Erdoğan's fantasy of a Turkish nationalist, Islamist empire poses a serious risk for the world
By using the police, judiciary and the threat of imprisonment to silence internal opposition, Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seeking to revive the 'Ottoman fantasy' and to reinvent, bit by bit, the Turkish state established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In this, Erdoğan, the leader of the country's Justice and Development Party (AKP), has the unconditional backing of both Turkish nationalists and Islamists. The aims of this new regime are clear: to re-establish the historic power of the Turks; to regain a meaningful voice on the global stage; and to take back the lost territory of the Ottoman Empire.
With the trumpets of war again drowning out those advocating a peaceful approach, massacres, genocides, destruction, death and large numbers of fleeing refugees are as much a part of the world today as they have been at any point in human history. After the civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya, and escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the world is now watching a new war erupt between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Caucasus. In all these regions, one state in particular has emerged as an interventionist military force, and that is Turkey.
The Turkish state and Erdoğan's confrontational personality have been fuelling more significant hostilities by stoking up internal conflicts and increasing tensions in the region. How aware is Europe or the world of the danger posed by the new Turkish regime, which is gradually dragging the region into years of chaos, and could potentially spark a major war?
In this article, we attempt an analysis of the ideological infrastructure of this new regime in Turkey led by Erdoğan and its supporters, as well as its policies, goals and objectives. In this regard, we will also touch on the importance of the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean Islands and the Caucasus for the Turkish state. Our premiss is the belief that Turkish state actors, based on a nostalgic interpretation of history, have come together in a new regime under Erdoğan's leadership to revive the Ottoman legacy, and have reshaped domestic and foreign policy accordingly. We contend that Erdoğan and his new regime have an 'imperial fantasy', and that the accompanying expansionist policy poses a serious risk for the world and humanity.
We argue that this goal is a conscious decision made by this new regime now governing Turkey, endorsed not only by the ruling political Islamist AKP government but also by the opposition parties (except the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), with its Kurdish-oriented leftist politics). Our aim is to analyse the backdrop to this issue and to understand this 'pipe dream policy' – representing the start of an increasingly dangerous slippery slope for not only the region but also the world – before it results in major conflict. We plan to show how this can be countered with appropriate sanctions and by bringing non-violent forms of pressure to bear on the regime. We do not believe this will be achieved though war, violence, bloodshed or bombs, but by peaceful means providing long-term solutions. Economic sanctions that punish the population are often not enough to achieve the desired result. Instead, to start with, sanctions should be put in place and diplomatic relations frozen to ensure that the current fascist regime is replaced/destroyed without harming ordinary people. Other ways of helping the Turkish people would be to encourage solidarity with organisations that are critical of the regime and to support an alternative politics. Creating platforms in Turkey which promote radical pacifist voices rather than warmongers and ensuring that these voices are heard across Europe would make a major contribution to the fight against this authoritarian, racist regime.
We think that people in Europe are not yet fully aware of the real intentions of Erdoğan and his new regime. Simply viewing Erdoğan as a dreamer, a paranoid fantasist or a ranting bully would be a mistake. We believe that just focusing (as the opposition often does) on Erdoğan's policies, the steps he has taken and his approach to elections masks the 'real truth'. It would be a grave political mistake to assume that the repressive regime being constructed in Turkey and the problems resulting from its combative foreign policy emanate from Erdoğan alone. It would also be a mistake to think that peace and democracy will prevail in the country if Erdoğan is removed from power. Even if Erdoğan were to lose power, the idea is that this regime will survive. Indeed, there is a 50+-year plan for the Turkish state, which guides every action taken by the regime.
In recent years, the Turkish state has adopted a new overarching paradigm provided by Turkish nationalists and political Islamists, covering everything from popular history to the media, and from writers and artists to imagery of swords and arrows. To realise their goals – namely the unification of all Turks for the Turkish nationalists (the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Ergenekon, Eurasianist-cum-nationalists), and the Ottoman model for the political Islamists (AKP/Erdoğan) – for some years now Turkish nationalists and political Islamists have formed a political alliance, participating in elections as the People's Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı).
This alliance has built its new regime with constitutional changes it has made in recent years. It has accepted Erdoğan as its leader and amended constitutional law, creating a 'Turkish-style presidency'. Erdoğan's thousand-room palace has become the nerve centre of this new regime. All government institutions and ministries in Turkey are connected to the palace. The palace, which plays host to representatives of the regime's partners, is where all domestic and foreign policy decisions are made. The fact that the regime has pardoned powerful mafia bosses and their organisations and has facilitated the resolution of deep-rooted conflicts between rival groups shows the extent of the alliance's goals.
One particularly striking illustration of this was the release from prison of mafia boss Alaattin Çakıcı following a request by Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of Erdoğan's ally, the MHP, and often regarded as the representative of the ultra-nationalist wing of the regime, and even of the 'deep state'. Erdoğan agreed to this request, albeit grudgingly, with his party, the AKP, passing amendments to the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures to enable Çakıcı's release. However, Selahattin Demirtaş – the political leader, in jail since November 2016, who had mounted the most effective opposition to Erdoğan and the Turkish regime – and other political prisoners including other Kurdish politicians, and journalists and writers such as Ahmet Altan were excluded from this new legislation. While the regime has allowed the release of mafia bosses, it is intent on keeping opposition figures such as Altan and Demirtaş behind bars indefinitely. These examples alone show the pressure the new regime, led by Erdoğan, is applying to opposition in Turkey.
Instead of working towards Turkish membership of the European Union, securing peace with the Kurds, establishing full democracy in the country and replacing the constitution introduced following the military coup of 12 September 1980 with a civilian, democratic constitution, Erdoğan is going in completely the opposite direction. In recent years, Erdoğan has taken pleasure in his position as a macho, nationalist leader holding together the members of his regime, chair of the AKP and a president of the "moderates". On a visit to Devlet Bahçeli after being released from prison, Alaattin Çakıcı called this ultra-nationalist the "legendary living leader of the Turkish world and the Turkish nation".
But Bahçeli has neither the political acumen nor the leadership skills to live up to such a bold statement. Rather, Erdoğan, the leader of the political Islamists, is now also aspiring to this role. And he is portraying himself not just as the head of the Islamists but also of the 'pan-Turkists'/Turanists, while developing imperial fantasies based on a Turkish-Islamic synthesis and the imagery of the Kızıl Elma (the 'Golden Apple' (or the 'Red Apple'), an expression from Ottoman Turkish lore that symbolises something akin to 'the Promised Land').
In fact, the main goal of the alliance formed by the new regime is to revive the Turks' historical power. They believe, like Erdoğan, that the only way to achieve this is through the "imperial dream". To this end, they are ready to declare Erdoğan the Caliph, and Istanbul once again the capital of the Muslim world. Reinterpreting Turkish history, reviving ideological symbols and disregarding the conditions of agreements entered into by the Turkish state established after the First World War are all part and parcel of this new paradigm.
But as has been pointed out in some quarters, it is not just Erdoğan who is dreaming the Ottoman dream. With its silence, the opposition (with the notable exception of the HDP) expresses tacit approval for every step taken towards this Ottoman goal. Even Kemalists (i.e. adherents of the founding ideology of Atatürk's Turkish state), inspired by the historical power of the Turks, are not really speaking out against the prospect of an Erdoğan caliphate.
Kemalism, Erdoğanism and seeking the Golden Apple
Regime change tailored to Erdoğan's needs is directly connected to this goal. While the regime in Turkey has silenced internal opposition and institutionalised Erdoğan's 'one-man state', it is also implementing plans in its foreign policy to make the 'Ottoman fantasy' come true. Their point of departure is the historical mission of the Turkish nation, which they are seeking to revitalise and roll out. This is based on an ideology consisting of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis and Golden Apple symbolism, with the Great Seljuk and Ottoman Empires serving as the blueprint. Erdoğan's political slogan "A New Turkey" camouflages what is, in reality, an imperialist goal. The picture become clearer if we take "A New Turkey" and the "Golden Apple" together is revealing in that it shows that. Both discourses represent a "return to the glorious history of the Turks" and have whipped up nationalist sentiment among the majority of the population. While these two ideologies may sound appealing, on close inspection they reveal something much less innocent.
Having long been consigned to obscurity in the dusty annals of Turkish history, Golden Apple discourse was placed centre stage again one cold day in January 2018. When the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish-backed radical Islamist groups invaded the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in Syria, despite this being in the region least involved in the Syrian civil war, a Turkish officer was asked, "What's your goal?", and he replied, "The Golden Apple." This response amounted to a confession of the new regime's covert and overt goals. At the time, Erdoğan came back to the soldier's words and said, "Yes, we have a golden apple in our sights. We're moving towards that goal." This was not simply one of Erdoğan's many provocative statements, although that may have been how the public interpreted his words, in fact he was heralding the dawn of a new era. When we look at the history of the Golden Apple and what it means, it signals something much more alarming. First of all, Golden Apple symbolism was used by the Janissaries, the most important military unit in the Ottoman conquests. For Turks, the Golden Apple is an allusion to the territory that needs to be reached and conquered sometimes as part of its ideal of global domination and sometimes as part of its ideal of Turkish unity. The ideological basis for this symbol was set out by Ziya Gökalp, a Kurd from Diyarbakır, in a book of the same name. That the book was written in 1914 is significant, as the Ottoman Empire had lost territory in Europe during the Balkan Wars and was in decline more generally. Golden Apple discourse aimed to restore the Turkish-Islamic ideal and precipitate a return to the years of conquest. The Ottoman Empire entered the First World War with this desire, but it was met with unexpected defeat. It vanished from sight, with many states emerging from its former territories. Heir to the Ottoman Empire's legacy was Atatürk's republic, but he was at pains to distance his new state from what remained of the Ottoman era, and managed to do so. Kemalism arguably became the country's only regime, but this has changed in recent years. Now, Erdoğan's regime, referred to by some as "Erdoğanism", is trying to dismantle Kemalism bit by bit and seeking a return to the Ottoman Empire. Among his most striking acts, drawing reaction from around the world, was to turn the Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque. Not only that but he held a sword while reading a Quarnic sermon at its inauguration, echoing the age of Ottoman conquest. Atatürk's "Peace at Home, Peace in the World" discourse has been turned on its head – it is now "War at Home, War in the World". Erdoğanism does not recognise or celebrate the Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Atatürk and his chief negotiator İsmet İnönü and declared "a success and a victory". For Erdoğanism, it was not a success, but a defeat. Indeed, Kemalists no longer even feel the need to celebrate Victory Day, marking Turkey's 1922 victory over Greece in the Turkish War of Independence, on 30 August. Erdoğanism does not view this as a historical victory, as the Kemalists do. Instead, the new regime focuses on historical events that will arouse enthusiasm among Turkish nationalists and Islamists. In this light, celebrations of the conquest of Istanbul and the anniversary of victory in the Battle of Malazgirt in 1071 (which heralded the arrival of Ottoman Turks in Anatolia) hold much greater significance. Popular culture has been heavily leveraged to realise these Ottoman dreams. TV series such as Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century), which tells the story of Suleiman the Magnificent, Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul) and Fatih (The Conqueror) fire up Turkish nationalist sentiment. It is as if Turkish nationalists are not far short of accepting Erdoğan's son as their prince, taking up their shields, mounting their horses and, armed with swords and arrows, riding off to Europe and the Middle East on expeditions of conquest. The years 2023, 2053 and 2071, which Erdoğan references frequently, relate to some crucial Turkish historical goals and so offer clues to the aspirations underlying this new blueprint. Various scenarios are put forward for each of these milestones, with a focus on victory for the Turkish-Islamic republic, empire and 'Turkishness'. Kurdish politician Hatip Dicle believes that the first of the Turkish state's new goals would be for Erdoğan to declare Istanbul the capital of the caliphate in 2023. According to Dicle, the second would be to either occupy or hold political sway over Ottoman territories by 2053, and the third would be to push ahead with the 'Turkification' of these territories between 2053 and 2071.
According to Professor Hamit Bozarslan, a historian, political scientist and Middle East expert who has taught at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris for many years, Erdoğan has three aims. Bozarslan frames these as "partial salvation by 2023, a Turkish empire by 2053, the historical mission of 'Turkishness' by 2071 […]".
Erdoğan's regime can only turn its imperial dreams into reality if Turkey invades countries in the region. This, of course, creates resistance. In this context, Iran appears to be the only country in the region with which Turkey is not currently in direct conflict. Erdoğan and the representatives of political Islam are Sunni, while Iran is Shiite. These two belief systems at opposite poles of the Islamic world are at odds with each other. But given their regional interests, the Sunni Turks and the Shiite Iranians prefer to pursue a policy of non-engagement. In fact, this tacit understanding with Tehran has another dimension for the Erdoğan regime, namely that the goal of reclaiming Turkey's lost Ottoman territory does not involve Iran. This is because the current Turkish-Iranian border established when the Ottomans and the Safavid Persians signed the Treaty of Zuhab, in 1639 remains valid to this day. Therefore, the Ottoman Empire did not lose any territory to Iran, and so the Turks do not have their sights set on Tehran to achieve their Ottoman fantasy. Instead, they dream of reclaiming Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, all of Cyprus, Crete, the Aegean islands and territory in the Balkans, all of which were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Reclaiming these territories would fulfil the dreams of political Islamists, and the moves that have been taken to this end have been intended to satisfy the Islamists. Initially unable to achieve their goals in the Eastern Mediterranean, for now the regime seems to have kept the Islamists happy by entering Syria and Libya. But now it is time to realise the dream of the AKP's Turkish nationalist allies. A bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia for years, recent conflicts in Karabakh have mobilised pan-Turkists/Turanists, who were in fact simply waiting for the right moment to make their move. Without Turkish support, it is generally accepted by experts that Azerbaijan could not afford to get involved in a war with Armenia. There have been conflicts, bombardments and deaths in the region for days. Azerbaijan is determined to capture Karabakh, and Armenia is intent on defending it. But the Turkish state is backing the Azeris. Erdoğan's ally Devlet Bahçeli made his goals clear in a strong statement about Armenia. Bahçeli has expressed support for Azerbaijan, emphasising the pan-Turkic aspect of Turkey's new political course with the words "Two states, one nation". The Turkish nationalist/Islamist regime is now arousing patriotic sentiment with hostility towards Armenia, shifting tensions from the Eastern Mediterranean, where they are now subsiding, to the Caucasus. The regime's purpose is clear: establishing a great new Islamist/pan-Turkic empire. It aims to achieve this in two ways: war and influence.
The need for energy to fight its wars
There is a deepening economic crisis in Turkey. Day after day, the value of the Turkish lira is falling sharply against the US dollar and other currencies. Despite repeated interventions by the AKP-led government in Turkish central bank activity and the announcement of new economic packages, a dramatic rise in exchange rates has not been stemmed, and foreign capital is fleeing the country.
Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has followed a neoliberal economic policy, but this was shaped based on party support, not the productive capacity of the economy. Government contracts and corporate subsidies are handed out to supporters. Large private-public partnership contracts have reached their limits. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing economic crisis in Turkey. In an already exhausted economy, it caused GDP to collapse by close to 11% (GSYIH) in the second quarter of 2020, while inflation was up more than 11% in August based on the average of the last 12 months. The decline in the exchange rate in real terms is negatively impacting imports and industrial production. Foreign debt in the economy amounts to almost a quarter of national income. The Central Bank, which is completely under the control of the Erdoğan regime, is keeping interest rates low to stimulate the economy. However, before inflation fell, rate cuts had lowered the actual interest rate, which led to both an increase in demand for dollars (and therefore an increase in the value of the dollar) and a halt to capital inflows. As a result, the Central Bank is facing a serious foreign exchange shortage.
In Turkey, the cost of war is accepted almost without question by the AKP and the Kemalist opposition. Of course, war is a major drain on the economy. Turkey is dependent on other countries for its arms supply and so on foreign exchange rates for these imports. This means that the Erdoğan regime cannot do as it pleases in this respect. Turkey's dependence on others shows how Erdoğan is continually trying to push the limits and prevents him from acting as freely as he would wish. Siding with radical Islamist groups in the Idlib region of Syria, establishing military bases in the region and the occupation of various Kurdish towns and cities (Afrin, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serekaniye) have been very costly. The Turkish Armed Forces are repeatedly bombing targets in Northern Iraq and have also become involved in the civil war in Libya. There has been considerable expenditure on soldiers, weapons and logistical support in these regions. Adding the amounts spent in Azerbaijan on top of this, the bill is huge and is further exacerbating foreign debt.
The Erdoğan regime knows that it has little chance of winning a direct war with a regional power, as it has neither the economic nor the military clout to do so. Therefore, if it wants to put the Golden Apple ideology into practice, it will have to boost its economic and military power, and this will require the regime to have considerable energy reserves at its disposal.
According to Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, Turkey imports around 40 billion US dollars' worth of energy annually. However, the operating costs of the natural gas reserve discovered in the Black Sea are quite considerable. It would appear that what the regime claims is a 320-km² gas field is not worth developing. In fact, the big reveal of this gas reserve was much more about marking the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey's establishment in 2023. The Erdoğan regime's crowing about reserves found in the Eastern Mediterranean, which it called an "axis shift", also proved short-lived.
Regional alliances instead of the EU and NATO
Despite the risk of war to the Turkish regime, its aims in the Eastern Mediterranean clearly go beyond natural gas exploration. The central goal is to be active in the Mediterranean region, and in particular in the Eastern Mediterranean (also known as the Levant). When, during the Arab Spring, the Turkish regime's dreams of having an influence in Africa through the Muslim Brotherhood quickly came to nothing in Egypt, it was inevitable that tensions with that country would increase.
The seismic research vessel Oruç Reis, which brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war in the Eastern Mediterranean, was withdrawn to Antalya on 13 September 2020, under escort from the Turkish Navy. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu took it upon himself to respond to claims that his government had backed down in the region. Indicating that they would not abandon their expansionist goals in the region, he said: "Turkey has not backed down in the Mediterranean; the Oruç Reis returned to port for maintenance and to be restocked." Many experts agree that the Turks' main aim in the region is to reclaim lost Ottoman territories in the Mediterranean and the Aegean with confrontational political gestures and threats of war.
The starting point of the Erdoğan regime's maritime strategy is based on the 'Blue Homeland' doctrine introduced in 2006 by retired admiral Cem Gürdeniz, himself tried in the Ergenekon trials. The doctrine was subsequently set out by retired rear admiral Cihat Yaycı in his 2010 book Temel Deniz Hukuku (Basic Maritime Law). In short, the doctrine delineates Turkey's borders in the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean and the Mediterranean, as well as the state's rights and sovereignty in these areas. According to the advocates of the doctrine, an alliance spearheaded by the United States and including European and regional states wants to completely remove the Turkish state from the Mediterranean. They argue that this should be resisted, and the Turkish government should be actively engaged in politics in the Mediterranean. After 2015, the doctrine became the basis for the Turkish government's military and maritime strategy in the area. Erdoğan was convinced, and over the last four years in particular, actions have been taken to implement the doctrine of military power, and areas of influence in the Mediterranean and Aegean have been contested.
In the 1980s, Turkish primary schools promoted the narrative that Turkey was surrounded by enemies on all sides. Now it is Erdoğan's turn to confirm the validity of this claim, and he has indeed made enemies everywhere in the region. Except for Qatar and Afghanistan, not a single country supports Turkey. Fresh from Syria and Libya, he has been on the brink of war with other states in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Turkey's continuing natural gas exploration activities in the disputed region raised tensions in the region in early September 2020. With France (the military driving force of the European Union) sending a warship and aircraft to the region to support Greece, for days developments in the Eastern Mediterranean kept the whole world on tenterhooks. All three countries are members of NATO, and so that organisation took action, but a permanent solution was not possible in light of the relevant countries' current policy course. Besides, no policy or state gets close to tackling the roots of this problem. French President Emmanuel Macron placed the emphasis on deeds when he said, "The Turks only respect words that are put into action" and later clearly stated, "Turkey is developing Ottoman fantasies". A joint press conference given by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated that the EU have no clear policy on this issue. Merkel clearly expressed the German government's point of view when she said "We're taking a different position from Macron". The EU and NATO responded to the Turks' expansionist policy, with nothing more than statements indicating a passive stance such as "We condemn these actions", "We are concerned" and "We are troubled". We often saw the same reactions from the EU when the Turkish army invaded Syria and occupied Kurdish towns and cities. As a result, we are witnessing a corrosion of people's belief and trust in both the EU and NATO, and in their promises and ability to enforce these. It will of course be difficult for NATO, whose members are on the brink of war themselves, to find a lasting solution, and with every crisis or incident it is becoming ever more apparent that the EU has no common position when it comes to the Erdoğan regime.
Professor Cengiz Aktar, an expert on European Union affairs and a lecturer at the University of Athens, has suggested that the Europeans have not responded strongly enough to the Turkish regime's actions, saying: "The more the EU appeases Turkey, the more emboldened Turkey becomes. Turkey is becoming more and more undemocratic, inside and out." The European Union is still under the illusion that it can keep Turkey under control and stop it drifting towards the Russians, even without any immediate prospect of EU membership, but the Turkish government has no such desires, intentions or visions. As Professor Aktar notes, "That ship has already sailed – it's done." The failure of the EU and NATO to live up to their responsibilities has led to the increasing emergence of regional alliances. The most important of these is the Mediterranean alliance led by Libya's General Haftar, which, as well as Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, includes EU Member States France, Greece and Cyprus. Its common enemy is the Erdoğan regime, its expansionist policy and his Ottoman dream. While the Turks might hark back to past glories, Arabs remember the Ottoman Empire not as a power that brought justice, prosperity and peace but as a despotic empire.
If Erdoğan and his regime do not relinquish their Turkish nationalist/Islamist fantasies, or if they are not forced to do so, there is a real possibility that at any moment the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Balkans could be plunged into the hell of war like that seen in the Middle East. The withdrawal of Oruç Reis from the Eastern Mediterranean to Antalya may have eased tensions and allowed the EU to heave a sigh of relief, but as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made clear, his regime has not backed down. For the time being, it is still planning to implement the Blue Homeland doctrine on the seas, to annul the Treaty of Lausanne and to redraw its borders with other countries in the region. The Turkish state, unable to secure the support it sought from the United States, remains isolated in the region, and while it has backed down for the time being and cooled the tensions it stoked up in the Eastern Mediterranean, this does not mean that the issue has been resolved. Through its recent, seemingly unconditional support for Azerbaijan, the Turkish regime is clinging to pan-Turkic aspirations in the Caucasus. And there is no guarantee that, whether in the short or longer term, it will not spark renewed tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean or other areas it regards as 'Ottoman territory'.
About the authors
Burhan Ekinci is a sociology graduate who started his career in journalism in 2002. He has worked for several national and international newspapers and has written many articles on Turkey and the Kurdish question. Since 2016, he has lived in Germany, where he writes for broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) and continues to work as a freelance journalist.
Dr Arif Rüzgar holds degrees in economics and political science and is currently the economics and trade programme director at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (RLS) in Brussels.
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