Odds are that the Ottoman Empire will come back to life in the next few years, and when the rest of America goes into a foolish tizzy please remember that you read it here first at The Imaginative Conservative.
Barely even mentioned in Turkey’s English-language press, the Ottoman revival is nevertheless the new obsession of the political classes and cafe society in Istanbul and Ankara, and among leaders of many Muslim countries from Central Asia to the Middle East and beyond. Turkey’s Foreign Minister talks about it openly and it has all the hallmarks of success. Pruning away the hypotheticals, the Neo Ottoman Empire looks to return as a democratic federation or commonwealth of Muslim states based in Istanbul and led by the Turks, eventually with substantial economic and diplomatic power.
In addition to the rhetoric, preparations are well underway. Turkey no longer demands visas from Iraqis or Syrians and the process of opening borders seems destined to spread. Turkish tourist spots now throng with Middle Eastern visitors, and delegations from Afghanistan and Central Asia arrive frequently to discuss diplomatic and economic cooperation. Recently a deeply moderate and pro-Western Arab monarch described the process to a friend of mine who laughed and asked if the Ottoman Empire was coming back: the king smiled and replied: “It will be 100 times better than the American Empire.”
The driving force behind it is complicated but based on four factors and one non-factor, the first factor being a rejection of ethnic nationalism. “In 1922 everyone in Turkey pledged allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, whether one was a Turk, an Armenian, a Kurd, a Greek or a Jew,” a Turkish friend explains, “then suddenly, in 1923 we all had to claim to be Turks when many of us were not and are not. This isn’t about our genuine love for and loyalty to Turkey: it is about recognising our differences while we remain united.” Few worldwide deny the overall value of Attaturk’s nation-building and modernisation, but many Turkish nationals (including many ethnic Turks) have begun to question the wisdom of a system that enshrined Turkish ethnicity and ignored ancient minorities who still sometimes chafe under an ethno-nationalist redefinition that is only 80 years old. Their modern revisionist attitude has its proponents in many Muslim countries which, like Turkey, swept real ethnic or religious differences under the carpet during the tide of nationalism that swept the 20th Century and toppled colonial powers.
The second factor has to do with Turkey’s newfound and admirable prowess in economics and democracy. Growing at more than 7 percent a year while Europe festers, Turkey’s economy is one of the world’s strongest performers and sectors such as agribusiness, especially in the west along the Mediterranean, are of full international calibre. Exported Turkish technology, of good quality yet optimally uncomplicated, is highly welcome in many developing countries. Turkish science is sound and unusually useful, a world-leader in ecologically and regionally important areas such as dry-land farming; and fearless Turkish entrepreneurs will go anywhere – even in war-torn Afghanistan Turks are setting up construction and furniture-making companies with local partners. Meanwhile democracy, strengthening since the1980s, now seems to be a comfortably permanent part of Turkish governance and culture. It is no surprise that people in developing countries around the world look to Turkey with undisguised admiration, particularly in those Muslim countries suffering poverty and injustice under kleptocratic, undemocratic regimes.
The third factor is that nature abhors a diplomatic vacuum and the Turks are well-situated to fill the void of leadership across the Muslim world. The OIC (The Organisation of the Islamic Conference) is a mere talking shop of 56 Muslim countries dominated by squabbling Arabs, while for a thousand years various Arab leaders turned to Turks for efficient administration and sometimes handed them their government altogether. Moreover, there seems to be a growing recognition across the Muslim world that if moderates do not unite effectively, the radicals will. It could be that the alternative to a Neo Ottoman Federation in Istanbul is a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda-led caliphate stretching from Pakistan to Chechnya, from the Caucasus to western China.
The fourth factor is that Turkey, a secular state for almost a century, seems to be finding a common ground of moderacy and Islam that has a willing audience at home and across the Muslim world. Remember that the religious hierarchies that manage change in the Catholic Church and Shia Islam do not exist among the Sunni Muslims, for whom every day is a religious debate with no mechanism for counting the votes. This structural vacuum gives undeserved weight to radical opinions that resonate well in sensationalist media. A Sunni (or Pan-Islamic, Sunni-Shia) commonwealth led by Turks would create a powerful platform for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide who want more democracy, economic growth and greater justice within a new system that is neither hostile to their faith nor run by radicals.
Paralysed by fear of radical Islamism, Westerners and their media tend to see every event in any Muslim country through an Islamist lens, so when they watch the Turks they miss the main event. Mr. Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, holds his position largely unchallenged principally because he is a dynamic moderniser, not because his political party has a mildly Islamic focus unseen since independence. As mayor of Istanbul (now with 15 million inhabitants) in 1994-1998, he transformed it into a modern European city with fully dependable water and electricity services, good public transport, handsome parks, insignificant crime, etc. Turkish friends who have been lifelong Social Democrats finally confess that Mr Erdogan has a vision and a capacity to deliver that the other political parties lack. His dramatic economic reforms have opened the country to competition and foreign investment at a level unseen in the world since 1991 in India under then-Finance Minister (now PM) Dr. Manmohan Singh. So Turkey, with one foot in Europe, is growing economically at 7.3 percent, a rate unseen outside of South Asia and the Far East.
As Turkey’s economic capitol, Istanbul fills with new middle class people from the provinces who bring with them their familiar rural ways including ladies wearing headscarves (as every woman in my American Catholic family once wore to church). As a liberal, social-democrat, Istanbulu friend asks: “why shouldn’t they be allowed into a university or a post office, for Heaven’s sake?” Mrs Erdogan, the Turkish First Lady who is also an academic, gently touched the arm of an obsessive foreign reporter and said, “We’re only covering our heads, dear. We don’t cover our brains.” Radical, Wahabi-style, Islam is simply not a part of Turkey: Mr Erdogan’s reforms are seen by even many liberal Turks as restoring some basic, democratically-driven decency to where Attaturk’s enforced secularism went overboard.
The non-factor is Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union. Turks, being nobody’s fools, are by now quite familiar with the European Powers “moving the goal-posts” every time that Turkey achieves another of the ever-increasing requirements for membership. Nor are they deaf to the anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish rhetoric of Europe’s far-right parties and the fancy footwork of some moderate European leaders (e.g., French, Dutch and Germans) to seize ownership of the issue without looking (too) bigoted. Nor have they failed to notice the largely bankrupt and/or corrupt Third Class European countries admitted to the EU ahead of them, which are far less responsible or democratic or stable than Turkey (the Romanians for example). Turks, justifiably proud people, have largely come to recognise that while they have sent their sons to die for NATO for more than half a century starting in the Korean War, most of their European neighbours regard them as undesirables, heathens and people of colour, and Turkey will be admitted to Europe about three weeks after Hell freezes over. As practical as they are proud, the Turks have mostly stopped caring about it. The EC may fragment and the European economy is anyway on a path to perdition which will only accelerate once their low birth-rates and demographic costs kick in. On a recent visit to Istanbul, my well-received party-piece was an only-semi-tongue-in-cheek prediction that in ten years Europe will apply to join Turkey. So, remaining loyal NATO members and business partners with Europe and diplomatic allies with the West, the Turks quietly potter along building the Neo Ottoman commonwealth that they hope will equally benefit Turkey, Muslim participant nations and the world.
Turkey’s dedication to its Western allies remains unassailable. Its formidable conscript army fought as NATO members in the Korean War and serve in Afghanistan today. Mr Erdogan’s political and philosophical guru has lived for many years in Pennsylvania – initially he refused to go home for fear of harm from the Turkish army, but now he is said to remain there because he does not want his return to inflame supporters and unduly influence the ever-strengthening democratic process. Whatever the reason, he chooses to live in America and not Saudi Arabia or Iran or anywhere else.
Turkey recently lent emergency equipment and fire-fighters to Israel, but it also supports justice for the Palestinians and sent a shipload of protesters there. Palestine is an issue where Turkish – and indeed world – opinion stands athwart America. Turkey seems to pursue this diplomatic goal in an even-handed way, neither resorting to immoderate Arab rhetoric nor demonising Israel with whom they remain allies. This, strengthening Turkey’s moral leadership among Muslim (and particularly Arab) peoples while remaining a loyal friend of the West, underscores the possible success of the Neo-Ottoman confederacy with support from even America and Western Europe – either as wholly desirable or as a least-worst option to a radical Islamist caliphate now trying to form in Pakistan and the environs. Americans cannot always depend on always having everything their own way, even if that realisation comes slowly to Washington.
Reporting on nuclear matters, the BBC reports that this week: “Negotiators from China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and US will meet their Iranian counterparts on Friday and Saturday in a restored Ottoman Palace on the edge of the Bosphorus. The talks will be chaired by European Union foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton. Ahead of the summit, US state department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was “not expecting any big breakthroughs”. Maybe not, but the Americans are attending this major conference and it is the Turks bringing all parties to the table (as they tried to do over Iran in 2010 with Brazil, which is another dynamic role model for the developing world).
To be fully viable, a Neo Ottoman federation particularly needs participation from the corrupt, puppet government of Egypt and the political dreadfuls mismanaging Iran. But the patient, phlegmatic Turks keep plugging away one step at a time; and judging by their recent successes democratically, economically and diplomatically they may just succeed.
In his well-researched and hugely entertaining history of Ottoman Istanbul (“Istanbul: City of the World’s Desire”), Philip Mansel recounts an Istanbulu family in 1923 when Attaturk had banned the fez: they wrap up their red headgear carefully and stow it in the attic ‘just in case.’ It may have been a prudent move: I hope that their grandchildren kept them.
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