Over the past several years, Muslims’ fascination with Turkey has been visible in numerous areas including associating Turkey with its historical Ottoman legacy. The Turks link it to the Islamic institution of the Khilafah. This aspect greatly adds to Turkey’s soft power appeal. Thus, overall Turkey’s soft-power appeal is rooted in its history, culture and geography.
Recently one of the key instruments of Turkish soft power has been its widely popular Ertugrul TV series which has gained popularity among Muslims and non-Muslims. The narrative in the TV series projects the Turks’ view of their nation state as continuation of the Islamic governing system of the Prophet (pbuh) established in Madinah and their national interest inseparable from Islam’s interests. This vision when implemented as a policy by an Islamically unqualified cadre, leads to confusion and unnecessary conflict, as some of Ankara’s policies post-Islamic Awakening events (aka the Arab Spring) showed. Many of Turkey’s paradoxical stances created unnecessary geopolitical dilemmas for the country.
Ankara’s ability to market Ertugrul throughout the Muslim world, greatly worried the Arab potentates. One of the many lessons presented in the Ertugrul series is how an Islamic oriented movement must grow into a full-fledged state system, a message coupled with hints to the AKP’s path to power. While this message is easily discernible, the deeper insight signaled by the series is that for Turks who are of nomadic origins, possessing a state of their own and advancing the interests of that state are the foremost priority. This is one of the reasons that there are numerous Turkic states in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) and one in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan. As soon as Turkic tribes accumulated power, they immediately built a state, a strategy derived from bitter experience of being stateless nomads, a message repeated over and over in the Ertugrul series. Understanding this narrative is essential in understanding why Turkey opted for certain policies during and after the Islamic Awakening process.
After the Islamic Awakening process (Arab Spring) in 2011, Turkey attempted to present itself as the champion of Islamic minded organizations among Sunni Muslim Arab countries. Ankara’s pursuit of this strategy began to crumble quickly once the current Turkish leadership began to build its policies on a gamble to become the new Ottoman sultanate by riding on Washington’s back. In Egypt, the Turkish government only intervened on behalf of the people when the US regime abandoned the lon-time dictator Hosni Mubarak (he died on February 25). However, nothing demonstrated the failure of aligning Turkey’s goals with Washington’s illegitimate regional presence more than Ankara’s poorly thought-out policy in Syria. Prior to the war on Syria, the country was a geopolitical, trade and cultural window for Turkey into the Arab world.
According to data provided by the Atlantic Council, “Turkey exported goods to Syria worth $1.8 billion in 2010, [of its total exports] of $113 billion. In 2012, Turkey’s trade volume with Syria deteriorated to $497 million.”
After the death of Hafiz al-Asad, his son, Bashar began to introduce some reforms in the Baathist regime in Damascus. Ankara and some other Western powers like France, quickly tried to cease the momentum and use it as a political opportunity to drive Syria away from the resistance project in the Muslim world led by Islamic Iran. In April 2009, Turkey and Syria held joint military exercises. Erdogan even became the middleman between Israel and Syria. According to the Brookings Institute’s report in 2009 in an interview in April of that year with the Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Asad said that under Turkish mediation, Israel and Syria had come closer than ever before to a peace agreement.
In the build up to events in 2011, as pointed out by Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, to PBS, “Syrians and Turks began visiting each other’s countries for shopping and vacations, and in the process discovered a common cultural bond. The Turks said ‘[Syria] looks like us. This is our history; this is some of the best Ottoman architecture and great souks (street markets)’.” This positive cultural affinity of Turks towards Syria should not be underestimated as Turks saw similarities between two secular political systems with an “Islamic” flavor. The Baath party being a secular organization, but with very close ties to Islamic Iran and the AKP being partly secular and partly Islamic, made the two systems particularly close to one another in many political and cultural settings.
It should be kept in mind that Turkey’s attractiveness to many Muslim societies has been its secularism as well, mainly due to a relatively functioning electoral process. This appeal was particularly strong to the Turkic societies of Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Arab countries suffering under autocratic rulers. In part, this was promoted by the Western powers, as they found the Turkish Muslim political model a more acceptable form of Islam within a governance system of a state. This acceptability is even present today, but with greater tactical tensions between the West and Turkey.
After the AKP was elected to govern Turkey in 2002, its political methodology appealed to many Arab Islamic organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. An Islamic oriented movement worked its way up through a political process. However, Turkey’s political circumstances were quite different from the socio-political settings in most Arab countries. This is something the Islamic movements in the Arab world need to pay attention to.
On a cultural level the Turkish movie industry has been pushing a message in the Arab world which some Arabs summarized in the following words; “you can be Muslim, and you can be modern. They show that part of life (that) some of the Arabic people (are) deprived of – technology, nice living, modern life. They show the part of life that we don’t have in some of our countries… It (the series) shows all the Muslim people can be open minded, open life, they can have modern life style.” This narrative is acceptable to Western powers and their puppet regimes, since most of the modern Turkish soap operas appeal to basic instincts mainly and are in-line with the West’s soft-power. The British newspaper, the Guardian even described the popular Turkish soap opera Magnificent Century as an “Ottoman-era Sex and the City.” However, this sort of narrative would only appeal to a limited urban population in the Muslim world, as Islam is a far more powerful force for social mobilization, rather than Western secular-liberalism. It appears that brighter minds in Turkey understood this reality and opted for promoting Turkish series with an Islamic ethos.
Turkey’s politics in the Muslim world is driven with an objective to become the dominant narrative setter among the Sunni Muslim portion of the Islamic world. One of the obstacles in achieving this goal from a soft-power angle is that the concept of Turkishness is strongly embedded in Turkish soft-power, which limits its impact outside of Central Asia.
The concept of Turkishness has been drilled into Turkish political culture and foreign policy through Western proxies when Turkey was ruled by Western supported militant secularists. As pointed out by Ismail Kara, one of the foremost academic experts on Turkish Islamism in an interview with meydan.com; “It was not without reason that the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) under the leadership of Alpaslan Türkeş (who came from a Racist-Turanist line revised their party slogan in 1969 to ‘We are as Turkish as the Mountain of God (Tanrı dağı) and as Muslim as Mount Hira.’ Even in the period of secular politics that saw its most crude and lowest level during the Republican period, the elites facilitated the circulation of notions such as ‘Turkish Muslim identity’ (Türk Müslümanlığı), ‘The Prophet Muhammad’s Turkishness’ (Hz. Muhammed’in Türklüğü), and ‘the Turkish Qur’an’ (Türkçe Kur’an) and allowed it to exist in official discourse.”
The infusion of the above concepts into Turkish foreign policy was mainly because until recently, Turkey’s foreign policy and soft power was primarily an instrument of NATO towards Central Asia. Ankara pursued strategic policies designed in Washington that were presented as serving “Turkish national interest” under the label of Pan-Turkism. Therefore, one could not draw a distinction between the US, British, Israeli or Turkish agendas until recently. Turkey was a pawn used by the US against China, Russia and Islamic Iran. Under the concept of Pan-Turkism, NATO aimed to foster separatism within the Turkic people living in Russia, China and Iran. This policy assumed that through Pan-Turkism Russia will be distracted from its involvement in Eastern Europe; China would be diverted from the Taiwan Straits in the Pacific and Iran would scale back its support for the Palestinian cause.
While Pan-Turkism is no longer a crucial part of Turkish soft-power and its foreign policy, it still plays a major part. For Turkey it creates an obstacle to advance its soft power because all that the Western powers need to do is point it out and reignite nationalist feelings within Arab societies. Thus, while so-called Turkishness is good for domestic public consumption, it creates a strong invisible barrier to Turkish foreign policy and its soft power appeal.