2017: The end of neo-Ottomanism

A war of words between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates over whether the last Ottoman governor of the holy city of Medina stole artefacts nearly 100 years ago reveals the gulf between the Turkish ruling party’s romantic desire to revive the glories of the empire and the rejection by Arab governments of what they see as “neo-Ottoman” expansionism.

Pro-government politicians and media in Turkey reacted with incredulity and anger to a retweet by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan that said Ottoman general Fahreddin Pasha had stolen relics from Medina. Such are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ancestors, it said.

A political analyst on Saudi TV accused Fahreddin Pasha, who commanded Ottoman troops in Medina against besieging Arab and British forces during World War One, of organising terror attacks on the Arab populations under then the Ottoman rule.

In response even Erdoğan, known for his affection for the Arab world, resorted to the familiar anti-Arab rhetoric prevalent in Turkey in the last century, accusing Arabs of stabbing Ottoman Turkey in the back by cooperating with invading British and French forces.

The spat marks the end of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman dreams in the Middle East. The 2013 military coup that toppled Erdoğan’s allies in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government and the disappointments of Turkey’s inability to effect a favourable outcome in the Syrian civil war have put paid to ambitions to extend Turkish influence from Aleppo to Cairo.

Leading Turkish bureaucrats developed Ottomanism in mid 19th century in response to the growing separatist nationalism that sprang up first among the empire’s Christian subjects.

The European powers of the time – Britain, France and Russia – provided varying degrees of covert and overt economic and military support to national movements in the Ottoman Balkan provinces and to other Christian populations such as the Armenians and Anatolian Greeks in Asia Minor and the Levant.

The Reformation Edict of 1856 promised complete equality to all Ottoman citizens and the 1869 Ottoman Nationality Law defined a common citizenship where, regardless of ethnic and religious background, all Ottoman citizens became subject to a parallel common law.

Christians and Jews had previously been subject to extra taxes, but had been excused from joining the military. Now all were required to pay the same taxes and also serve in the military. With the loss of the mainly Christian Balkan territories from late 19th century, much of the financial burden of the heavily indebted empire fell on its Muslim citizens; Arabs, Kurds and Turks.

The Committee of Union and Progress, the political party of the Young Turk movement that seized power in 1908, encouraged and forced the use of Turkish across the multi-ethnic empire and with the impending loss of the remaining Balkan territories a form of pan-Turkism began to take hold at the expense of other nationalities.

It was in this politically bitter atmosphere that leading Arab tribes threw their lot in with invading British troops to shake off Turkish control. After the war, the new Republic of Turkey politically and psychologically distanced itself from its Middle Eastern backyard and redirected its foreign policy towards becoming part of the Western bloc of nations.  

In the second half of the 20th century, the secularist establishment built a foreign policy around Turkey’s membership to NATO and its aim of eventually joining the European Union. It took minimal interest in the Middle East.

Erdoğan’s and Turkey’s Islamists meanwhile developed a romanticised view of the Ottoman past and imagined Muslims across the empire’s former Middle Eastern and Balkan territories shared their yearning for an eventual return of the Muslim Turk to spread justice and glory to Islam. Simplistic as it may seem, many in Erdoğan’s close circle grew up with such myths.

The “Strategic Depth” concept put forward by Turkey’s former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was an extension of this neo-Ottoman ideology in which it was envisioned that an economically and politically self-confident Turkey would stage a comeback to the region and defend the rights of Muslims, long suffering at the hands of Western imperialists.

Davutoğlu’s gross miscalculation that Turkey could leverage the chaos that followed the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 onwards, first in Egypt and later in Syria, by providing political and military support to Islamist groups has cost Turkey dearly.

Erdoğan is still able to project through state-controlled media the false narrative of his claim to be sole protector of the Muslim faithful to consolidate domestic support and offset unease about an economic downturn and creeping authoritarianism.

But as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt assume a more defiant pan-Arab political tone against Turkish and Iranian interference in the region, Erdoğan is likely to fall back on rhetoric accusing Arabs of stabbing Turks in the back.

2017 will be remembered as the year when Turkey’s neo-Ottoman expansionism came to a halt.