz (“We don’t want a trustee rector”). For a couple of days, students of Bosphorus University have been making protests calling Bulu to resign. However Bulu posted an announcement on his Twitter account saying that he will embrace everyone and he is very excited and happy for his new duty.

After Bulu’s appointment, not just his political identity affiliated with AK Party was put under debate but also his academic background was put under scrutiny as well. Allegations of plagiarism against him broke out especially on Twitter. Bulu defined these allegations as “slander” and argued that this was the literature survey part of his PhD thesis and said, “I did not write some parts between quotation marks. We did not have something written available. There were different citation rules but I put it in the bibliography section.”

According to the Global Academic Freedom Index Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is in the similar level with Syria and Turkmenistan.

In previous weeks, journalist Cüneyt Özdemir hosted Bulu in his live Youtube programme and in live broadcast, Bulu saluted the students from the window of his office at rectorate building while the students yelled asking for his resign and this act of Bulu caused surprises and ironies on social media. Amid this environment, on January 5, a group of Bosphorus University academics staged a peaceful protest by standing with their backs to the rectorate building during the handover ceremony for Bulu. The academics of Bosphorus University  made a public statement underlining that this appointment is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

Their full statement is as follows:

“’We don’t accept, we don’t give up!’

On January 1, 2021 at midnight, an academic outside Bogazici University community was appointed as rector, which is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university. We refuse to compromise the principles the University Senate officially stated in 2012:

1. To enhance scientific research and social development, it is indispensable that universities be free from any pressure or influence from a person or an institution and not be used as a political tool.

2. For academic freedom, it is imperative that decision-making processes be delegated to democratically elected academic administrators and boards. All academic administrators including the Rector, Deans, Directors of Institute, Directors of Schools and Department Heads can be appointed only after being elected by the university community.

3. As universities are autonomous constitutional establishments, it is vital that university instructors and/or university boards decide on academic programs and research policies, which is an essential prerequisite for scientific freedom and creativity.

We strictly adhere to the principles above and we pledge to follow them up with all the other members of our university community.”

On the other hand, police forces detained more than 20 university students in home raids after the protests against the appointment of Bulu. In the mainstream pro-government media actors’ coverage of these events, it is argued that the detained people are not students, but they are members of illegal organizations whereas Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s current provincial president in Istanbul rejected this and argued that they are students.

According to Althusser (1971), the modern state keeps the authority and control through two main systems: Repressive State Apparatuses & Ideological State Apparatuses. One of  areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. In this regard, Erdoğan’s appointment of Bulu can be seen as a step of using ideological state apparatuses.

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