Thursday, April 28, 2016
Put Your Feet up on the Ottoman and Set a Spell
The Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Islamic world for a very long time, from its capital, Istanbul (an alternative pronunciation of Constantinople), which it conquered in 1365. The Ottoman sultans began in a violent blaze of glory, guardians of most of the Sunni vision of Islam, in 1299. Eventually, they controlled a vast portion of the Balkans, the Middle East and the lands around the Mediterranean, as the above map of Ottoman holdings in 1609 (Wikipedia) illustrates. But lethargy, incompetence and corruption led to the Empire’s earning the epithet of the “Sick Man of Europe” in the latter part of the 19th century. Western nations – France and England at the fore – began controlling Ottoman territories in North Africa and the Middle East even before those areas were officially cleansed of their Ottoman status.
In an effort to rekindle Ottoman pride and control against a world of modern warfare, in the early 20th century, the Ottomans enlisted Germany to provide training and armaments for their hopelessly antiquated military. That fateful decision put the Empire on the losing side of World War I, as a treaty ally of Germany, leading to the rather dramatic collapse of the Ottomans in 1922. Old world values, a country that was literally governed in accordance with Islamic teachings, seemed out-of-place in a world where modernity and relevance trampled old-world Islamic values that had defined the Ottoman Empire. As the old Ottoman lands were carved up among the Western victors, all that was left to the Istanbul leaders was what we today call Turkey.
A new leadership, focused on modernity, stepped into the fray. Mustapha Kamal Atatürk “was a military officer during World War I. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, he led the Turkish National Movement in the Turkish War of Independence. Having established a provisional government in Ankara, he defeated the forces sent by the Allies, eventually leading to victory in the Turkish War of Independence. Atatürk then embarked upon a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms, seeking to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a modern and secular nation-state. Under his leadership, thousands of new schools were built, primary education was made free and compulsory, and women were given equal civil and political rights, while the burden of taxation on peasants was reduced. His government also carried out an extensive policy of Turkification. The principles of Atatürk's reforms, upon which modern Turkey was established, are referred to as Kemalism.” Wikipedia. Arabic script was replaced with a Latin alphabet.
But that was then. It’s no secret that there has been a global rise in political leaders from secular Muslim nations increasingly gravitating toward moving Islamic principles back into government, a very anti-Kemalism stance. We watched as the Muslim Brotherhood was swept into power over Egypt with the election of arch-Sunni fundamentalist, President Mohamed Morsi, who was quickly deposed and dispatched by the Egyptian military. In Turkey, however, the imposition of traditional Islamic values (mostly Sunni principles) into the body politic has been the long-standing policy of President Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party.
“Turkey is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but a fifth of its 78 million people is estimated to be Alevi, which draws from Shi'a, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions. Turkey is also home to about 100,000 Christians and 17,000 Jews… A Pew survey from 2013 showed 12 percent of Turks want Sharia, a legal framework regulated by the tenets of Islam, to be official law.” Reuters, April 26th. But Erdogan has plans to move away from secularism, and his efforts to inculcate these Sunni values into government are accompanied by efforts to solidify his personal power over Turkey.
Despite protests from urban young, Turkey has slowly veered right, embracing an increasingly traditional role for religion in government. The AK Party is now suggesting that perhaps that religious doctrine needs to be part of a new Turkish constitution, a fact rather openly stated by speaker of the Turkish Parliament. “Speaker Ismail Kahraman said late on [April 25th] that overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey needed a religious constitution, a proposal which contradicts the modern republic's founding principles. He later said his comments were ‘personal views’ and that the new constitution should guarantee religious freedoms…
“President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party he founded, their roots in political Islam, have tried to restore the role of religion in public life. They have expanded religious education and allowed the head scarf, once banned from state offices, to be worn in colleges and parliament.
“The AKP is pushing to replace the existing constitution, which dates back to the period after a 1980 military coup. As speaker, Kahraman is overseeing efforts to draft a new text… ‘For one thing, the new constitution should not have secularism,’ Kahraman said, according to videos of his speech published by Turkish media. ‘It needs to discuss religion ... It should not be irreligious, this new constitution, it should be a religious constitution.’” Reuters. Muslim values? Or Sunni Muslim values? Clearly the latter.
Why does this remotely matter? Because Turkey is both a NATO power and sits in one of the most strategic spots in the battle to contain the Islamic State (ISIS), an extreme Sunni force. Turkey represents one of the main gateways for desperate migrants leaving Syria for Europe and has a military that would be a necessary component in a ground war against ISIS. But with its military focused on eradicating Kurdish forces (separatists within Turkey) – who have been particularly effective against ISIS – and its movement towards Islamic (Sunni) law being layered into the Turkish constitution, it is clear that this predominantly Sunni country is pulling away from its adherence to Western values and alliances.
I’m Peter Dekom, and in what appears to be a greater and rising “war of civilizations” between fundamentalist/jihadist Islam and much of the rest of the world, American policy-makers are increasingly wondering on which side Turkey will really be.