Turkey’s Erdogan chases Ottoman dream, ends up unsettling West Asia | Analysis
The Recep Tayyip Erdogan government will establish a museum to honour Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottoman Sultan who captured Constantinople and took the first big steps to expand the Ottoman empire. “For the first time in Turkey, a museum bearing the name of a sultan will be built in Edirne,” Professor Zekeriya Kurşun at the Istanbul-based Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakıf University told state-run news agency Anadolu Agency. The deadline is next year.
The museum in Turkey’s Edirne province across the Bosporus strait - that forms the continental boundary between Europe and Asia - is seen as one of the continuing steps, big and small, to rebrand the Erdogan regime as a successor to the Ottoman one.
Turkey’s 66-year-old leader has himself minced no words, declaring in 2018 that the Republic of Turkey was a continuation of the Ottoman empire. The son of a coast guard who lives in a 1,000-room presidential palace in Ankara, bigger than the White House or the Kremlin, Erdogan has been reinventing himself; from a model democrat in the Islamic world a few years earlier to the new champion of Islamism to fit the new role.
This aspiration has pitted Erdogan’s Turkey against Saudi Arabia over its claims of global Islamic leadership. Saudi Arabia was one of the territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire during its heyday, apart from parts of Europe, northern Africa and other West Asian countries.
It was also why Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia move was an unambiguous message to the Islamic world as well. It is a sign towards achieving “freedom” for al-Aqsa mosque in the old city of Jerusalem, the third holiest site for Muslims, Erdogan said as the museum was reconverted into a mosque in July.
Erdogan’s ambitions are expected to further complicate the situation in the Islamic world that is already witnessing increasingly divisive trends that include sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis, Arabs vs non-Arabs and apprehensions around the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Erdogan has sided with Qatar in its ongoing dispute with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, closely engaging in regional hotspots against the two Arab majors, and has been hard at work to mobilise non-Arab Muslim countries.
Non-Arab Sunni majority countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia have joined forces with Shia Iran and Arab Qatar to counter the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis in the Islamic world. These divisions are further compounded with Shia Iran’s support to Shia-majority Iraq, Syria and sections within Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
At the first meeting hosted by Malaysia last year, 20 countries turned up at the summit designed to place the front powered by Turkey in competition with the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC.
Pakistan, which backs Erdogan’s effort, had dropped out of the summit at the last moment due to pressure from Riyadh. But Imran Khan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi did set up a diplomatic firestorm last month when he signalled that Islamabad could approach Erdogan’s Islamic front to discuss Kashmir at a ministerial-level if the OIC was unwilling. Imran Khan later appeared to back this approach when he explained, in a TV interview, that each country - he was talking about Riyadh - was entitled to act in its national interest. He left it unsaid that this principle would apply to Pakistan also.
Over the past month, the Donald Trump-brokered pacts between Israel and first, the United Arab Emirates in August and last week, Bahrain, has presented Erdogan with the opportunity to criticise the kingdoms in the Gulf.
Erdogan, styled himself as the defender of Palestinians, threatening to suspend diplomatic ties with UAE in retaliation. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1949 but this fact hasn’t stopped Erdogan from holding forth.
“The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” President Erdoğan said last month as he spoke about the possibility of snapping ties with UAE, according to a Reuters report. Israel and its two new partners, Bahrain and UAE, will sign on the dotted line in Washington on Tuesday.
Already, the Turkish President has been taking a more active role in regional affairs and flexing muscles.
According to the Washington Post, Turkey has a military presence in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan and peacekeeping troops in the Balkans and its navy patrolling the Mediterranean and Aegean seas where it has laid claim to energy and territorial interests.
The Post, which mapped Turkey’s expanding military footprint, said Ankara has also invested in Sudan to let it build a naval base on the Suakin island, once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, that would give it direct access to the Red Sea.
In South Asia, Turkey’s growing proximity with Pakistan, whose voice Erdogan echoes on Kashmir, has soured relations between Ankara and New Delhi. Like when President Erdogan launched a broadside at New Delhi in August last year at the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to Ankara in October and didn’t hesitate to condemn Turkey’s military operation in Northern Syria.
On the sidelines of the UNGA, PM Modi also scheduled meetings with Cyprus, Armenia and Greece, all Turkey’s rivals in the region.