Is Turkey’s new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu a pan-Islamist ideologue, with imperialist ambitions to reshape the Middle East into a post-national order based on Turkish and Sunni religious supremacy? That is the blockbuster thesis currently turning heads both inside and outside Turkey, thanks to a series of recent articles by Marmara University Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan.
Özkan, a one-time student of Davutoğlu’s from the latter’s time as an international relations professor, bases his provocative conclusion on close study of 300 articles penned by Davutoğlu in the 1980s and 90s. He first made his case in an essay for the August-September edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ journal “Survival,” before introducing it to a wider English audience with pieces on Al-Monitor and in the New York Times.
In his NYT op-ed “Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy” published last week, Özkan remembered Professor Davutoğlu as a hard-working and “genial figure” who “enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students.” In contrast with his academic peers, however, he believed that Turkey would “soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential … encompass[ing] the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and include Albania and Bosnia”:
Mr. Davutoglu’s classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis. He cited the historical precedents of Britain, which created a global empire in the aftermath of its 17th-century civil war, and Germany, a fragmented nation which became a global power following its 19th-century unification. Mr. Davutoglu was confident that his vision could transform what was then an inflation-battered nation, nearly torn apart by a war with Kurdish separatists, into a global power.
He crystallized these ideas in the book ‘Strategic Depth,’ in 2001, a year before the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., came to power. In the book, he defined Turkey as a nation that does not study history, but writes it — a nation that is not at the periphery of the West, but at the center of Islamic civilization … Mr. Davutoglu saw himself as a grand theorist at the helm of his country as it navigated what he called the ‘river of history.’ He and his country were not mere pawns in world politics, but the players who moved the pieces.
Özkan rejects that Davutoğlu’s ideas amount to “neo-Ottomanism,” as often accused. Instead, he gives Turkey’s new prime minister the even heftier label of “pan-Islamist”:
The movement known as Ottomanism emerged in the 1830s as the empire’s elites decided to replace existing Islamic institutions with modern European-style ones, in fields from education to politics. By contrast, Mr. Davutoglu believes that Turkey should look to the past and embrace Islamic values and institutions.
But, ironically, he bases his pan-Islamist vision on the political theories that were used to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945. While purporting to offer Turkey a new foreign policy for the 21st century, his magnum opus draws on the outdated concepts of geopolitical thinkers like the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Briton Halford Mackinder and the German Karl Haushofer, who popularized the term “Lebensraum,” or living space, a phrase most famously employed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to emphasize the need to expand its borders.
According to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart.
After becoming Turkey’s foreign minister from 2009, Davutoğlu had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice – with disastrous results:
As foreign minister, Mr. Davutoglu fervently believed that the Arab Spring had finally provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to put these ideas into practice. He predicted that the overthrown dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional ‘Muslim Brotherhood belt’ under Turkey’s leadership.
He sought Western support by packaging his project as a ‘democratic transformation’ of the Middle East. Yet today, instead of the democratic regimes promised three years ago, Turkey shares a border with ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Two months ago, its fighters raided the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage. Mr. Davutoglu, who has argued that Turkey should create an Islamic Union by abolishing borders, seems to have no idea how to deal with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, who have made Turkey’s own borders as porous as Swiss cheese.
To repair this dire situation as prime minister, Özkan says Davutoğlu needs to pragmatically reconnect Turkey’s regional policy with reality:
The new prime minister is mistaken in believing that the clock in the Middle East stopped in 1918 — the year the Ottoman Empire was destroyed — or that Turkey can erase the region’s borders and become the leader of an Islamic Union, ignoring an entire century of Arab nationalism and secularism. What Mr. Davutoglu needs to do, above all, is to accept that his pan-Islamist worldview, based on archaic theories of expansionism, is obsolete.
Özkan’s thesis certainly seems to have struck a chord, with plenty of prominent figures declaring their admiration. Still, the reception has not been universally positive. In Radikal, political scientist Fuat Keyman expressed skepticism about the use of any catch-all term such as “pan-Islamist” to accurately describe Davutoğlu’s worldview:
As someone who has read many – if not all – of Davutoğlu’s works, it’s difficult to understand how Dr. Özkan has drawn the conclusion that Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist (which is problematic as a term anyway).
It shouldn’t be forgotten that such expressions have only recently started to be used for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. It could be said that irresponsible, anti-Semitic writings and comments made [by others] in Turkey recently have contributed to the increased use of terms like ‘pan-Islamism’ abroad.
Still, I don’t think terms such as ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘sectarian,’ or ‘pan-Islamist’ are useful or appropriate when describing Davutoğlu’s worldview, or his approach to foreign and domestic politics … Criticism of Turkish foreign policy should instead focus on the strategic errors that have been made, the exaggeration of Turkey’s power, and recently its distancing from democracy.
In Zaman, meanwhile, Şahin Alpay similarly questioned the validity of any term that sought to place a rigid label on the often multi-dimensional policies of Davutoğlu and the AKP:
The foreign policies pursued by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do not fit into the mold of ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘pan-Islamist,’ or ‘Sunni sectarian.’ It’s difficult to apply a single ideological label for a foreign policy that started negotiations to join the EU, gave NATO permission for its Kürecik bases, received prizes from the Israeli lobby, struck up a personal friendship with Bashar al-Assad, recommended secularism to Egypt, and felt Tehran to be its own home. Rather than being based on certain principles, the policies pursued by the AKP, domestically and abroad, can be said to be either pragmatic, populist, opportunistic, or aimed at securing or protecting power. But if an ideological tag is necessary, Islamic Kemalism or religious nationalism could be used.
A deeper and more academic critique of Özkan’s work that has attracted particular attention was posted on the personal website of Ali Balcı, an associate professor at Sakarya University. Balcı doesn’t take issue with Özkan’s use of such a blanket term as “pan-Islamist,” but voices more substantial reservations about the underlying fundamentals of his work:
Özkan argues that the ‘pan-Islamic’ conclusions and analyses made by Davutoğlu as an academic in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s can be used to understand Davutoğlu’s later foreign policy. This strongly indicates a ‘once an Islamist always an Islamist’ assumption, suggesting that Davutoğlu’s essential core is unchanging in the face of different times and conditions … The work’s fundamental problem is that despite all of the changes in conditions [since Davutoğlu wrote], it still puts forward that a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist – a reductionist and essentialist reading.
Balcı says it isn’t clear why Özkan searches for proof of Davutoğlu’s “pan-Islamism” in his old academic articles, while he supports the “neo-Ottoman” label for former Turkish President Turgut Özal using evidence from the latter’s period in office:
Examples of Özal’s neo-Ottomanism given by the writer can also be given for the AK Parti’s time in power and in Davutoğlu’s period as foreign minister. As stated by the writer, Özal applied for EU membership in 1987, worked to broaden influence in the Caucasus and the Balkans, tried to solve the Kurdish problem through reforms, and worked to establish control in its relations with Iraq. If all of these practical realities have also emerged during the AK Parti and Davutoğlu eras, how can Özal be considered a neo-Ottoman while Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist? In answer to this question the writer only presents certain criticisms of Özal made by Davutoğlu. But while proving Özal’s neo-Ottomanism with practical examples, [Özkan] doesn’t answer why he looks for examples of Davutoğlu’s pan-Islamism in articles written while he was an academic.
Some of these criticisms are valid, but some are wide of the mark. It may not be true that “once a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist,” but there is plenty of evidence that today’s Davutoğlu still sympathizes with the views expressed in his old academic work. While he certainly has demonstrated a keen sense of pragmatism and adaptability in the past, there’s can be little doubt that he has steadily moved away from this realism and back to a far more dogmatic and ideological approach in recent years. It may be less articulate than Balcı’s blog post, but the government’s hagiographical short film that accompanied Davutoğlu’s recent nomination as prime minister was equally germane to the issue: “He is the awaited spirit of Abdülhamid,” the lyrics say at one point, referencing the 19th century sultan who deployed Islamism to combat the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. “For the nation, for the ummah, for Allah.”
Now that Davutoğlu is in the prime minister’s chair, the question is whether he will continue to be seduced by his ideological convictions and lose touch with his former pragmatism. If he does, then Özkan’s thesis will look even more prescient.