Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoğlu a pan-Islamist ideologue, with imperialist ambitions to reshape the Middle East into a post-national order based on Turkish Sunni religious supremacy? That is the blockbuster thesis currently turning heads both inside and outside Turkey, thanks to a series of recent articles by Marmara University Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan.
Özkan, a one-time student of Davutoğlu’s from the latter’s time as an international relations professor, bases his provocative conclusion on close study of 300 articles penned by Davutoğlu in the 1980s and 90s. He first made his case in an essay for the August-September edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ journal “Survival,” before introducing it to a wider English audience with pieces on Al-Monitor and in the New York Times.
In his NYT op-ed “Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy” published last week, Özkan remembered Professor Davutoğlu as a hard-working and “genial figure” who “enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students.” In contrast with his academic peers, however, he believed that Turkey would “soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential … encompass[ing] the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and include Albania and Bosnia”:
Mr. Davutoglu’s classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis. He cited the historical precedents of Britain, which created a global empire in the aftermath of its 17th-century civil war, and Germany, a fragmented nation which became a global power following its 19th-century unification. Mr. Davutoglu was confident that his vision could transform what was then an inflation-battered nation, nearly torn apart by a war with Kurdish separatists, into a global power.
He crystallized these ideas in the book ‘Strategic Depth,’ in 2001, a year before the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., came to power. In the book, he defined Turkey as a nation that does not study history, but writes it — a nation that is not at the periphery of the West, but at the center of Islamic civilization … Mr. Davutoglu saw himself as a grand theorist at the helm of his country as it navigated what he called the ‘river of history.’ He and his country were not mere pawns in world politics, but the players who moved the pieces.
Özkan rejects that Davutoğlu’s ideas amount to “neo-Ottomanism,” as often accused. Instead, he gives Turkey’s new prime minister the even heftier label of “pan-Islamist”:
The movement known as Ottomanism emerged in the 1830s as the empire’s elites decided to replace existing Islamic institutions with modern European-style ones, in fields from education to politics. By contrast, Mr. Davutoglu believes that Turkey should look to the past and embrace Islamic values and institutions.
But, ironically, he bases his pan-Islamist vision on the political theories that were used to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945. While purporting to offer Turkey a new foreign policy for the 21st century, his magnum opus draws on the outdated concepts of geopolitical thinkers like the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Briton Halford Mackinder and the German Karl Haushofer, who popularized the term “Lebensraum,” or living space, a phrase most famously employed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to emphasize the need to expand its borders.
According to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart.
After becoming Turkey’s foreign minister from 2009, Davutoğlu had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice – with disastrous results:
As foreign minister, Mr. Davutoglu fervently believed that the Arab Spring had finally provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to put these ideas into practice. He predicted that the overthrown dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional ‘Muslim Brotherhood belt’ under Turkey’s leadership.
He sought Western support by packaging his project as a ‘democratic transformation’ of the Middle East. Yet today, instead of the democratic regimes promised three years ago, Turkey shares a border with ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Two months ago, its fighters raided the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage. Mr. Davutoglu, who has argued that Turkey should create an Islamic Union by abolishing borders, seems to have no idea how to deal with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, who have made Turkey’s own borders as porous as Swiss cheese.
To repair this dire situation as prime minister, Özkan says Davutoğlu needs to pragmatically reconnect Turkey’s regional policy with reality:
The new prime minister is mistaken in believing that the clock in the Middle East stopped in 1918 — the year the Ottoman Empire was destroyed — or that Turkey can erase the region’s borders and become the leader of an Islamic Union, ignoring an entire century of Arab nationalism and secularism. What Mr. Davutoglu needs to do, above all, is to accept that his pan-Islamist worldview, based on archaic theories of expansionism, is obsolete.
Özkan’s thesis certainly seems to have struck a chord, with plenty of prominent figures declaring their admiration. Still, the reception has not been universally positive. In Radikal, political scientist Fuat Keyman expressed skepticism about the use of any catch-all term such as “pan-Islamist” to accurately describe Davutoğlu’s worldview:
As someone who has read many – if not all – of Davutoğlu’s works, it’s difficult to understand how Dr. Özkan has drawn the conclusion that Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist (which is problematic as a term anyway).
It shouldn’t be forgotten that such expressions have only recently started to be used for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. It could be said that irresponsible, anti-Semitic writings and comments made [by others] in Turkey recently have contributed to the increased use of terms like ‘pan-Islamism’ abroad.
Still, I don’t think terms such as ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘sectarian,’ or ‘pan-Islamist’ are useful or appropriate when describing Davutoğlu’s worldview, or his approach to foreign and domestic politics … Criticism of Turkish foreign policy should instead focus on the strategic errors that have been made, the exaggeration of Turkey’s power, and recently its distancing from democracy.
In Zaman, meanwhile, Şahin Alpay similarly questioned the validity of any term that sought to place a rigid label on the often multi-dimensional policies of Davutoğlu and the AKP:
The foreign policies pursued by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do not fit into the mold of ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘pan-Islamist,’ or ‘Sunni sectarian.’ It’s difficult to apply a single ideological label for a foreign policy that started negotiations to join the EU, gave NATO permission for its Kürecik bases, received prizes from the Israeli lobby, struck up a personal friendship with Bashar al-Assad, recommended secularism to Egypt, and felt Tehran to be its own home. Rather than being based on certain principles, the policies pursued by the AKP, domestically and abroad, can be said to be either pragmatic, populist, opportunistic, or aimed at securing or protecting power. But if an ideological tag is necessary, Islamic Kemalism or religious nationalism could be used.
A deeper and more academic critique of Özkan’s work that has attracted particular attention was posted on the personal website of Ali Balcı, an associate professor at Sakarya University. Balcı doesn’t take issue with Özkan’s use of such a blanket term as “pan-Islamist,” but voices more substantial reservations about the underlying fundamentals of his work:
Özkan argues that the ‘pan-Islamic’ conclusions and analyses made by Davutoğlu as an academic in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s can be used to understand Davutoğlu’s later foreign policy. This strongly indicates a ‘once an Islamist always an Islamist’ assumption, suggesting that Davutoğlu’s essential core is unchanging in the face of different times and conditions … The work’s fundamental problem is that despite all of the changes in conditions [since Davutoğlu wrote], it still puts forward that a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist – a reductionist and essentialist reading.
Balcı says it isn’t clear why Özkan searches for proof of Davutoğlu’s “pan-Islamism” in his old academic articles, while he supports the “neo-Ottoman” label for former Turkish President Turgut Özal using evidence from the latter’s period in office:
Once US troops go home, Iran has the most battle-ready military force to offset regional challenges.
By Shahram Akbarzadeh
Most commentary on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) point to the challenges it presents to the Middle East. Sectarian tensions may have been a fact of life in the region. But ISIL has made it the number one threat to the political order – it cost Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki his job.
The implications of the scourge of sectarianism are far reaching for Iran too. As a constitutionally Shia Muslim state, Iran is mindful of the restricting framework of sectarianism. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been eager to project an image that transcends sectarian differences. This has been a key pillar of Iran’s regional policy. Speaking to the Muslim masses and voicing popular angst against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, or against US arrogance and political domination of the international order, have been at the heart of Iran’s message to its neighbourhood. Of course, this has antagonised neighbouring regimes, which accuse Tehran of destabilising the region.
Saudi Arabia was quite vocal in protesting against Iran’s message following the 1979 revolution. But Tehran turned such criticism to its advantage. By supporting Hamas and Hezbollah in an apparent attempt to challenge Israel, which it calls the “Zionist entity”, by proxy it gained political credibility on the Arab street. Having Hamas in this alliance was very important, as it offered Iran an example of an inter-sectarian alliance against a common enemy.
The notion of the “axis of resistance” applied to the political congruity of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, was celebrated in Iran as a successful case of its trans-sectarian policy, emphasising the political unity of all Muslims. Iran clearly saw itself as the champion of all Muslims and with the sprouting Arab Spring, the Iranian leadership was self-congratulatory for providing a model for the Muslim world to follow, even though the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt appeared very reluctant to follow the Iranian model.
But the Arab Spring has now turned to winter and given rise to devastating carnage in Syria and Iraq. ISIL has galvanised the international community to act. The US-led aerial bombardment of ISIL assets have offered the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces some reprieve.
Ironically, the common threat of ISIL has put old foes on the same side of the fence. Iran and the US have an enemy in ISIL. So why is Iran not part of the international coalition?
The Iranian leadership operates in its own political and psychological sphere, and responds to a range of factors beyond the geo-strategic needs of the day. The parameters of this sphere dictate that Iran cannot afford to be seen as a minor player in a US-led operation. Iran sees itself as an equal player, and in many ways a more critical player because of its geographical location. While this does not rule out ad hoc contact between the two sides on practical issues, it does make entering into a military alliance with the US highly problematic for Iran’s sense of its own regional role.
The Iranian leadership is also suspicious of US intentions and sincerity in the fight against ISIL. The US is accused of sponsoring rebel groups in Syria, and having a hand in the emergence of what Iran calls “takfiris” (apostate groups). A recent statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry about the role of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey in the rise of ISIL seemed to vindicate Iranian cynicism. Saudi Arabia is now part of the international coalition to stop the ISIL land grab. The Iranian authorities, especially the conservatives, see this as disingenuous. Indeed, Washington’s continued commitment to deposing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which is at war with ISIL, is seen as evidence of its deceit.
Instead, Iran sees its ties with the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as leverage in the push against ISIL. Iranian authorities celebrate what they see as Tehran’s immediate response to aid Iraq against ISIL, and have published images of General Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of Quds Forces, in Kurdistan.
From Iran’s point of view, history is on its side: Once all is said and done, once US troops return home, Iran maintains the most battle-ready military force to offset regional challenges, buttressed with strong political ties with Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah. The Iranian leadership remains confident that this alliance will allow Tehran to shift the focus back on Israel, and allow Iran to reclaim its role as regional leader.
Shahram Akbarzadeh is Research Professor and ARC Future Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.