By Abraham ThickeClaims that Turkey is a role model and source of hope for Muslims throughout the world have, for years, been a staple of the Turkish regime and its associated media.
Turkey does have some grounds for such assertions. Up until 1924, Caliph-Sultans based in Istanbul claimed to act as protectors of the Muslim religion. More recently, following the AK Party’s assumption of power in 2002, Turkey has used its increased economic strength to promote its image and interests abroad.
These efforts were initially supported by the West, which viewed Turkey as a model Muslim democracy. They appeared to bear fruit. For instance, survey data reported in 2010 indicated that 60% of the Arab public viewed Turkey positively.
In the last seven years significant changes have occurred, both within and beyond Turkey. Whilst these have not dimmed Turkish ambitions, they have necessitated some reframing.
First, Western support for Turkey has steadily waned. This is largely because Turkey’s interests increasingly diverge from the West’s, though the precipitous decline in Turkey’s democracy has also played a role. Ties with the West, once a source of Turkish pride have become ambivalent. Nowadays, an overtly Islamist Turkish regime still looks West for the opportunity of handshakes and photos to burnish it credentials. But at the same time, it projects itself East as a hub of resistance against Western interference in Muslim affairs.
Second is the Turkish regime’s spectacular falling out with the Gülen movement. With its once extensive network of business interests, including media and educational facilities in many countries, the Gülen movement played a key role in improving Turkey’s international image. Attempts by the Turkish regime to dismantle or wrest control of the movement’s resources have been more successful in Turkey than elsewhere. What remains of the Gülenists’ once formidable arsenal now aim squarely at the regime.
A third change involves the Arab Spring. When the protests erupted, Turkey hoped to steer the winds of change blowing in the Middle East. But these hopes were not sustained. Turkey backed the wrong horses in places such as Egypt and Syria and is paying a high cost to this day.
A lost opportunity
A consequence of these changes is that Turkey receives increasing amounts of critical coverage in the international media, making it correspondingly more difficult for the regime to present itself in a favourable light.
Whilst the media diet of many Turks has been restricted by the incarceration of critical journalists and shuttering of the outlets they work for, the regime’s reach does not extend far beyond its borders. Consequently, the Turkey Muslims throughout the world now hear about is the one that Turks endure on a daily basis, even as the domestic media sweeps such matters under the deepest of Ottoman rugs. Namely, a country in which democracy is absent, corruption is rampant and institutions no longer function effectively.
Further, there is something incongruent about the image of those self-proclaimed champions of down-trodden Muslims, President Erdoğan and his shopaholic wife, conducting their fight against oppression from a palace that has become a symbol of extravagance.
The many beneficiaries of Turkey’s various projects, including millions of Syrians who have fled the war, are no doubt grateful. However, this is insufficient to sustain claims that Turkey represents a beacon of hope for the world’s Muslims. Certainly, given the sectarian flavour of its meddling in Syria, it is unlikely Shia Muslims view Turkey in this way.
There is also the suspicion, perhaps overly cynical, that the Turkish regime’s interest in humanitarian work is as much driven by a self-promoting agenda as by the genuine desire to alleviate human suffering. In Turkey, living standards have increased significantly since the AK Party took power, but more than 20% of Turkish households are below the poverty line. Inequality (measured using the Gini index) has been growing since 2006. Charity begins at home.
It is also apparent that Sunni Muslim opinions of Turkey have deteriorated over the last decade. Recent survey data from Arab countries charts just such a decline.
None of this, of course, deters the regime and its cheerleaders from banging the drum. But the hullabaloo is, at present, largely confined to Turkey. And ‘evidence’ suggesting the endless self-promotion is effective consists mostly of vignettes depicting children such as ‘little’ Mehmet in Kosovo or Abdi in Somali, in whose bedrooms pride of place is accorded to Turkish flags and pictures of President Erdoğan.
All of this smacks of, and is, wishful thinking. Turkey is rowing both against the tide and, all too frequently, in the wrong direction. The opportunities it once had to capture Muslim hearts and minds have been squandered. The bungled response to the Arab Spring, the cataclysmic dissolution of its partnership with Gülen movement, the burning bridges to the West and the abandonment of basic democratic principles are prominent causes of this failure.
Erdoğan’s vanity, coupled with an often shaky grasp of facts, implies he is unlikely to give up his quasi-divine aspirations anytime soon. So too does the regime’s increasing preoccupation with reviving the glories of the good old days when Turks were actually acknowledged as leaders of the Muslim world.
Besides, the fiction serves a useful domestic purpose, distracting the public from the painfully evident lack of any political progress on this front with fictions of little
Mehmets and Abdis, crying with pride as they listen to crackling transistor radios relaying Erdoğan’s latest tirade.
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To be a beacon of any kind requires emitting some kind of signal. But Erdoğan’s Turkey increasingly resembles an imploding drum; introverted, bereft of new ideas and morally bankrupt. The only signals it emits these days are those reverberating around the shrinking interior. Anyone wanting to listen might have to press their ear very close to cut out all the background noise. But the most they’d hear would be the distorted echoes of once vibrant conversations, growing fainter all the time.
More generally, Turkey’s appeal to be accepted as representing the Muslim world, at least the Sunni part of it, can be understood as one component of the regime’s effort to revive the Ottoman Empire, with Erdoğan as Caliph-Sultan. To many observers these efforts look like little more than the plastering of, suitably ornate, symbols and badges to prominent locations on the façade.
But there is another, deeper, similarity between what the regime refers to as the ‘New’ Turkey and that which inspired it. In their ham-fisted attempts at more profound renovations, the interior of Turkey ― in part because of an impoverished understanding of history and in part because of greed ― has been ransacked. As a result, the ‘New’ Turkey does bear comparison with one phase of the Ottoman Empire, the last one. It too is a sick man, with one foot slipping from the pedestal of Europe and the other slipping into the boiling cauldrons of the Middle East.
Is this the best that Muslims, with their rich history, can aspire to? And is this the best that Turkey, with its own rich traditions, can offer? I think not.