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Turkey has a knack for picking the losing side. Erdoğan’s decline could change that

The earthquake has crystallised public anger against the President. Elections due this year could lead to secular parties coming to power.

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Exquisite politeness veiled the Mughal Emperor’s rage. “Alms sent to Mecca by the refuge of authority, His Excellency Jalal-ud-Din Akbar, may God eternise him, are being distributed in the Haram sharif,” noted Murad bin-Selim, ruler of the Ottoman realms and custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. “You shall stop the distribution of alms by the aforementioned monarch,” he ordered. “You shall not permit those who have come from that side, whether the ladies of the above-mentioned monarch or others, to stay longer than required.”

Evicted from Mecca in 1580, historian N.R. Farooqi recorded in 1996, and insulted by the governor of Aden, the women of Akbar’s court returned home. The emperor came to loathe hajj, court chronicler Abdul-Qadir Shah lamented: “Merely to ask leave to go on pilgrimage is enough to make a man a malefactor worthy of death.”

For the four-and-a-half centuries since that encounter, Indian and Turkish power has continued to collide across the Middle East. Even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fantasies of reconstructing Ottoman power are often blamed for the country’s deteriorating relationship with India, the problem runs much deeper.

Turkey’s secularist, military-dominated establishment opposed the Liberation of Goa in 1961 and supplied weapons to Pakistan in the wars of 1965 and 1971—all the decades before the Islamist-leaning Erdoğan began making Kashmir a centrepiece of his foreign policy in 2003.

Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy ambitions might have disintegrated in the ruins left behind by this month’s terrible earthquake. Analyst Gonul Tol notes that the quake has crystallised public anger against the cronyism and mismanagement of Erdoğan’s regime. Elections due for later this year —which some fear Erdoğan is seeking to postpone—could thus lead to a seismic shift in Turkish politics, with secular parties returning to power after decades.


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Between East and West

Throughout the last century, Turkish foreign policy has had a record of picking the losing side. Evicted from the Middle East due to its support to Germany in World War I, Istanbul supported the United Kingdom at the outset of World War II. Weeks into the war, though, Paris fell, and Turkey began wondering if it had made a bad choice. President Ismet Inönü—lieutenant to revolutionary patriarch Kemal Atatürk—signed an accord with Nazi Germany, guaranteeing the country’s neutrality.

Even though neutrality protected Turkey from Nazi invasion, historian Bülent Gökay noted, it ended up exposing the country to the wrath of the victorious Soviet Union. Turkish survival now compelled it to join the West in the Cold War.

Leaders from Turkey who visited India in 1953, scholar Omer Aslan has recorded, explained to journalists that non-alignment did not suit Turkish national interests. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes privately described Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as “an able but most dangerous man”.

For its part, Pakistan also lined up with the West, seeing it as a critical partner to contain India—even at the cost, political scientist Khalid Makhtoom observed, of alienating countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Together with Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, Pakistan entered the Central Treaty Organisation, or CENTO—the West-led bloc designed to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East in 1958.

Little time passed, though, before it became clear that the interests of these states and the West did not always neatly align. Turkey backed out of plans to send military aid to India during the 1962 war—but the United States did not, angering Pakistan. The US chose not to back Turkey’s territorial claims in Cyprus in 1964 and was less-than-supportive of Islamabad’s military adventures in Kashmir.

Together with Turkey and Iran, Pakistan responded by developing an Islamic caucus outside of CENTO. From 1962, articles supportive of Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir began to appear in Turkish media. The $5 million military aid Turkey provided in 1965, or the dozen helicopters Iran loaned in 1971 to Pakistan, did nothing to tip the military balance against India—but they were of ideological significance, given the West refused to involve itself.

Firoz Khan Noon, Pakistan’s foreign minister between 1956 and 1958, had proposed a foreign policy built around pan-Islamism and the Two-Nation Theory, embedding Pakistan at the heart of the so-called Muslim world.

The idea seemed seductive—but the new Turkish-centred Islamic caucus soon realised they just didn’t have the economic resources to give it meaning. And the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 terrified both Istanbul and Islamabad—leading them to seek shelter, once again, under the American umbrella.

Liberal-leaning Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal sought to rebuild relations with India from 1986 onwards, but Turkish foreign policy reversed when violence broke out in Kashmir five years after.

Later, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit even declined an invitation to visit Pakistan in April 2000, when he visited India—a stinging rebuke of General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime. Erdoğan reversed course again after coming to power as prime minister in 2003.


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Imperial illusions

Erdoğan’s rise to power saw Kashmir take centre-stage in Turkish policy on South Asia. In 2003, he announced that Pakistan and Turkey would mutually support their claims to Kashmir and Cyprus.

In 2017, the Turkish leader expressly laid claim to communal solidarities in South Asia. “There are certain aspects”, he said, “which contribute enormously to our ancient relations. In India, we have followers of the Muslim faith. And in Pakistan, there are Muslims”.

Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu had declared in 2009 that Turkey sought a born-again Ottoman Empire, in which Istanbul would “reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus.”

Election advertisements issued by the ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or Justice and Development Party, in 2017 expressly invoked the idea of the President as caliph of a neo-Ottoman Empire, with legions of grateful subjects: “Erdoğan has paid the bill”, a Pakistani restaurant-owner tells a Turkish tourist in the Karakoram mountains. Erdoğan calculated—correctly, as it turned out—that the growing trade relationship with India could coexist with his bid to expand legitimacy in the Islamic world.

“We have never forgotten and will never forget the help that the Pakistani people extended, by sharing their own bread during our War of Independence,” Erdoğan told Pakistan’s parliament in 2020. “And now, Kashmir is and will be the same for us.”

The so-called zero-problems foreign policy backfired as the Arab Spring began to spin out of control after 2010, spawning insurgencies and authoritarian governments. Turkey’s relationship with key Middle East powers disintegrated. Even though countries like Iran and Qatar had a common cause with Turkey, other powerful actors such as Saudi Arabia came to share India’s concerns on Erdoğan.  Europe—which Erdoğan assailed on the blasphemy issue, describing it as “sick” and “collapsing”—also became increasingly worried.

Links with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) were strained almost to breaking point when the earthquake compelled Erdoğan to turn to his self-proclaimed Western enemies for help. A mismanaged economy that saw inflation surging to record levels and large-scale nepotism and corruption — the illusion of an Islamic universe centred around Turkey had begun to shatter long before the earthquake.

“Erdoğan is merely the symptom of a broader problem,” scholars Marwa Maziad and Jake Sotiriadis argued, “Ankara’s promotion of a pan-Islamist, neo-Ottoman ideology has dangerous implications for the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and beyond.  This misguided vision of pan-Islamism evokes a culturally hegemonic form of political Islam.”


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The Islamist impulse

“The spies who had been sent to India have returned,” a missive from Ottoman Emperor Murad III recorded in 1586. “They have been informed that Jalal-ud-din, the king of the aforementioned country, has concluded an alliance with the Portuguese infidels, and they have prepared a fleet with the intention of invading and pillaging the ports of Yemen.”

N.R. Farooqi noted that the emperor ordered his Yemen generals to “act like wolves and prevent the infidels” from ravaging his protected dominions. “Do not take this matter lightly. Do not leave anything to chance.”

Emperor Murad III’s concerns were well-founded, even though the Portuguese-Mughal alliance he feared never existed. The showers of alms Akbar drenched Mecca with were intended to undermine the hegemony of the Ottoman caliph.  Akbar was also making claims to both spiritual and temporal authority in his realms—directly undermining Ottoman claims to be the leader of all Muslims.

The Turkish relationship with India is driven, in key senses, by the domestic struggle over the country’s destiny. Like Murad III, post-independence Turkish rulers—whether the secular generals of the 1960s or Erdoğan—have tried to use Islam to address their geopolitical vulnerabilities.  Liberals like former Prime Minister Ecevit understood the world was changing and sought to develop relationships that transcended religion with emerging powers. The rising tide of Islamism in Turkish political life, though, undid these efforts.

Erdoğan’s sunset will show whether a turning point has finally come in Turkey’s imagination of its ties with the world—allowing it to emerge from the toxic shadow of its imperial past.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

 

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