Turkey aims to combine economic, geopolitical might with Muslim identity - analysts

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman vision aims to revitalise a distinctly Turkish model that combines economic and geopolitical power with Muslim influence, analysts Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid said in a report published by the Brookings Institute on Wednesday. 

The authors examine how governments incorporate Islam into foreign policy as a form of “religious soft power."

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, three of the most important power brokers in the Middle East, have in recent years articulated strategic foreign policy frameworks that involve significant reference to religion, the report said. 

In the Muslim world there is a historical pattern of governments co-opting religion as part of national development agendas or to protect the state against interpretations of religion that may undermine their authority. Even Turkey, under its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secularist orientation, saw religion as something intertwined with the state, to be managed and deployed against opponents, the report said. 

In the first 10 years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule, Turkey witnessed a reorientation in foreign policy with Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) becoming the primary mechanism for the Turkish government to wield its influence and support Islamic causes abroad, said Mandaville and Hamid.

Turkey’s neo-Ottoman orientation has two main dimensions according to Mandaville and Hamid. First, it refers to Turkish government’s aim to diversify its portfolio of international relations by enhancing its relations in Central Asia, the Balkans, the Caucuses, the Middle East, regions that were once ruled by the Ottoman Empire. 

Secondly it is related to Erdoğan’s effort to position himself as a leader in the Sunni Islam world and compete with countries like Saudi Arabia that have similar ambitions. 

“The religious dimensions of neo-Ottomanism therefore seem less about the projection of any specific theological or ideological model (per Saudi Arabia and Iran), and more to do with revitalising a distinctly Turkic model of civilisational Islam in which economic and geopolitical power go hand in hand with Muslim identity,” Mandaville and Hamid said. 

As a result, Diyanet’s campaign of Turkish-funded mosque building, which earlier focused mostly in the Balkans and other neighbouring regions, has now expanded to South Africa, the United States, and even Cuba and Haiti, they said. 

“Erdoğan has even suggested that Turkey has a developmental model of sorts to offer, one that combines religious conservatism, economic liberalism, and (at least until recently) democracy,” Mandaville and Hamid said.