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​All's well that ends well: Rise to the top of the new Turkey’s PM

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: August 28, 2014 17:14
Ahmet Davutoglu.(AFP Photo / Mohammed AL-Shaikh )

For the past 90 years Turkey, NATO's most eastern member and the Islamic world's gateway to the West, has been a nation state comprised of a manifold of ethnic groups and sub-groups bonded by the religion of Islam.

Even though Kemalist social engineering and effective rewriting of national history and identity (1923-1994/2002) successfully transformed the Ottoman banner into a symbol of Turkish nationalism, adherence to the Muslim creed has always been the common core of Turkish citizenship. The mere existence of a Directorate of Religious Affairs since 1924 all but underlines this fact.

This Muslim undertow of Turkish nationalism has always been quietly accepted and even acknowledged; for example, non-Muslim Turkish citizens (such as Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenians of various Christian denominations, or Assyrians) were, and still are, not really accepted as ‘equal Turks’ by the majority of the population, and even the nation's administration and courts, as persuasively argued for by the member of Antalya Bar Association, Nazım Tural.

But it was not until the municipal elections of 1994, when Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, RP) gained the majority of the national votes, promoting the now notorious Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the position of Mayor of Metropolitan Istanbul, that this undertow suddenly came to the fore and was slowly transformed into the political current it is today.

Throughout the remainder of the 1990s the expectedly unexpected RP’s victory, arguably in part necessitated by the constitutional effects of the 1980 military coup, determined the flow of Turkish politics until the party was banned following a "harsh army-led secularist campaign.”

But the genie had been let out of the bottle, and slowly but surely Islam became an openly accredited determinant in the social and political life of Turkey once more. And once Erdogan founded his Justice and Development Party (or AKP), the floodgates were well and truly wide open, inundating the Lausanne Treaty-agreed upon territories forming the successor nation state to the multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet staunchly Islamic Ottoman State with "Pure Water for Thirsty Muslims,” to use the words of the Ottoman poet and bureaucrat Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali Efendi (1541-1600).

Prime Minister Erdogan has ruled Turkey for more than ten years now, and following the outcome of the recent presidential elections (gaining 52% of the popular vote) he will arguably continue to play an important part in Turkish life after he moves to the presidential residence in Ankara on 28 August.

The compliant successor?

At the moment, the question whether he will actually push for a constitutional change that would transform Turkey's regime from a parliamentary into a presidential system seems to have taken a backseat. Instead, attention is now focused on the wily Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu who has been "appointed" the future party leader and PM by Erdogan on 21 August 2014. Erdogan said that the "candidate for party leadership and prime minister will realize the ideal of a new Turkey and the AKP's targets for 2023.” Do these words indicate that Davutoglu will be nothing but a compliant and malleable successor, fashioned into an agreeable and useful shape by puppet-master Erdogan? After all, the Associated Press confidently reports that the new President of Turkey "has made no secret of his ambition to strengthen the powers of the presidency, until now largely ceremonial. He has indicated he intends to keep his grip on the executive by making use of the presidency's seldom-used powers, including calling and presiding over Cabinet meetings. Analysts said Erdogan wanted to install a friendly prime minister who will allow him to largely control government."

Underestimating the considerable command and resourcefulness of the as-yet still FM Davutoglu appears somewhat naive and possibly misguided, particularly if one were to keep in mind that both men share the same ideology and harbor similar, if not downright identical, ambitions for Turkey domestically as well as internationally.

As expressed by the pan-Arab Al Jazeera, "Davutoglu has steered Turkey's foreign policy since 2009 and as an adviser to Erdogan before that." Before leaping on to the political stage, Prof. Dr. Ahmed Davutoglu was a somewhat unassuming academic specializing in the now presumably "hot" field of international relations. In addition, he was also recognized internationally as an Islamist thinker of high standing in the ivory tower world of academia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.(AFP Photo / STR)

In 1990 after attaining his doctorate in Turkey, Davutoglu went to Malaysia to become an Assistant Professor at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, establishing its Political Science Department. But by 1995 he had returned to Turkey, becoming Professor of International Relations and Head of the International Relations Department at Beykent University in Istanbul, a position he occupied till 2004. While still active as an academic, Davutoglu also became Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister during the term of Turkey's 58th government led by Abdullah Gul (2002-03). Then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer (in office, 2000-07) and then-Prime Minister Gul even jointly granted him the title of ambassador at that time.

When Tayyip Erdogan took over the reins of government on March 14, 2003, Davutoglu continued being active as prime ministerial Chief Advisor. At the same time, as ambassador, he was nevertheless able to act as a prime-mover on Turkey's behalf in the shuttle diplomacy conducted to reach a settlement in the Israel–Gaza conflict, Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008-18 January 2009). The violence and bloodshed in Gaza caused quite an uproar in Turkey, with PM Erdogan overtly condemning Israeli aggression and publicly speaking as the voice of oppressed Muslims in Palestine (and beyond arguably).

Sometime after the end of Israel's onslaught the Turkish PM travelled to Davos, to attend that year's World Economic Forum. On 29 January 2009 Erdogan famously requested “one minute” from the moderator David Ignatius in a panel discussion with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, and notably Israeli President Shimon Peres. Before walking off the stage in anger and outrage, Tayyip Erdogan exclaimed: “One minute! One minute! No! One minute!.. Mr. Peres you are older than me. Your voice is very loud. I know that you are speaking aloud because of the requirement of a sense of guilt. My voice will not be that loud.”

Moving into unfriendly waters

Could it be that Erdogan's determined stance on Palestine (and Israel) and particularly his momentous performance in Switzerland were in no small measure inspired by words uttered by his Chief Advisor, the Islamist intellectual and IR specialist Prof. Dr. Ahmed Davutoglu?

In fact, Erdogan appeared very pleased with the services rendered by Davutoglu, so pleased that on May 1, 2009, he appointed him Minister of Foreign Affairs. And since then, the wily FM has "steered Turkey's foreign policy" into a hitherto unknown direction and region.

I have earlier used the term "pseudo-Ottoman" to refer to this Turkish policy aimed at the erstwhile Ottoman hinterland and beyond, as a policy attempting to reap commercial and tactical benefits from countries and regions that had previously been ignored by the Eurocentric Turkey. For the first time in its relatively short history Turkey started engaging its Arab neighbors. Turkey's esteem and reputation was on a high in the wider Islamic world, especially after Erdogan's arguably carefully scripted Davos stunt. In fact, the Palestinian-American journalist Jamal Dajani at the time proclaimed that the "new hero of the Arab street is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” Arguably, this revised and revived appreciation of a Turkish politician by his Arab contemporaries was all down to the tactical scheming of Davutoglu, the man behind the scenes.

From his safe spot away from the madding crowd and irritating spotlights, the wily Davutoglu secured Turkish support for the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; encouraged the Tahrir Square uprising and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; opposed the Shiite-led government in Baghdad by granting asylum to the disgraced Sunni Tariq al-Hashimi; and finally, cooperated with Barack Obama and others to depose Syria's Bashar al-Assad, in the process apparently freely supporting such extreme organizations as the Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (now known as the Islamic State led by Caliph Ibrahim, aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). Pseudo-Ottoman Turkey has indeed travelled far in the past five years.

As a result, the peaceful pseudo-Ottoman course advocated by the dynamic duo Erdogan- Davutoglu, a course leading to maximized profits and heightened prestige, has taken a sharp turn over the past months.

Rather than fostering commercial relations and friendly ties inside the wider Islamic world, the erstwhile advisor-turned-FM-turned-PM Davutoglu seems to have guided the Turkish state's ship into the decidedly unfriendly waters of the Sunni-Shia rivalry that I have elsewhere referred to as the intra-Islamic Cold War.

Dr. Behlul Ozkan's, Assistant Professor in IR at Istanbul's Marmara University and a former student of Davutoglu's, believes that Prime Minister Davutoglu would aim to establish an Islamic Union. Ozkan sees the politician as a "Pan-Islamist, as he is not [acting in a] defensive [manner], but [rather] expansionistically; not passive but rather [pro-] active". He goes as far as saying that Davutoglu regards Turkey as the centre of the Middle East, a Muslim realm that would also include such places like Albania and Bosnia (Muslim areas of the Ottoman Balkans), and Davutoglu's "Pan-Islamist world is an order dominated by the Sunni creed".

Davutoglu's foreign policy adventures in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq all but underline his Ottomanist strand, supporting a Sunni insurgence in the wider Ottoman hinterland, stretching from Tripoli to Baghdad and from Cairo to Damascus. Will the new PM really "realize the ideal of a new Turkey and the AKP's targets for 2023," as Tayyip Erdogan hopefully claimed some time ago? Time will tell.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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