Pan-Islamism behind Turkey’s troubled embrace of Arab Spring - analysis

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party backed the Arab Spring, not as a result of any economic or geopolitical agenda, but as part of a pan-Islamist foreign policy that has led to Turkey’s isolation, said an analysis in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

The leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is dominated by Sunni Islamists, who have found in the Quran the call for greater Islamic unity and cooperation, echoing their Ottoman predecessors, according to Birol Başkan, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“The Ottoman Empire had even pursued pan-Islamism—a phrase coined by Europeans to refer to the foreign policy of Muslim unity during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II,” said Başkan. “By cooperating with one another, Muslims could stand against Europe and protect their interests. However...the idea failed to help the Ottoman Empire and others prevent total European domination.”

The concept of Islamic unity fell out of favour during Turkey’s early years, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk sharply curbed the influence of religion.

Turkish Islamism developed in the margins, incorporating the persecution of Muslim Brotherhood figures like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and developing sympathies for Muslim groups outside Turkey, according to Başkan.

The AKP came to power in 2002 and outwardly remained loyal to Turkey’s standard foreign policy positions, even pursuing political reform in order to join the EU.  By 2011, the AKP became more vocal about its Islamist-leaning ideas, according to Başkan.

Under the AKP, Turkey has increased Muslim-world trade eightfold, hosted dozens of international Islamic events, restored Ottoman-era relics across the region and cancelled visa requirements and developed high-level cooperation with many Muslim states.

“Turkey utterly embraced the Arab Spring more than any other country, even though it had excellent economic and political relations with all the pre-Arab Spring states and regimes, including Syria. There was no compelling economic or geopolitical reason behind such a wholehearted embrace,” Başkan wrote, apart from the objective of Islamic unity.  

The dreams of Turkish Islamists were dashed by the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and deepening conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, according to Başkan.

“In the late summer of 2013, Turkey found itself isolated in the region and turned to the only other country in the Middle East facing a similar setback, Qatar,” said Başkan.

Ankara still aims for a leading role in the Middle East, but it has revised its priorities as the AKP has politically aligned with nationalists. Erdoğan now says Turkey’s prime objective is to eradicate Kurdish militia from northern Syria, according to Başkan.

“At the end of the day, no matter how much Erdoğan moves toward Turkish nationalists to remain in power, the AKP and the base of the president’s support are with Turkish Islamists,” said Başkan.