Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman Aspirations Inspire Islamists and Endanger World Peace
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s once hidden agenda of reviving a modern version of the Ottoman Empire is not so secret in light of recent moves. The world has watched Erdogan use draconian and oppressive methods to beat down domestic critics. The conversion of Hagia Sophia — formerly a Byzantine church — into a mosque last month was a symbolic step to inspire Islamists who are longing for a new caliphate. Erdogan’s state-controlled media are already calling for the Muslim world’s first superpower.
Erdogan’s recent military campaigns in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, have been a source of instability and mayhem all across the Middle East, leaving thousands dead. Arab and European countries condemned Turkey’s military adventurism, while French President Emmanuel Macron labeled Ankara’s Libyan intervention as “criminal.”
But Islamists and terrorist affiliates cheered such moves. Last October, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas issued a statement expressing its approval of Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebel groups in northeast Syria.
Support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliated regimes and governments characterized Erdogan’s earlier pan-Islamist policies. That included Turkey’s military support for Tripoli’s interim pro-Muslim Brotherhood government, and he is now intervening there militarily.
“I consider today that Turkey plays in Libya a dangerous game and is in breach of all its commitments,” President Macron said in June. Greek Prime Minister Kryiakos Mitsotakis denounced Turkey’s “aggressive behavior.” The EU threatened on July 18 to impose sanctions on parties breaking the UN arms embargo in Libya, without specifying a country.
But Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar struck a defiant tone: “Turkey will stay in Libya forever, it will not withdraw from it.”
Moreover, Erdogan openly supports Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, and held military drills with the Azerbaijani army. Russia then conducted what it called “routine” military drills near Armenia’s border.
Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman caliphate ambitions are no longer a hidden political agenda, as he announced that his country is seeking to restore what he called the “Mavi Vatan,” or the “Blue Homeland.” This refers to the Turkish maritime domination during the Ottoman era in the East Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. The name provides Erdogan’s regime with a false nationalist casus belli to interfere militarily in countries around the region.
Erdogan’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque was a stunt that was treated as a victory for Islam by the likes of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan was there for the July 24 reopening, joined by Turkey’s top imam, and president of the Directorate of Religious affairs, Ali Erbas.
Erbas climbed to the former Byzantine church’s pulpit carrying a sword as a symbol of conquest, invoking an Ottoman tradition set by Mehmet the Conqueror. “Today ends the deep wound and sorrow in the hearts of our people,” Erbas said in his sermon. A government-linked Turkish Islamist magazine called for the founding of an Islamic caliphate in the wake of the Hagia Sophia’s conversion.
Erdogan’s AKP Party and Turkish politicians, including Erdogan consultant Maksut Serim, claim that Turkey will have new flexibility in 2023, when the century-old Treaty of Lausanne that established modern Turkey’s borders expires. That sets the stage for Turkish expansionist ambitions under new pretexts and historical claims on countries and regions that Turkey gave up under the treaty. Erdogan’s desired path contradicts the principles set forth by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. Ataturk stressed secularism. Erdogan instead described the Turkish Republic as a “continuation of the Ottoman Empire” in 2018, and he is attempting to assert that notion through both military power and diplomacy.
Erdogan’s neo Ottoman/pan-Islamist policies run the risk of economic repercussions. For example, Turkey has a $23 billion bilateral trade agreement with China. Erdogan had spent years championing the plight of Uyghur Muslims under Chinese government repression. An estimated one million Muslim Uyghurs reportedly have been subject to prosecution and detained in “reeducation camps” to force them to relinquish their faith.
Turkey led a large political campaign in February 2019 to rally Muslim support for the Uyghurs. Turkey hosted thousands of Uyghur Muslims and, since 2014, issued travel documents for many of them to enter Turkey. Erdogan likened the Uyghur plight to a “genocide” in 2009.
But faced with losing China as a key economic partner, Erdogan changed his tune and told Chinese President Xi Jinping that minorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang — home of many Uyghur Muslims — are living happily. Recent secret videos show thousands of Chinese Uyghurs sitting blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs in Chinese detention and “reeducation” camps.
Erdogan maintains relations with many Islamist groups and politicians globally, including in the United States. The US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) includes a number of Muslim Brotherhood-tied groups and radical Islamist organizations, including MAS, the Islamic Circle of North America, CAIR, and American Muslims for Palestine.
The attendees described Erdogan as a “leader of Muslim Ummah [people].”
“A leader who exemplified the hopes and the aspirations of many who lived in the Middle East, we are hopeful that Turkey will be a good example of human rights, equality, democracy, progress, and opportunity of young people who are looking to have a decent life,” said Mohsin Ansari of the ICNA board and Helping Hand charity.
Erdogan also maintains a number of relations with Islamist leaders, meeting often with Tunisian Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi and Qatari Emir and Islamist financier Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatar invested $80 billion in Turkey after signing a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding. Qatar made substantial investments in Turkey’s financial and real estate sectors. Qatari Emir Tamim Al Thani also gifted Erdogan a $500 million private jet in 2018. Erdogan and his family visited Qatar 56 times in the 12 years since the agreement.
Despite being a NATO member, Turkey repeatedly defies the alliance’s strategies and policies, including last year’s purchase of Russian S400 strategic defense systems, which jeopardize NATO defense protocols. Erdogan still defies American sanctions against Iran through oil purchases.
Domestically, Erdogan targets dissidents and followers of his arch-rival Fethullah Gulen. He has also curtailed religious freedom. Turkey’s economy has suffered a series of recessions in recent years. Erdogan seems to be betting on Libya’s enormous oil wealth to kickstart an economic recovery.
By converting the Hagia Sophia church into a mosque, Erdogan again played up his image as a global Islamic leader. He is paving the way to restore what his Islamist followers deem as the glories of the Ottoman caliphate through aggressive social, political, and military action.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy, and a regular contributor to the BBC.
A version of this article was originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.