Increasing unrest and clashing political ideas within, with a tumultuous neighborhood in the background, Turkey seems to be impatient and vague when it comes to defining itself on the ground.
It's fascinating to note all the most significant aspects of a nation change over a period of time, and usually, these certain transformations begin at home before they affect the behavior of the country in different spheres of importance. I would like to look at Turkey today, a regional power, holding a decisive take in the Middle East, South Caucasus, and South-East Europe – the areas of influence differ in terms of categorization. The geographical setting of the country, it's history and the current political dynamics of the country must be understood before we can look into the schism further, that, today, stands between the country's past and present.
The Ottoman empire was also the seat of the Caliphate after the Turks defeated the Egyptian Mamluk and brought back with themselves the institution of the Khalifa, which gained them legitimacy across the territories where Islam was practiced. Islam plays a very important role, and here, one must understand how. Prominence of religion and the functioning of the state affect each other since there occurs a constant interaction between the two. In 1919, Mustafa Kemal came to power in Turkey, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey, then, had been carved out as a state from what had been an expansive territory. There was a deliberate attempt to cleanse the society and governance of everything that was associated with Islam itself and made the presence of Islam strongly felt. This must be understood in relation to the new secularist base of Turkey that Kemal had laid out. Ethno-nationalism was emphasized upon strongly. Let us, again, take the example of the Turkish language. Persian and Arabic words were removed and substituted with either Turkish words (or words with Turkic origins) or words from Western languages, the West being a model after which Turkey seemed to have taken. Here, Persian and Arabic languages were associated with an external influence, the elimination of which was necessary from different aspects of regular culture to drive Turkey ahead and detach the Turkish people from the Ottoman past.
These many endeavors and the responsibility of their sustenance was taken over by the Turkish armed forces, it seems. The military, ever since the inception of the republic, managed to retain a stronghold and there have been multiple attempts at direct seizure of power, with certain alleged attempts as well. Their influence pushed the nation deeper and deeper into a more secular society and severed diligently obvious growing ties between whatever emerged as a threat and the mainstream politics. There is a clear difference between the ideological tilt between the military, and in the more recent times, the other parties who do not share the same motivations as the military, mainly, the Islamists. There was also, an important difference between the two when it came to choosing sides and alliances in the larger global scenario.
The former tended to lean more to the West, while the latter, now that it is in power today, tends to lean to the powers on the other end of the line, and also, seeks the support of the same. They can be read from the events that call of Turkey's attention, and its active involvement.
In the last couple of decades, what had been suppressed started to resurface in the Turkish political landscape. This, as I formerly mentioned, is particularly about the rise of the parties who share among themselves a different perspective altogether, a different dogma, when juxtaposed with the tradition of polity organized by Turkish military. The rise of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), a conservative national party and its persistence can be seen as somewhat of a change. AKP has been able to expand and solidify its influence and strength in political ambitions which were particularly driven by strong ambitions, to maintain stronghold inside and outside the country. There are many aspects to this part, and can be viewed differently in the light of different context and situations. However, right now, I would like to focus particularly on foreign relations of Turkey during this whole length of time since its inceptions and try to summarize them up in this article itself, and how the cleave in political inclinations within the country and the slight shift from one platform to the other has affected its dealings with the world, specially its immediate surroundings
The Turkish military has staged around three coups, and one “postmodern” coup (in 1997). It has long considered itself and justified its position as the “guardian” of Kemal's legacy. The general inclination has been towards the West and it was clear with its active membership in the NATO. Cold War era, however, when collapsed, there was a change in Turkey's perceptions. Yet again, things changed very quickly, in the face of rising Islamist militancy with transnational solidarity around the world. The importance of Islam as a political adhesive can be perceived as a very strong variable, and an understanding based on this manifests itself in not only clear, public statements, but also in evident, subtle understandings between two entities, and especially in the face of spread of Islamist terrorism, the political strength of this religion came to be viewed much differently.
Arab countries by Kemalists were viewed with a sort of suspicion and dyed in mistrust, as the fall of Ottoman empire left them with a bitter aftertaste. Under the relatively newer AKP government, we can see a trend which undoes what their predecessors were carrying out for long. Two things now happen at the same time. AKP uses its Islamic bend to make the Arab countries more affable and, as it views itself as an important regional and world player and wished to enhance this position to that of an important power, it needs not to use hard power, but diplomacy and soft power relations to allow its escalation into this position it so aspires. This strategy of reconciling and building influence in the regions that formerly constituted the Ottoman empire is what scholars have observed as Neo-Ottomanism. The term carries an ambition connotation, but, as insisted by the tailors of the set of policies which are labelled together as Neo-Ottomanism, is nothing but just to create a more friendly, cooperative and stable neighbourhood.
An important personality that I must mention here is Ahmet Davutoglu. In August 2014, he assumed the office as the 26th Prime Minister of the Turkish republic. Before that, he was the foreign minister under Erdogan, and his significant contribution to the Turkish foreign policy and giving it a new shape was not only marked by the fact that he tailored something of the kind, but by the fact that he viewed it as a theory, a concept, an underlying governing theme, thus, rendering the policy a solid ideological support, and not just leaving it feeble and fragile in the face of more radical transformations.
What is this ideological support about? It's about a new way of viewing international relations in a new light, from an entirely different perspective, that is , the Islamic perspective, in his work, “Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory”, which was published in 1993. The piece contrasts worldviews originating from the two, almost dichotomous Islamic and Western traditions of political philosophies and thought. By doing this, he goes well beyond just explaining political structures and legal institutions which are interpreted often by isolating the larger context of scholastic traditions. He, at the same time, somehow challenges the idea that a Western view of the world should prevail and be adopted by countries not necessarily included in “the West”, that is, a view that has been attuned to their needs instead of their own views. He, in this way, puts forward a more liberal face of Islam, based on reinterpretation and deep scholastic foundations.
However, a much complex picture is at our hands. While the AKP is trying to move Turkey away from the political trends in the past, it is also somewhat making its allies in the Atlantic shift uncomfortably in their seats. Turkey has been, for example, tilting more towards Hamas than Israel, as it is, according to Cold War norms, supposed to be doing. One can see that Turkey is trying to create a neighbourhood with “zero problems” for itself because it desires to be more than a major regional player and for that, it needs to balance all its relationships. It also need to secure the area of Eastern Turkey from external interference into the Kurdish conflict, for instance, there have been much concerns about Turkey's dealings with Iran itself, despite the sanctions of the West. At the same time, it needs to balance Iranian-Syrian influence and the many political agencies and progresses attached to this alliance. Turkish stance, hence, might be either an act to actually balance and rule out the possibility of a hostile neighbourhood and also considered an act of amelioration, and on the other hand, the amelioration is considered harmful for the Western interests in the Middle East, and one mustn't rule out the fears around the rise of Islamism to an extent of threatening the whole idea of Turkey being a secular nation.
Will Turkey, one might ask, stay what it was in the past many decades? Will these new strategies lead Turkey to change itself from the very foundation of itself? Are the strategies and policies nothing, but a new way to approach new problems? Where is Turkey headed to, one might want to conclude this whole discussion with. As many would agree, Turkey's recent ventures, in my opinion, are actually to escalate its position in the region itself, and without facing strong obstacles. For this, it is taking stances that might seem paradoxical, but in its view, it seems, it wants to exercise a control over its tumultuous neighbourhood which secure its interests and allow it to grow stronger. But to reach this stage in itself is a challenge, because the way it has chosen and the people instrumental in making this particular choice are themselves in a much fragile position when it comes to support, opposition and popular opinion in Turkey itself.