Erdogan dreams of “Greater Turkey”, but to what extent are his neo-Ottoman ambitions realistic?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known to aspire to present himself as the legitimate heir of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. With the exception, of course, of the secularism that the "father of the Turks" introduced and that Erdogan instead abhors. Yet, at the beginning of his political career, he presented himself as a moderate attentive to Ataturk's teaching and willing to continue, albeit in a different way, his state secularization strategy.

Recent events, with the invasion of Syrian territory to neutralize the Kurds and the military success in Libya – potentially harmful for Italian interests – brings us back to the true nature of its project, which contemplates a mix of traditional Islamism and Turkish nationalism. Despite appearances, it is the latter that prevails, since Erdogan does not renounce the dream of bringing the Ottoman Empire back to life, while adapting it to the present time.

It would seem a baseless utopia but, on closer inspection, there are elements that can suggest its feasibility. It is only necessary to take into account that the Turkish languages, and the cultures related to them, are not only widespread in the national territory, but also in many Asian areas including Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and other ex-Soviet republics of the Central Asia (with the obvious exclusion of Armenia). The Uighurs of Xinjiang also speak a Turkish language, a Muslim population whose independence tendencies are severely repressed by the Beijing government which has filled the territory with "re-education camps".

Erdogan exploits this situation by promoting cultural expansion among the Turkish-speaking populations living outside national borders, while at the same time financing the construction of mosques in the countries that host them. Also noteworthy is the work of proselytism among the emigrants in European nations, primarily Germany, and in countries like Albania that even after independence have maintained a strong link with Istanbul.

Di Conserva promotes the re-evaluation of the great victories, military and political, achieved by the Ottoman Empire. Firstly, the cancellation of the Byzantine empire with the conquest of Constantinople, which later became Istanbul, and then the Ottoman victory over the French and English in Gallipoli during the First World War (the war episode, incidentally, which made Ataturk famous).

However, the Ottoman defeats are also seen as opportunities for posthumous revenge, for example the battle of Lepanto, the failure to conquer the island of Malta defended by the Knights of St. John and the defeat of the Ottoman troops who came under the walls of Vienna in 1683. In short, Erdogan has in mind the "Greater Turkey" identified with the Ottoman Empire and, not surprisingly, in a speech he said: "We are a large family of three hundred million people from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China".

This panturco project is supported by an economy that, despite showing signs of crisis, continues to grow, and by a military power that remained intact even after the purge of senior officers following the failed coup in 2016. And it is the basis of the current Turkish distrust of the West and NATO, an alliance of which Turkey is still a part but with a much more distant profile than in the past.

However, it is necessary to ask to what extent Erdogan's ambitions are truly founded. Turkey is undoubtedly a great regional power, but to transform it into a global power it takes much more. Erdogan basically knows this, and in fact tries to balance the loosening of relations with the West by strengthening relations with Russia, Iran and China (despite the aforementioned persecution of Uyghurs by Beijing).

In addition, the Turkish leader is 66 years old, and for now, equally charismatic personalities capable of carrying out his global ambitions have not appeared in his AKP (Justice and Development) party. Without forgetting that in Turkey there is a strong city / countryside dichotomy. The Anatolian campaigns vote Erdogan en bloc, while the big cities like Istanbul and Izmir are mostly hostile to him. And this too is a sign that his neo-Ottoman dream is not easily achievable.

Elected years ago as an expression of moderate and conciliatory Islam, Erdogan then radicalized his positions more and more, and now it is not clear what Turkey's position is on the international scene.

He was once a key member of NATO, with the army guaranteeing the allegiance to the alliance and the secularism of the state wanted by Ataturk. Now the generals, so reviled by the Western media , have been practically eliminated from the scene, while the army and police follow the President's directives without batting an eye. Hence the ambiguous policy towards Islamic fundamentalism, and the refusal of the US request to use Turkish air bases to facilitate air raids on Syrian territory.

However, nobody expected Erdogan's authoritarianism to go so far as to want to redesign the history of the whole world. Instead it is going just like that. On the occasion of the first Latin American Muslim Forum held in Istanbul, the leader of Ankara proclaimed with enviable confidence that America was not discovered by Christopher Columbus, but by the Muslims themselves.

Based on the writings of a researcher from the Al-Sunnah Foudation of America , the Turkish premier claims that the Genoese admiral found a mosque in what is currently the island of Cuba. Forgetting that he is a politician and not a historian of geographical exploration, he also added that Muslim navigators landed in America in 1178, founding colonies of faithful of Islam.

Obviously the evidence is not there and, in any case, it can always be noted that the Vikings arrived first. It is clear that the intent of the Turkish leader is only political and propaganda. He wants to reiterate Islamic superiority in every possible field, and in this sense even history bent for its own purposes can be a useful tool.

It remains to be seen whether all of this will cause problems of religious conflict even in Catholic Latin America, and above all to what extent Erdogan will go to promote his image as a global Islamic leader.

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This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL on Tue, 09 Jun 2020 04:04:00 +0000.