Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has a vision to revive the ancient Ottoman Empire. Photo: Twitter

Turkey is stretching its political footprint and ambitions from the central Mediterranean to Western China. But there are lessons of tolerance and modernization to take from its Ottoman legacy and its modern political sponsors – the US and Germany.

On the surface, Turkey is a midget. Its gross domestic product (GDP) of less than US$800 billion is almost a third of Italy’s, and certainly not the size of a geopolitical giant.

However, it has a population of 85 million and claims to represent tens of millions of Turkic people spread around Asia. It claims the legacy of the Muslim caliphate and the historic victory over the Byzantines in 1453. And it is a global superpower that could play a major role in the fight that just started against China.

Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been spreading its wings in the region and beyond. Yet, this latest incarnation is not just the brainchild of the president.

Since the fall of the Soviet empire, there has been mutual interest between Turkey and Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Turkey has proved its mettle in recent years in containing and beating both Iran and Russia in Syria and Iraq.

Although Ankara has also been cracking down within Turkey and in former Northern Iraq on the aspirations of the Kurds — the darlings of many Western liberals — Turkey has been the most effective force hemming in Iran, which was supporting Syria’s Assad goals.

Turkey also managed at the same time to restrain and apparently root out the Islamic State, which had been a constant threat for the Western world. Ankara stopped the flow of immigrants from Syria into Europe, giving breathing space to the European Union which was almost flooded and overwhelmed by the immigrant problem.

That is, Turkey managed to deliver and became de facto the bulwark of NATO in the region, and it could project itself east and west. Of course, for each service Ankara claimed a reward but this further enhanced its bargaining position.

Then perhaps it’s no surprise that the intelligence services of the US, the United Kingdom and France are now all headed by experts on Turkey, all fluent in Turkish.

Past and present intermingled

For the past couple of years Americans had been urging Italy to move into Tripoli in support of the local government and to regain control after the Russians moved in with “volunteers” and equipment in support of East Libyan General Haftar.

After years of Rome dragging its feet on a massive Libyan intervention, the Turks moved in, possibly with the blessing of Washington, and stabilized the situation in Tripoli. This for Italy was a major blow as it brought back the regional situation of more than 100 years ago when in the 1911 Libyan war it dislodged the Turks from Libya. But the Turks again managed to deliver a significant goal, which was to check the Russians.

Moreover, Turkey could play a crucial role in the geopolitical fight against China. Eight million Uighurs represent about 0.5% of the Chinese population, yet their political activism far outweighs their numbers. Xinjiang, home of the Uighurs, is about a quarter of the Chinese territory.

To regain effective control of the region, Beijing has undertaken a controversial campaign to allegedly send one million Uighurs to re-education camps. These people, although suppressed and with little sympathy among the Han population in China, are an extremely thorny problem for Beijing.

Chinese Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

Their leaders out of China have good understanding of Chinese politics, unlike their Tibetan counterparts. One of them, Wuerkaxi, was a leader of the Tiananmen movement and another, Nury Turkel, is an accomplished lawyer and polyglot in America. Both were children of the local Uighur “aristocracy” brought up by the communist education system.

Therefore, they know well the inner workings of the party and command high respect among their fellow Uighurs.

This is very different from their Tibetan counterparts. The Tibetan aristocracy followed the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, and from then on, the Communist Party recruited its local cadres from the ex-slaves who had little or no respect in the Tibetan community. Therefore, Tibetan society has since been broken down with little unity, and those who understood the party have little or no respect from the Dalai Lama.

This is very different from the Uighurs. Now, of course, the campaign of re-education and the massive flow of Han (China’s ethnic majority) immigration into Xinjiang could very well undermine any clout the local population has. However, the appeal of the Uighur cause could be very strong in Central Asia, especially if backed by the Turkic legacy and an American drive.

Turkic people in Central Asia are extremely divided and at odds with one another because of ancestral tribal feuds and new frictions between their newly established states. Yet they all look to Istanbul as their cultural cradle.

In all this, the return of Hagia Sophia, the massive monument in Istanbul, as a mosque is a symbol of the cultural if not religious restoration of the Turkish caliphate, and a call to the ancient glory when Turkic people ruled all over central Asia.

Visitors at the Hagia Sophia while still a museum. ‘Sophia’ is Greek for ‘wisdom,’ something sometimes lacking in government policy. Image: Wikimedia

The Hagia Sophia was built as the largest church of Christianity during the Byzantine rule, then it was turned into a mosque when Mehmet II took the city from the Byzantine, and a century ago it became a museum as Turkey vowed to distance itself from its Islamic legacy.

Turkey’s outreach into Central Asia, right at the heart of one of China’s most controversial issues, could become very important if it manages to mobilize and unite modern Turkic populations of Central Asia in an anti-Beijing stance. Many of those states, despite their differences, have growing qualms with Beijing as they follow the fate of their fellow Turkic Uighurs.

In this sense, the economic weaknesses of Turkey and its inability to get its economy together could prove to be an asset in disguise. With overblown political ambitions and little economic strength to back it up, Turkey becomes more dependent on its patrons, the US and Germany (in place of the European Union). In this situation, Turkey could be rewarded even further with a greater role in the Mediterranean.

Turkey would create a three-seas link: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea, all lined up by a Turkish presence. This would be a Turkish Silk Road with anti-Chinese connotations that could be supported by India, the European Union, and the United States. This support would be essential for Turkey.

After the 1453 victory, the Ottomans established a monopoly on the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia that eventually forced the European to reach Asia from the west, something that led to the discovery of America and the eventual demise of the Turks. A Modern “caliphate” then ought to avoid the mistakes of the past and gain as many friends as possible rather than enemies.

Enemies or not? The Pope

Some countries may be unhappy with Turkish global ambitions. Egypt, Greece, Israel and Italy, although firmly in the Western camp, are ill at ease with the new Turkish posture. However, none of them alone or in alliance can make up for the services that Turkey has provided and could provide in the future. Yet Turkey cannot just depend on American good offices to get along with these countries.

The main goal that the United States envisions now is the containment of China. It is therefore very unlikely that these countries would openly go against American wishes or even try to undermine them. This brings the ball back into Erdogan’s court.

Erdogan cannot carry on his massive ambitions just thanks to economic and political handouts by the United States and Germany (where Turkish immigrants are a political force of their own). The Ottoman sultanate was able to survive and thrive for centuries because it commanded the loyalty and respect of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. There were Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, Jews and Muslims of all sects.

Erdogan cannot just press on the pedal of Turkic identity and Muslim faith. He must reach out to the Christian world, in a modern way, to gain more of its support and to non-Turkic ethnic minorities, such as Kurds of Persian descent, or Arabs and Jews. This could help Erdogan inch closer to the European Union, the United States, and Israel, which in turn could help turn the Turkish economy around.

In all of this, it could be crucial for Erdogan to reach out to the Holy See. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was seen by the whole Christian world as a historic defeat of Christianity.

A hundred years ago with the revolution of the Young Turks, the massive temple was turned into a museum as a sign of transformation towards the Western world and first admission of modern Turkey into the system of Western alliances.

In this sense, the persecution of Christians in Turkey or the suppression of non-Muslim faiths could be a major drag on Erdogan’s ambitions.

Allowing Christian activity in the Muslim world has been a long-awaited signal and could bring about huge political dividends for Erdogan. Now is the time for Erdogan to collect on 30 years of Turkish efforts but he has to deliver something that goes beyond military and political prowess. The key is a reconciliation with the past. The turn of the Hagia Sophia skips the past 100 years and reaches out to the Ottoman.

But at the height of the empire the Ottomans were a very complex reality.

A rendering of the 1453 Fall of Constantinople by artist Theofilos. Image: Wikimedia

Turkey needs to set in motion its economy and for this it needs friends and a more liberal internal society. Without an efficient economy and friends all political dreams go bust. The oil of Arab friends/clients, sold at declining prices, can’t last long.

Moreover, Ankara needs to reconcile with its past. The recent past is the grudge over not being admitted to the EU. Now it’s clear that it was a blessing in disguise. If Turkey had been in the EU it could not have pursued its geopolitical goals. And, given the poor performance of its economy, it might now be in a worse crisis than Italy or Greece and the dealings with the EU could have further soured Turkish sentiments.

Furthermore, Ankara needs to reach out to Greeks and Armenians who for centuries had been an integral part of the Ottoman empire. The break in relations with the two Christian groups also contributed to the fall of the empire.

If Turkey wants a glimmer of its past it has to find a new future with these two important neighbors, and this could also start by recognizing many of its mistakes, the ethnic and religious persecutions of the past. With this, the future of Central Asia and of the three-seas system could be set on a different course.

Used with permission of Settimana News. Read the original here.