The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East

The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East

Οι Εκδόσεις Ποιότητα πρωτοπορώντας κυκλοφόρησαν τα δύο βιβλία του Αχμέτ Νταβούτογλου, To στρατηγικό βάθος. Η διεθνής θέση της Τουρκίας και Εναλλακτικές κοσμοθεωρίες. Η επίδραση της ισλαμικής και της δυτικής κοσμοθεωρίας στην πολιτική θεωρία και το συλλογικό έργο διακεκριμένων αναλυτών Το στρατηγικό βάθος και η Τουρκία. Στην ανανεωμένη ιστοσελίδα των Εκδόσεων (σύντομα στη διεύθυνση θα αναρτούμε κάθε αξιόλογο κείμενο και αναλύσεις που αφορούν την τουρκική εξωτερική πολιτική. Εδώ παραθέτουμε μια ανάλυση του Demitras Bayar.

I pulled out one section from the “The Roots of Turkish Conduct” that deals with Davutoglu. This will give you a sense of these studies. All of this shows how much we have retreated from a democratic secular system.

Demirtaş Bayar

National Security Program

Foreign Policy Project

The Roots of Turkish Conduct:

Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy

in the Middle East

Amb. Eric S. Edelman, Ph.D.

Svante E. Cornell, Ph.D.

Aaron Lobel, Ph.D.

Michael Makovsky, Ph.D.

December 2013

Page 25:

The Foreign Policy Worldview of the AKP: The Writings of Ahmet Davutoğlu

The early thinking of the AKP’s founders, including both Gül and Erdoğan, very much aligned with Erbakan’s anti-Western view of the world. But the task of fitting that ideology into a new foreign policy, and reconciling it with the AKP’s public acceptance of the European Union, fell to the Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor and, since 2009, Turkey’s foreign minister. A deeper understanding of the role of ideological factors behind Turkish foreign policy requires closer attention to the worldview of its chief architect. With a long academic career preceding his ascent to political fame, Davutoğlu has left a substantial trail of published work that provides ample insights into his worldview.(27)

While his most well-known work is the 2000 book Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth), of equal interest are his earlier works: his doctoral dissertation, republished in 1993 as Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory, and his 1994 volume Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World, published while he served as a researcher at the International Islamic University in Malaysia.(28) These works are dense, theoretical treatises, as are several lengthy articles published in the Turkish journal Divan in the late 1990s. The thrust of these works is a deep conviction that the “conflicts and contrasts between Western and Islamic political thought originate mainly from their philosophical, methodological and theoretical background rather than from mere institutional and historical differences.”(29) Davutoğlu focuses on the ontological difference between Islam and all other civilizations — particularly the West. These are not merely arcane academic publications or the early writings of a thinker whose understanding of the world has evolved over time: Davutoğlu has long reiterated the same views, showing their continued relevance to his thinking. In a 2010 interview, for example, he stressed the point:

All religions and civilizations before Islamic civilization had established a demigod category between god and man. In fact, civilizations except the Islamic civilization always regarded god, man and nature on the same ontological level. I named this “ontological proximity.” … Islam, on the other hand, rejects ontological proximity between god, nature and man and establishes an ontological hierarchy of Allah, man and nature. {30}

The political relevance of this chain of existence is expressed, according to Davutoğlu, by the Islamic concept of tawhid, or the unity of God. As Michael Koplow has observed, tawhid for Davutoğlu “informs a practical theory of the unity of all aspects of life, as opposed to the secular division of matters belonging to ‘church’ and ‘state.’” According to Davutoğlu,  Koplow continues, “In Islamic political theory  it is ‘almost impossible to find a political justification without reference to absolute sovereignty of Allah.’”{31} Tawhid, for Davutoğlu, results in “the unity of truth and the unity of life which provides a strong internal consistency.”{32} Thus, the hierarchy of god, man, and nature is not only a metaphysical belief about the makeup of the world, but an ordering principle. Each category of being dictates the structure of the one below it.

By contrast, Davutoğlu castigates the West’s “modernist paradigm,” which is distorted by its “anthropocentric epistemology” and what he terms a “particularization of epistemological sources (revelation and reason).”{33} Rather than the unity of being and truth expressed in the concept of tawhid, Western Enlightenment thought distinguished among ways of knowing the world, separating divine revelation from insights gleamed by reason alone. This “dichotomous differentiation between the sources of knowledge” led, according to Davutoğlu, to “the peripherality of revelation in the modern era” and the West’s emphasis on the individual’s reason and experience as the sole reliable sources of knowledge.{34} By thus breaking the “ontological proximity” between god and man and hubristically placing its faith in the ability of human reason to order the social and political world, a process Davutoğlu calls the “erosion of its moral base due to a lack of normativity,” the Enlightenment created an “acute crisis of Western civilization.”{35}

For Davutoğlu the implications of this divergence between the Western and Islamic worlds are not merely metaphysical or theological, they are political. It demonstrates that Turkey’s long-standing effort to become part of the “West” is both impossible and undesirable. It is impossible, because it goes against the country’s Islamic nature: “the failure of the Westernization-oriented intelligentsia in the Muslim countries demonstrates the extensive characteristic of this civilizational confrontation.”{36} For Turkey specifically, Davutoğlu concludes that the republican project was “an ambitious and utopian project to achieve a total civilizational change which ignored the real cultural historical, social and political forces in the society.” Thus, “the Turkish experience in this century proved that an imposed civilizational refusal, adaptation and change … cannot be successful.”{37}

Moreover, grafting Western civilization onto an Islamic country is undesirable, because the West is in a state of crisis. Indeed, Davutoğlu argues in 2010 that “we have reached a point at which the Western paradigm and the underlying Enlightenment philosophy have said allthat they can say.”{38} The unity of being, captured by the concept of tawhid, suggests that the West’s moral corruption must metastasize to other areas of human activity. If the affairs of god and man are one, then abandoning the former must doom the latter. The West’s celebration of reason ineluctably will lead to the crumbling of its political order. Thus, in 1994, Davutoğlu asserted that capitalism and socialism are “different forms of the same philosophical background”{39} and that “the collapse of socialism is an indication for a comprehensive civilizational crisis and transformation rather than an ultimate victory of western capitalism.” The failure of the Soviet system, rather than a victory for the West, was but the first step in the collapse of European domination of the world, to be followed by the collapse of Western capitalism.(40)

Davutoğlu approvingly characterizes the emergence of the concept of the Islamic state as a response to the imposition of Western civilization on the rest of the world, but he takes the argument one step further: viewing globalization as a challenge to the nation-state system, he suggests that “the core issue for [the] Islamic polity seems to be to reinterpret its political tradition and theory as an alternative world-system rather than merely as a program for the Islamization of nation-states.”(41)

These early works provide a window into the philosophical worldview underlying AKP foreign policy. Yet they are more abstract than concrete, and certainly no policy blueprints. Stratejik Derinlik, published in 2000, would fill that gap. Davutoğlu’s key argument is that Turkey possesses an underutilized strategic depth, which is related explicitly to its Ottoman legacy; he defines this concept as the combination of geostrategic location and historical depth. While geostrategic location is obvious, historical depth is a more fuzzy concept. To Davutoğlu, it stems from Turkey’s imperial heritage: Turkey is not just any ordinary nationstate created from the spoils of decolonization, but it has a legacy of statehood that makes it unique, one of only a handful such political entities. That imperial heritage, in turn, provides rich cultural and historical links to the Balkans, the Middle East, and Eurasia that Davutoğlu castigates the Kemalist republic for ignoring. To Davutoğlu, these links provide an opportunity for Turkey to rebuild a role as a regional power —indeed, a leader— particularly of the Muslim world at a time when it has become, to Davutoğlu, “the focal point in international relations.”

In Strategic Depth, Davutoğlu operationalizes his criticism of the republic. While Kemalist Turkey built its foreign policy only on one alliance—with the West—and on its role as a bulwark, a barrier, and later a bridge, Davutoğlu finds these concepts wanting. To Davutoğlu, Turkey’s historical and geographic depth provide it with an opportunity to be at the epicenter of world politics, rather than relegated to the periphery—an active force, rather than constrained to a specific role. The centerpiece of Davutoğlu’s concept of strategic depth is, thus, to build alternative alliances to the Western one; in effect, to counterbalance the West with other coalitions in order for Turkey to gain independence and freedom of maneuver in international affairs.

In this, Davutoğlu is not alone. Ismail Cem, his left-wing predecessor as foreign minister from 1997 to 2002 and a strategic thinker in his own right, similarly argued that Kemalist Turkey ignored its history and was particularly and unnecessarily dismissive to Arabs.(42) But where Davutoğlu diverges from Cem is in his emphasis on Ottoman legacy and Islamic identity as the key to a new Turkish grandeur. Davutoğlu by no means suggests that Turkey should build alliances only with Muslim countries; indeed, a key foundation of his analysis includes anti-colonialism and Third Worldism; that is, being rooted in an opposition to Western political and intellectual world hegemony. Thus, Davutoğlu finds commonalities between Europe’s treatment of Russia and its treatment of Turkey, and he suggests forming an alignment with Moscow. Yet the thrust of the argument emphasizes a need to capitalize on Turkey’s Ottoman past as a leader of Islam. Analytically, Davutoğlu focuses on the inconsistencies of the nation-states of the Muslim world, many of which are undeniably postcolonial creations with little organic history as political entities. This leads him to search for an alternate ordering principle, one that he finds in the common Islamic identity shared by these lands. As Alexander Murinson has observed:

[Davutoğlu] elevates the unity of Muslim global umma  to the status of the ideal geopolitical structure and deprecates the notion of the nation-state. In his writings, Davutoğlu substitutes umma, a term with religious connotations, by the more neutral term “Islamic civilization,” but he preserves the emphasis on the religious aspect of civilizational clash.(43)

After interviewing Davutoğlu, reporter Joshua Walker says that Davutoğlu considered Turkey to be “the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire that once unified the Muslim world and therefore has the potential to become a trans-regional power that helps to once again unify and lead the Muslim world.”(44) This, in turn, forms the basis for the doctrine of “zero problems with neighbors,” which was an animating concept of Davutoğlu’s foreign policy. He rejects Kemalism as isolationist and distrustful toward Turkey’s neighbors. In its place, Davutoğlu argues that Turkey should focus on restoring its role as a regional power. By emphasizing its Islamic identity, Turkey could both establish its affinity with other Middle Eastern states and peddle an alternate geostrategic vision to the corrupt nation-state model imposed on the region. In this, Davutoğlu’s writings embrace and reflect the non-sectarian approach already adopted by the Milli Görüş movement decades earlier. Especially following the 1979 revolution, many Turkish Islamists viewed the Islamization of Iran with admiration and began to cultivate ties with Tehran. As a result, historical and sectarian hostility was gradually replaced by a desire to emulate many aspects of Iran’s Islamic revolution.(45) Such perceptions among Turkish Islamists align, in turn, withthe Muslim Brotherhood’s views. Unlike the heavily anti-Shi’a Salafis, the Brotherhood opposes sectarian differences among Muslims and supports unity. Early on, it developed ties to Iranian Islamists and endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution although it later expressed disappointment thathe established a sectarian rather than an inclusive Islamic regime.46 Already in 1959, the head of the powerful Al-Azhar University in Cairo recognized the theological legitimacy of the Ja’fari Shi’a as a madhab (school of Islamic Jurisprudence) in its own right, alongside the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools.47 Conversely, future Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’I translated two books by Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Hassan Al-Banna into Persian. Similarly, Erbakan’s embrace of the Islamic world began with a much-hyped trip to Iran, indicating the absence of a sectarian agenda in the Milli Görüş movement. Thus, Davutoğlu’s foreign policy vision was founded on a pan-Islamic ideological foundation inherited from the Milli Görüş and Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike later AKP foreign policy, it was distinctly non-sectarian. Quite to the contrary, the “zero problems” doctrine was rooted in Davutoğlu’s writings on Turkey’s inheritance of a common Islamic identity and could thus allow for courting of both Shi’a Iran and Nusayri-dominated Syria. In this, AKP foreign policy both demonstrates its ideological connection to Turkey’s Islamists and builds upon their previous efforts.


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