The Neo-Ottoman

Cliff May
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Posted: Dec 03, 2014 12:03 PM
The Neo-Ottoman

Turkey should have been part of the solution. Instead it’s become part of the problem. The problem, of course, is the spread of jihadism throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

Turkish policies have been aiding and abetting Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate; the Islamic State, which has turned large swaths of Syria and Iraq into killing fields; the Islamic Republic of Iran, still ranked by the US government as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and well on its way to becoming nuclear-armed; and the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, the group’s Palestinian branch.

Troubling, too, is the rhetoric we’ve been hearing from Turkish leaders. Fikri Isik, Turkey’s Science, Industry and Technology Minister, claimed last week that it was Muslim scientists who first discovered that the earth is round. Two weeks earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that Muslim sailors reached the Americas three hundred years before Columbus – only to find that well-established Muslims in Cuba had built a beautiful mosque.

Such myth-making might be dismissed as nothing more than attempts to play to Islamic pride. Less easy to excuse is Mr. Erdogan’s increasing xenophobia. “Foreigners,” he recently observed, “love oil, gold, diamonds, and the cheap labor force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East.” He added that Westerners “look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die. How long will we stand that fact?”

If Turkey were just another tin-pot dictatorship none of this would much matter. But Turkey is a Muslim majority (98%) republic with a dynamic economy (not dependent on the extraction of petroleum), a member of NATO (making it, officially, an American ally), and a candidate for membership in the European Union (though that possibility now appears remote).

Just three years ago, President Obama listed Mr. Erdogan as one of five world leaders with whom he had especially close personal ties. He regarded the Turkish leader as a moderate, his interpreter of – and bridge to -- the tumultuous and confusing Islamic world.

Today, as detailed in a new report by Jonathan Schanzer and Merve Tahiroglu, my colleagues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Erdogan is refusing to allow the American-led coalition formed in August to launch strikes against the Islamic State from Turkish soil.

Worse, there is mounting evidence that weapons and fighters are crossing from Turkey into Syria where they are delivered to the IS. Turkish officials are turning a blind eye – or maybe even facilitating the traffic. Stolen oil is moving in the other direction, sold to raise cash for the IS. Inside Turkey, as well, Mr. Schanzer and Ms. Tahiroglu write, IS has “established cells for recruiting militants and other logistical operations.” Last weekend, Turkey’s main Kurdish party accused the Erdogan government of allowing IS fighters to attack the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from within Turkey.

The FDD report cites numerous sources alleging that Turkey also has given assistance to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. To be fair: The Turkish government, like the Obama administration, seeks the fall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, satrap of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A Turkish official is quoted as saying that Nusra fighters are essential to that effort, adding: “After Assad is gone, we know how to deal with these extremist groups.”

Do they? Hamas is an extremist group and one of its top leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, has been permitted to set up his headquarters in Turkey. In August, Israel's Shin Bet security agency said it had thwarted a Hamas-led plot to topple Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – and that Mr. al-Arouri was behind it. Mr. al Arouri also claimed responsibility – in the presence of Turkey’s deputy prime minister – for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys in the West Bank early last summer, an act of terrorism that led to a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

There’s more: credible allegations that Turkey has helped Iran’s rulers evade sanctions; the fact that Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country; Mr. Erdogan’s comparison of Israelis to Nazis (guess which he regards as more “barbaric”); and his pledge to “wipe out Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. They will see the Turkish republic’s strength.”

To understand what Turkey has become, it helps to know a little about what Turkey used to be. Istanbul was once Constantinople, a Christian capital of the ancient world. In 1453, it fell to the fierce armies of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic caliphate. Islam’s political and religious leaders soon established the Sublime Porte, the central government of their growing imperial realm.

Almost 500 years later, in the aftermath of World War I, the empire collapsed and the caliphate was dissolved. Modern Turkey arose from the ashes thanks to the leadership of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, a visionary general who believed that progress and prosperity could be achieved only by separating mosque and state. His goal was to make Turkey a nation -- one as modern and powerful as any in Europe.

A century later, the world looks rather different. There are good reasons to believe Europe is in decline and America in retreat (these are disparate phenomena). While it may be delusional to believe that Columbus encountered Muslims in the Caribbean, it is not crazy to believe that, over the decades ahead, fierce Muslim warriors will profoundly alter the world order once more.

Viewed in this light, Mr. Erdogan looks like a neo-Ottoman, one who dreams of commanding Muslims – and those who have submitted to them -- in many lands. If that’s accurate, the rift between Turkey and the West can only widen.