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Employing identity Conflicts: Turkey between Secular Ruins and Ottoman Caliphate Endeavors

The ongoing identity conflict on the Turkish arena is an important indicator to understanding the nature of the new Ottoman project and subjecting it to academic and scientific analysis; in addition to its importance in answering a number of questions that make both the project and the conflict subject to clash, alliance or intersection with other regional projects, and threatening to the interests of a number of players on the Middle East stage. 

This was clearly evident after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist party came to office on the ruins of the secular republic and its founder Ataturk. Erdogan built his political dream on the rubbles of the Ottoman caliphate and its extended history of domination, expansion, occupation, and conquest, and the resulting defeats, massacres, clashes with nationalities and ethnicities, plunder, looting, and the destruction of both wealth and identities in the region. 

The identity conflict is also an important indicator to understand the resolutions, moves and policies of Erdogan and his regime: his provocation of what the West dubs the “international legal chaos” in north Syria, Iraq and the East Mediterranean, his provocation of Greece, Cypris, and France, his challenge to the European Union, and his attempts to stir up disagreement and controversy in the NATO. Erdogan uses the card of terrorist groups in different regions, the last of which was in western Libya. And lest one forgets, the expansion in Mali, Niger, the Sahel and Sahara, Ankara’s attempts to influence and control theatres of maritime operations in the region as well those in the Arab system, such as Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen and Mauritania. Finally, he has also clashed with major powers in the Arab world such as Egypt, the KSA, the UAE, with whom direct and indirect interests intersect. 

Turkey threatens the regional stability of its neighbouring countries. The Turkish president repeatedly used “identity wars” as a fuel for his political project that is based on exploiting the available tools under that umbrella, especially the “caliphate soldiers”, who are terrorist groups on the regional and international fronts.  

Even television dramas that relate the victories of Ottoman figures in history are employed, nationally and internationally, to revive the Ottoman project, promote its idea, and manage wars and sectarian conflicts in the region. The report that was recently published by Foreign Policy magazine on the effect the Turkish television series “Ertuğrul” had on a number of Islamic countries shows how Turkish drama invaded Pakistan, the country that has a special importance for the American strategy for combating terrorism, and that exists in the conflict focus zone between India and China. The magazine indicated Erdogan’s keenness to visit the studios of the television series, that was distributed in 72 countries, under the auspices of the Justice and Development Party, that described the influence of the series as “melting the hearts of all Muslims.”

The geography and history dilemma 

On the 78th anniversary of the death of the founder of modern Turkey Kemal Ataturk in 2016, before a crowd of his Ottoman project supporters, Erdogan said “I commemorate with grace Ghazi Mustafa Kemal, the founder of our republic, on the 78th anniversary of his passing to eternity.” He added “we confront those who try to limit the history of our country and nation to 90 years. We must take all precautions including reviewing school books starting with elementary stages.” He also affirmed: “In other words, we cannot be confined to 780,000 square kilometres because our physical boundaries are different from the boundaries of our heart.” 

Erdogan’s tendencies are in line with his recent statements after the maritime demarcation agreement between Egypt and Greece, and the earlier maritime demarcation accord between Egypt and Cyprus. The importance of this internationally-recognized demarcation is that the close Greek islands imposed a geographical and economic blockade on Turkey, placed it before limited sea areas, and nipped Erdogan’s dreams and ambitions of expansion, control and domination of wealth in the region.  

The statement about the history of the country and its borders reveal the features of Erdogan’s Ottoman project, through which he affirmed his trust in deepening his ideology within society, his desire to launch phase two of the Turkish state, and the return of Turkey’s role and historic right, according to his own perspective and beliefs, and in accordance with his ancestors’ concept of the caliphate, which contradicts the heritage and ideology of Ataturk. Despite the fact that Ataturk had deepened the concept of Turanism ethnically, the Justice and Development Party sought to change the dynamics of Turkish society from narrow Turanism to the wider concept of Ottomanism, or what was called at that time “Neo-Ottomanism”. 

The Kemalist state was established on the basis of deepening the Turanism concept as the identifying character of the new state and severing relations with Ottomanism that used to form the public awareness. Kemalism was able to create a national identity that changed the collective memory of the Turkish people and set new concepts that were based on Turanism heritage (race), and through which Turkey worked to legitimize its national project. With this Kemalist identity, Islam turned from being a religion that brought all ethnicities together into a ceremonial religion in a Turanian homeland where all ethnicities got together for the love of a new homeland, with fixed borders, and with international relations based on staying away from conflict, approaching the West and staying away from the problems of the neighboring Middle East. That national identity had been established and set by Ataturk by force against the Kurds, Armenians, and whoever opposed him even if they were Turanian.

The words of the Turkish president were not new to the Turkish arena. They were called for by other Islamists who succeeded in ruling Turkey; among whom were Adnan Menderes and Necmettin Erbakan, who called for universal Islamic identity, the removal of man-made borders and the restoration of the Ottoman Empire. But what is new in Erdogan’s words is not like what Erbakan called for at all, for he is building a national identity that is different from the traditional Islamist theory that does not believe in borders established by colonisation and does not believe in national identity. 

Rather, Erdogan’s national identity seeks an empire or the Islamic caliphate, in accordance with the concept of the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in which Erdogan and his party are the most important pillars. “All his regime’s men” belong intellectually and organizationally to that current and thought. The restructuring of the army and its leaders in the wake of the failed coup in 2016 was based on that concept. This thought contradicts the concept of “the national state” and does not recognize borders or national sovereignty, and raises the banner of reviving the caliphate and the caliph, which also explains why the Turkish president reacts whenever something looms in the horizon to be threatening to that dream and promise and sees it as a coup against the idea and the project. He views the matter personally and a threat to Turkish interests. Erdogan sees no difference between his personal ambitions and the interests of his country and people. 

In this sense, Erdogan’s position against the 30 June 2013 Revolution in Egypt can be explained in terms of Egypt stopping ball of the expansion and spread of the Muslim Brothers’ Ottoman Empire project from rolling.

Drivers of conflict

Accordingly, these questions arise: How can the fast change that took place in a society that lived quite a long time under the umbrella of secularism be explained? What is the nature of the conflict this society lives in and how does it affect its policies and cohesion? At the same time, the Turkish voter chose the Justice and Development Party to spearhead the Turkish political and developmental efforts. Opposing parties at that time sought to ban the party and prevent its leaders from public work at the Constitutional Court of Turkey, claiming that secularism is the essence of the Turkish constitution, whereas the Justice and Development Party has Islamist tendencies. The matter did not only reach the Constitutional Court of Turkey, it also turned to be attempts to plan for a military coup against the government, pursuing violence, instigating unrest and destabilizing political stability. All these attempts were discovered and thwarted by Erdogan’s security institutions. All these matters reveal the true nature of the conflict and controversy between the political legitimacy embodied in the electoral support the Justice and Development Party garnered, and the constitutional legitimacy that is embodied in the fact that secularism is the base of the Turkish state that Ataturk had established after the French model.

That controversy had massive repercussions on the Turkish domestic front and all the regional choices of the Turkish state. The powers that chose the Justice and Development State prefer to seek shelter in the Islamic identity and revive that component of the Turkish identity that was kept away since Ataturk had toppled the Islamic caliphate and had tried to erase the Islamic identity. That identity, however, was not erased, it was waiting to be revived. Before the emergence of the Justice and Development Party, political powers and leaders tried to challenge other Turkish powers protecting secularism; however, they failed. The military establishment intervened to prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic identity and confirm Turkey’s affiliation to the West and its European identity, especially after years of frequent and failed attempts to have Turkey as a member of the European Union, and the resulting modified laws and legislation and the embellishment of the image of the state, which deepened the internal conflict between the Islamist tendency and the Western and European 

costumes and manifestations. 

In May 2005, in an interview in Istanbul, Samuel P. Huntington said there was no chance for Turkey to be accepted in the European Union. “Since the European nations continue to believe that the Turkish people are not culturally European, they won’t let Turkey enter the EU,” he said. This statement led to an argument among the Turks; are the Turks part of the European culture or not, if not who are we? But the Turks realized – at that time and maybe even before – the size of the gap and the conflict between shape and content. 

Kurds and Alawites 

There are 40 million Kurds distributed along Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and they have different languages, cultures, religions and politics. What they have in common, though, is the suffering they endured as a result of exclusion and the systematic oppression in Turkey and Iran. 

Turkish Kurds are estimated at over 15 million, which is 20 percent of the country’s population, who suffered from systematic oppression. Turkish Kurds fought for an official recognition of their cultural and political rights since the Turkish republic was established in 1923. In the 1980s, the situation was unacceptable to the extent it witnessed the rise of “Kurdistan’s Workers Party” that led an armed rebellion against the Turkish state. The conflict later led to the death of more than 40,000 people. The rush to violence by the Turkish state proves that the grudges of history can affect reality, where political systems cannot reidentify their collective identity in light of major international changes. 

The extreme Turkish violence against the Kurds of Syria and Iraq and Turkey’s rush to occupy large parts of Syria and Iraq cannot be explained, unless while evoking an old Turkish dilemma, which is the Turkish fear of ethnic, religious, and sectarian diversity, and the ongoing historic seeking of making the Turkish nationalism the ultimate ruler that forms the Turkish identity. History says that the country that depends for its national identity on hostility against an important social segment shall always be worried and stability shall always be threatened. The Turkish nationalism that is a cornerstone for the new Turkish state expresses itself by the hostility of the Kurds and the Kurds’ nationalism, as it does not recognize the existence of non-Muslims or non-Sunnis such as Alawites. Consequently, its national identity remained an element of separation, rather than unification.

This entrenched hostility and historic Turkish hatred against the Kurds led the Turkish army to use internationally-banned weapons while attacking Syrian Kurds in Syria, and led to using the military power to change the demographic composition of northeast Syria. What Turkey really fears is not the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but the Kurds in Turkey, as any rise in the power of the Kurds in the two countries is an internal threat because it might awaken the Kurdish ambition in Turkey to ask for full citizenship rights. Turkey believes this might form a threat to the national Turkish identity.

There is no accurate census for the population of the Alawites. According to the Turkish Religious Affairs Authority, the Alawites are estimated at seven million, while the Alawites say they number more that 20 million. Despite this large number, they cannot protect themselves for they always complain about the systematic attacks against their homes and shrines. To add to their prosecution, they are being referred to in some school books with a lot of discrimination. In 2016, a book was sent by the Ministry of Education to teachers referring to the Alawites as disrepute and corrupt. In Turkey, the word “Alawites” is used to refer to Shiite sects such as the Alawites of the Levant, İskenderun, Ja`fari, Ismaili, Nizari, Kaysānīyya, Qarmatians, Qizilbash, and Bamiriya, while Anatolian Alevism differs from the Shiites, especially from the widespread and well-known Alawite sect in the Levant.

“Alevis have never been recognised as equal citizens of this country. But in recent years, there has been an unprecedented and extraordinary increase in pressure and attacks against Alevi people,” said Özcan Öğüt, the author of the books “Acceptable Alevism” and “The Butchery of Alevi Faith”. The Alawites have always been in extreme opposition to the Islamists’ government led by Erdogan. When hundreds of thousands of people came out to the streets all over the country in 2013 in what was called “Gezi Park protests”, many Alawites were leading the demonstrations. “Almost 80 percent of protesters detained as part of the Gezi Park protests were Alevis,” the Milliyet newspaper said, citing a report by Turkish security and intelligence authorities.

Attacks against Alawites are common across Turkey. Opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party member of parliament, Kemal Bülbül, demanded answers from Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. “Homes belonging to Alevis in many locations across Turkey have for years been marked with crosses and hateful graffiti by unidentified people. One such city is Izmir. According to official records, between 2012 and 2019, in eight districts of Izmir, 16 homes belonging to Alevis have been marked with [crosses] and death threats, and 62 gravestones of Alevis have been attacked and destroyed in two districts,” Bülbül said in a parliamentary question to Soylu.

In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Alawites are denied the right to freedom of religion and are subjected to discrimination. The panel of judges found that Alawites “were subjected to a difference in treatment for which there was no objective and reasonable justification.”

All through the history of the Turkish Empire, the Turkish state seems to have been unable to meet difference except with violence and perpetual readiness to commit massacres. Whoever tries to compare how the Ottomans dealt with differences by committing massacres against the Armenians and Greeks and others with how the modern Turkish state is dealing with minorities would hardly find any differences. There is no difference between Ataturk, Erdogan or their Ottoman ancestors in dealing with the Kurds, Alawites and minorities.

Exploiting Hagia Sophia politically

Erdogan’s decision to turn the famous Hagia Sophia Museum, formerly a Greek Orthodox church, into a mosque had a major impact on playing on the emotional Islamic sensation, winning the empathy of extremists, strengthening the image of the caliph who is trying to restore the caliphate’s glory by facing enemies and religious rivals, and clearly using the idea of identity as a tool for conflict with others. 

The conservative Turkish social norms, religious nationalism, are the first inner powers that Erdogan seeks to address by his policies, for this electoral and social bloc is the most influenced by such tendencies and symbolic manipulations presented in identity wars and the cultural conflict policies, especially the social blocs who received little education, civility and modernity, and who live in Central Anatolia, that Erdogan think of as his political, electoral and human reservoir. During the past five years, those people had tons of complaints about the effects of the economic crises on their daily life. 

Identity wars are like a political speech Erdogan directs to his political extensions in the region, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and similar political powers. These organizations carry a central public discourse that they think of as the political program of their political tendencies regionally. In Tunisia, Syria, and Palestine, and even in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and many other countries, Islamists always draw inspiration of a particular issue from the Muslim Brotherhood organization, even if the issue is different and fake, and they seek to show it as “the issue of the region”. In this sense, they are helped with a massive network of media and propaganda agencies. The most common tool that they use is identity conflicts and symbols because they are the most able to cover the nature of their bargaining and political alignments with the powers that they claim to fight.  

The tendencies of the Turkish president in this sense targets sending covert messages to Western powers, especially in Europe, similar to his use of the issue of displaced Syrians, Uyghurs and Afghans. He believes that wars and cultural and religious conflicts are tools he can exploit in the face of the West whenever he pleases. He also thinks of them as tools to escalate the non-democratic European right-wing powers that contradict him outwardly and integrate with him inwardly, where he attempts to get concessions from these European countries, just to decrease the level of the religious and symbolic escalation.

Conflict reflected in media

Identity conflicts were also reflected in the Turkish media and the practices of Erdogan’s government. Identity conflicts topped the subjects of international reports concerned with freedom of expression, press and media in Turkey.

The media of the Islamist current is of significant importance for religious movements in Turkey, either as an influential method or a channel for expressing the visions Islamists have about the Turkish society’s future in light of their efforts to undermine the determinants of the secular system towards them. On the other hand, the secular media has another policy that focuses on supporting the secular system in Turkey that Ataturk established, and facing the Islamist current and combating its ideology and continuous calls to restore the Islamic identity of Turkey.  

The secular right-wing tendency is the prevailing and dominant current over the press and other media because its institutions are larger in number and they have the largest influence, monopolizing about 60 percent of the total Turkish media sector.  Usually, the Turkish media is a battleground between two opposing parties: the anti-secularism Islamist current and the secular current that seeks to impose its domination over all aspects of life. The media of the two currents were the tools of the identity conflict between Ottomanism and Secularism. The retreat of the military’s control of Turkish politics in the past years helped the Islamists increase their media scope and influence over Turkish public opinion. In earlier stages, secular media dominated the public opinion uncontested. Despite the unprecedented growth in the role of the Islamic media, it is still facing a strong competitor that possesses many elements of power, especially in terms of professionalism, skills, cadres and traditions, which indicates that the identity conflict in Turkey between the secular and Islamic currents, who use media as their influential weapon, will last long.

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