The Power of the Past


This week, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that Turkish forces play a role in the crucial battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which is currently under the control of the Islamic State. This proclamation was met with harsh criticism from the Iraqi government, who warned that Turkish intervention could be met with a military response. What’s unique about this military stand-off, however, has little to do with current geopolitical tensions between Iraq and Turkey. “We have a historical responsibility in the region,” Erdogan said in a recent speech. “If we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason.” President Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), use Turkey’s Ottoman imperial legacy to justify current foreign policy decisions. The ability to do so is a result of Turkey’s fractured recent political history—four military coups since 1960—and glorious military past.

The idea of “collective memory,” first proposed as a social theory by Maurice Halbwachs in 1950, is relatively simple: individual memory is constructed within social structures and institutions. In Turkey, collective memory can be (and was) a powerful political tool. Indeed, Joshua Walker, currently a Senior Advisor to the U.S. State Department on Turkey, specifically identifies collective memory as “central to the concept of imperial legacy.” In the late 1980s, when the political forces that brought the AKP to power began to surface, Turkey saw a rediscovery of its Ottoman past. Encouraged by official political dialogue, previously repressed Kurdish, Islamic, or Balkan identities, termed “counter memories,” became new modes of identification.

Often referred to as the “re-traditionalization” movement, the 1995 elections were a clear turning point. The Welfare Party (WP), a precursor to the AKP, embraced all segments and ethnic and religious differences of the country, similar to the generally tolerant Ottoman policy on diversity. Other attempts to revive Ottoman arts, calligraphy, foods, and architectural forms were more overt, and in 1994 the WP mayor of Istanbul launched a government-endorsed set of activities that commemorated the Istanbul of Ottoman times. The AKP was a more moderate extension of the Welfare Party, and like its predecessor it appropriates Ottoman history through political rhetoric and for political gain. The AKP’s roots are in Islamism, and it is therefore unsurprising that it sees political potential in a largely Islamic Ottoman history; it appeals to more religious voters.

But why is this sudden surge of neo-Ottomanism in Turkey’s political rhetoric so important? It has very real military and strategic consequences. According to the United States State Department, Turkey currently has about 600 to 800 troops in the Iraqi city of Bashiqa, a deployment the Iraqi government says it never approved. Erdogan’s incendiary rhetoric in recent days has heightened tensions in the region, and much of it can be traced back to an emotional appeal to Turkey’s role as epicenter of a grand, imperialistic Ottoman Empire. . It’s not just President Erdogan who alludes to Turkey’s past as a major military player in the region, either. In a speech in 2011, AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recalled the Ottoman past during escalations of tensions in Libya: “It is not a coincidence, on the centennial anniversary of the Tripolitanian War, that Turkey is again at the center of the Libya issue, helping its Libyan brothers.” By imbuing his active foreign policy stance with neo-Ottoman rhetoric, Erdogan attempts to use Ottomanism not only as a political tool in appealing to Turkey’s collective memory, but also to justify the AKP’s political decisions. Even more bluntly, Erdogan clearly articulated his political plan in 2012, saying, “We would revive the Ottoman consciousness again.”

The AKP thus had two primary objectives in its consistent use of neo-Ottoman rhetoric: the first, to mobilize politically Turkey’s religious voters and second, to justify the AKP’s aggressive foreign policy agenda. The AKP’s rapid political rise, and its consolidation of power since, is in large part due to the party’s ability to tap into the “silent majority” of religious, mostly rural voters, who respond positively to references to Ottoman history and imperial greatness. Indeed, Erdogan’s popularity is reconciled with an appeal to the Ottoman past. Referencing the Ottoman golden age engenders national pride in contemporary Turkish political rhetoric.

The most recent example of the AKP’s consistent politicization of Turkey’s past came last Sunday, when President Erdogan cited a “historical responsibility” to intervene in Iraq. That claim is a popular one for the same reasons discussed here, but it is also problematic. Using Turkey’s collective memory of the Ottoman Empire as a pure political tool may be effective, but as a foreign policy directive, it fails miserably. The geopolitical mess unfolding in Iraq is delicately poised. An aggressive Turkey—pining to assert the same military dominance it did 150 years ago—is unlikely to improve the situation.

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