Erdoğan, an Acrobat Aiming to Fulfill its Imperialistic Dreams
🕑 6 min
By Francesco Lasorella
Nowadays Turkey is playing a key role in the geopolitical scene. There are numerous motives that back this important position. The first of many is its geographic nature, which poses Turkey with the role of a bridge between Western and Asian alliances. The country is in fact a NATO member; however, it tends to have a more moderate behavior compared to most of the member states. On the contrary, Turkey continues to flirt with Russia and other countries considered hostile by the West. Relations are maintained both from a diplomatic point of view, and an economic one, but is always aware of the necessity to keep a safe distance. We could compare Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - the president of Turkey - to a tightrope walker, careful of the balance needed between the two blocks/sides, that sees the end of the rope as a realization of Turkey’s imperialistic ambitions.
In order to pursue such high ambitions, besides foreign policy, the country also needs its people to believe in and support its ascendance. Education is certainly crucial. The latter, together with the culture of the ruling class - that can be defined by the ministries’ policies - is an adequate measurement to identify the imperialist ideology of Ankara’s government.
2. Religion, Education, and Ideology of Turkey’s Ruling Class
In 2020, on 10 July, the high administrative court of Turkey ruled against a 1934 cabinet decision that turned the symbolic mosque of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, into a museum.
The mosque was originally built as a church in 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Its conversion to a mosque was an emblematic consequence of Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of the Byzantine Roman capital in 1453; Muslims marking their victory against Christians. Just two weeks after the court’s ruling, Erdoğan commented on national television that he considered the event to be “the second conquest of Istanbul”. Of course, ultra-religious communities welcomed and praised the cabinet’s decision. Hagia Sophia is just one clear example of a growing tendency to “de-secularize” the country towards Islam.
Looking at Turkey’s educational system we can observe the same phenomenon.
In February 2015, thousands of teachers and concerned citizens marched from Istanbul University to the Istanbul Directorate of the Ministry of Education. A protester’s statement perfectly summarizes the meaning of the march: “They’re continuing to turn our schools into religious schools”. And how are they doing that?
The shift has its origins in the so-called “4+4+4 reform”. Before the latter, middle school education had a standard curriculum for every school, and parents could choose autonomously to send their children to Islamic schools. Instead, today, the standard curriculum has been eradicated. The new system now strictly relies on the quality of the school, and the student can choose between his or her options, based on the results obtained at the national exam. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the standard curriculum wouldn't have been removed. However, now, the students that fail to obtain the necessary points for their preferred school option or the ones that don’t even take the exam, are automatically eligible and enrolled only in Islamic schools.
Even though nowadays 86% of the Turks are considered to be Muslim, according to the Ipsos independent poll of 2016, Erdogan and his government still want to keep alive and radicalize the Turkish people's Islamic faith.
With Hagia Sophia’s event, the president indirectly presented himself as the reincarnation of the sultan, a powerful role that led both the government and the Islamic religion. Starting from the bottom of society - the less fortunate people, who have very few means to properly educate themselves - the educational system reform will create ranks of subjects devoted to their Leader; bound to Him by both civil and religious connections.
It’s fair to remember, that in the early stages of his career, Erdogan was arrested for incitement to hatred. In a country still governed by a secular sentiment, he was condemned because he publicly cited the words of the Turkish poet Ziya Gökalp; these read: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers...”
The article’s assumptions are not intended to be hateful thoughts against Islam. The reason behind these affirmations follows the logic that religious fundamentalism, for most of the existent religions, and as history testifies, is the fervent soul of many empires.
3. The balance Turkey is maintaining, cautiously daring to gain more power
As anticipated in the introduction Turkey is the middle ground between the West and Asia. The country maintains relationships with every major player of the geopolitical panorama, and through its position, it also manages to expand its influence in the region.
The attempt to briefly cover Turkey’s vast and diverse foreign policy will be carried out from a Western point of view. It will analyze Turkey’s relationship with the West, more specifically, the US, and Europe as a whole. The analysis will detect the dissonance with Western countries and highlight the reasons behind them. Then a few accusations by Turkey to the West will follow.
Turkey’s relations with the US started after WWII. The Truman doctrine and the entry of Turkey inside the NATO alliance were a consequence of a common enemy, the USSR, and a still weak economy that needed help from the rising superpower. Today, the world has drastically changed, and the differences that were overlooked in the name of a greater good, and those that arose, cannot be ignored anymore.
4. The US friction points with Turkey
The US accusations mainly derive from four matters:
The first is Turkey’s expansionist ambitions and long-dated war with the Kurdish population. The catastrophic war in Iraq and its chaotic consequences allowed Kurdish people to establish an almost self-governed state, supported by the US, in return for help to fight ISIS. The two nations' interests clearly collide.
The second point of confrontation is Turkey’s relationship with the US archenemy: Iran. The latter has for years been subject to oppressive economic sanctions by the US. Turkey however has no intention to cut ties with its second energy supplier. The relationship has strengthened over time; Turkey has helped Iran through its banks to evade sanctions, and now Iran is backing Turkey against the Kurdish people.
Thirdly, the US fears the influence of Russia. The country’s natural resources are Turkey’s golden ticket. In October Erdogan agreed with Putin for the creation of a gas hub on Turkish soil. The latter will serve as a distribution point that will provide natural gas to the entire region and Europe. It is also important to know that rubles are being used for the trade of gas and fuel with Russia, a direct affront to the petrol-dollar.
Militarily, Russia has over the years sold Turkey 2.5 billion dollars’ worth of S400s, a Russian air defense system. Turkey knows how precious this alliance is, and it has no intention to stop it. De facto, during the war in Ukraine Turkey has always demonstrated to be the most moderate NATO member. The deals for Ukrainian and Russian grain supplies over the world took place in Ankara. Despite Zelensky’s pressures, Erdogan never decided to close the Dardanelles Strait to Russian warships.
Last but not least, a friction point between the two powers is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ankara attributes great importance to the Palestinian region, at the time it was under Ottoman control. Turkey tries, without any great success, to mediate between Hamas forces and Washington.
5. The EU is losing it’s bargaining power
The European Union plays a side role. It certainly is an important financial and commercial partner, but Turkey has it in check, due to a heavyweight that Turkey holds from crushing Europe: migrants. Turkey keeps millions of Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish asylum seekers on its territory, preventing them from ‘invading’ Europe. Lately, the European Parliament’s accusations regarding Turkey’s democratic backsliding, its growing repression of the press, dissidents, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people, have been promptly followed by Ankara with a threat to “open the gates”. Sweden and Finland still wait for Turkey’s NATO approval. Ankara is said to be unsatisfied with Sweden's promises to interrupt the funding of the Kurdish people.
6. Turkey’s accusations
On the contrary, Turkey looks at the West suspiciously. Ankara’s government still has not forgotten the 2016 attempted coup and blames the US for their uncooperative behavior. When military personnel tried to overthrow Erdogan’s leadership, a loyal part of the army and a non-ignorable share of the population opposed it, and the coup dramatically failed. The instigator and financier of the coup is supposed to be Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish businessman living in the US. Regardless of Turkey’s requests, the US never agreed to his extradition.
Recently, on the 14 November, a bomb exploded in the middle of Istanbul. A woman associated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was caught by Turkish authorities. The condolences offered by the American ambassador, for the victims of this brutal act, were coldly unaccepted by the Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu, who replied: “We know how the attack was coordinated. We know where this was coordinated from. We know the message given to us. We do not accept the condolences of the American ambassador, we reject them”.
7. Conclusion - Are Turkey’s ambitions anachronistic?
It is incredible how history continuously repeats itself. Different actors with different scripts, in the end, manage to evoke a similar story again and again. The Ottomans built their empire upon the destruction of the Byzantine one; the Turkish state was born from the Ottoman empire’s ruins. After WW1, the occupation of the region by the Allies - the winners - was fiercely fought against by Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. However, secularizing Turkey and creating a parliamentary republic in 1923, Ataturk based the formation of his new state on the Western model. Also, the alliances after WW2 reflected this long “Westernization” process. In 1945, after being neutral for most of the war, Turkey symbolically declared enemies Germany and Japan.
The relationship with the US and Europe grew extensively during the Cold War. In the last 30 years, the Ottoman imperialistic blood seems to be boiling again in the veins of Turkish people, or at least, of Turkish leaders. The Kurdish ambition to claim its own independent region has inevitably led to the formation of nationalistic governments. Nowadays nationalism for Turkish people is associated (not causally) with the Islamic religion, the soul of the Ottoman empire.
Will Erdogan, the acrobat, by becoming one of the protagonists of the nascent multipolar world, get to the end of the rope and realize his imperialistic dreams? And are the ties with the West going to be maintained, despite the clear differences?
Sources: Al Jazeera, Middle East Forum, Al-Monitor, Council on Foreign Relations, Equal Times, Greek Reporter
Written by Francesco Lasorella