“Our past was in Asia but our future is in Europe!” This was how Mesut Yilmaz portrayed his vision for Turkey in a panel debate in Davos in the 1990s.
At the time Yilmaz, who died last week at the age of 73, was one of the rising stars of Turkish politics and a generation that seemed destined to complete a revolution that had started in the 1880s in the Ottoman Empire. That revolution had aimed at transforming the moribund empire into a modern Western-style state capable of reversing more than a century of decline that had earned the caliphate the sobriquet of “Sick man of Europe.”
By the start of the 20th century, however, it had become clear that building a modern European-style state, based on the Westphalian principles, required the existence of a nation also in the European sense of the term; an impossible task as long as the Ottoman state remained a multi-national empire whose legitimacy was based on religion which, by definition, excludes the very concept of a nation-state.
The First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire provided the space in which the military and intellectual elite, led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk) could invent a nation to fit the modern Western-style state they wished to forge. With help from French linguists, new Turkey adopted a new alphabet based on the Latin, purged its language of as many Persian and Arabic words as possible and seized control of religious institutions in the name of secularism.
By the 1980s Turkey had all trappings of a Western-style nation-state. It was also a valued ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a candidate for full membership of the European Economic Community (later the European Union). As a minister and then prime minister on three occasions Yilmaz played a crucial role in negotiations with the Europeans, often with a mixture of naiveté and pessimism.
Yilmaz and his generation of Turkish politicians ignored two facts.
First, while post-caliphate Tukey had acquired the trappings of a Western-style nation-state, it was saddled with a pre-modern largely rural economic system based on state control and rentier abuse. Thanks to wide-ranging reforms started by Turgot Ozal and continued by Recep Tayyib Erdogan, albeit erratically, Turkey managed to put its economy on a path to modernisation, often by adopting criteria set by the European Union.
The second fact that Yilmaz and his generation ignored was their failure to develop a modern political culture without which a modern state structure and economy could be used, and abused, in the service of pre-modern and undemocratic narratives and projects. This is what has happened under Erdogan in the latest phase of his saga. In that phase Erdogan has transformed Turkey from a candidate for EU membership and an aspirant to a front-seat position in the Western world into a challenger, not to say troublemaker, with an increasingly virulent anti-West discourse.
This reversal of course has led to the return of some old demons.
The first of these demons is an authoritarianism of the kind practised by Sultan Salim, the most controversial of Ottoman caliphs. Increasingly, Erdogan is trying to rule Turkey by fiat, often ignoring even a minimum of formal deference to his Cabinet, the parliament or even his own political party. At times ministers are surprised to learn about new decisions through the media rather than through official decision-making channels. In some key domains, notably foreign policy, Erdogan has established a pattern of personal politics closer to Third World style despotism than modern democratic politics.
The second demon returning to haunt Turkish politics is the quest for legitimacy based on religious pretensions. Thus, Erdogan is now masquerading as a “ghazi” (holy warrior) and designating anyone who dares challenge his policies as “an enemy of the only true faith.”
Some commentators, including this one (mea culpa maxima culpa), have described Erdogan’s project as neo-Ottoman. However, it is now clear that what he offers is fake-Ottomanism rather than the old Ottoman in a new bottle. The Ottoman Empire was a multi-national, multi-faith space that often accepted, if not encouraging, a good measure of diversity even in cultural and personal and legal domains whereas Erdogan pursues the mirage of conformity under his rule.
The third demon is that of empire-building.
Though empire-builders of the first order, the Ottomans were always careful not to bite more than they could chew. Erdogan, however, is leading Turkey into empire-building adventures which it does not want and cannot afford. Turkey is now deeply involved in Cyprus, Libya, the Balkans and, more recently, Transcaucasia where it risks direct conflict with Russia and Iran. It has provoked a potentially dangerous stand-off with Greece and France in the Aegean Sea and launched a war of words with the European Union as a whole. Ostensibly, Turkey’s beef is about old maritime demarcation lines that deny it the right to tap underwater oil and gas resources. What Erdogan does not realize is that the potential market for those resources is the very European Union he is now casting as enemy. In any case the disputed resources cannot be tapped without massive investment from the West not to mention the technology needed.
In Black Africa, Turkey is trying to gain a footstep with a mixture of bribery and religious propaganda.
Erdogan’s empire-building project has also led him into deeper involvement with the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood, and through them, with Jihadist adders that could one day decide to sting Turkey itself. Copying the Khmeinists who have created their foreign legions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Erdogan is recruiting mercenaries among the Turcoman in Iraq and local jihadists in the Syrian province of Idlib.
Finally, the demon of corruption is also back with a grand entry into Turkish politics and business. To be sure, corruption existed in both the Ottoman Empire and the Kemalist republic that replaced it in Asia Minor. But in both cases some limits were kept in the name of religious probity or national interest. Now, however, corruption is going beyond all bounds, going beyond the old limit set by a United Nations study in the 1970s after which it becomes a way of life rather than a mere aberration.
Yilmaz and many in his generation of Turkish politicians proved to be false preachers of a gospel of Westernisation. Indirectly helped by Eurocentric politicians like Jacques Chirac, who still saw “the Turk” as a menace for Christendom, they missed the opportunity of final reconciliation with a continent of which Turkey has been an integral part for millennia.
By promoting a strategic break with Europe, Erdogan is leading Turkey into the unknown, with demons whispering in his ears.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987