Finding itself at a crossroads, increasingly isolated by its Western allies and no longer the dominant Muslim voice it once was, Turkey is now flexing its pan-Islamist muscles. But the MENA wants other alternatives.
Rabat – At a pan-Islamism and anti-Islamophobia-themed meeting, recently held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the initiative of Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, and Qatar, Turkey’s President Erdogan, ever the pertinent and cunning political communicator, seized the occasion to broadcast to everyone who would listen what has become a driving principle (in spirit, at least) of his and contemporary Turkey’s foreign policy projections: saving the Arabo-Muslim world from the incessant, perennial onslaught of an essentially anti-Muslim global order.
In the Malaysian capital, Turkey spoke about resistance and the need for a robust Muslim fraternity so that the MENA region, of course under Turkey’s guidance, can rise to the security and socio-economic challenges of globalization and modernity.
Saving brothers in need
Erdogan’s message was clear: now is the time to revive pan-Islamism. This was later echoed by all participants of the small circle of countries who, by sprinkling their rhetoric with “Muslim unity” sonnets and giving their gathering a theme that could speak to Muslim sensibilities the world over, effectively styled themselves as the saviors, or the forerunners of a much-needed “Muslim coalition” to liberate the Muslim world from the apparently ensnaring grip of the West’s dominant, judeo-Christian paradigm.
There is nothing new to such pan-Islamism-flavored rhetoric in Erdogan’s political communication toolkit. The Turkish leader has to some degree already effectively styled himself over the years as the “daring one” and the “Reis” (chief) who stands up to the West. But the Kuala Lumpur gathering came with a more consequential, even audacious, twist: the creation of a new economic system to extricate the Middle East and North Africa from the grasp of the all-mighty American dollar.
All this was merely a glimpse of Turkey’s regional ambitions as it looks to capitalize on the image of the selfless and sweetly paternalistic hegemon, primordially interested in safeguarding the wellbeing of “fellow Muslim” countries.
Days after the Malaysia meeting, on December 26, Erdogan announced Ankara’s plans to send troops to Libya to support the beleaguered Tripoli-based and internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in its struggle to fend off sustained attacks from the troops of General Khalifa Haftar.
The Turkish president said he was responding to an invitation from Tripoli as France, Italy, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, and Russia-backed Haftar, appearing to have the upper hand in the struggle for Libya, prepared to launch a “final assault” on the capital Tripoli. Ankara, once again the savior and the righteous voice in a volatile region long gone berserk, Erdogan suggested, was only legitimately flying to the rescue of the GNA, the rightful government of Libya.
To critics and regional foes—including Egypt and Greece, among others—who saw in the Turkish move a cause for concern and were quick to dismiss it as “a dangerous threat to regional stability,” Erdogan swiftly fired back by suggesting that Ankara’s intervention, requested by GNA, gave Turkey a legitimacy that other foreign troops involved in the conflict do not have. “They are helping a warlord. We are responding to an invitation from the legitimate government of Libya,” he said.
The initial plan was for the Turkish parliament to vote on the matter—sending troops to Tripoli—by January 8-9. However, Turkey appeared to signal, so pressing was the urge to save Tripoli that Turkish MPs finally deliberated on January 2, unsurprisingly green lighting Erdogan’s call to intervene. With 325 voices in favor and 184 against, the Turkish parliament not only sided with Erdogan, but the language of its vote embraced the president’s pan-Islamist, righteous rhetoric. At issue, as far as they were concerned, were the twin objectives of protecting Turkey’s “strategic interests” and being present for a “brother country” in need of help.
“The Libyan motion is important for the protection of the interest of our country and for the peace and stability of the region,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavuscaoglu tweeted after Turkish MPs green lighted the sending of troops.
Fuat Oktay, the Turkish vice-president, opted for a more nationalist rationalization of the move, knowing that the nation needed such a message as its politicians prepared to send yet another contingent of its youth—and reportedly its Syrian allies—into harm’s way. “We are ready. Our armed forces and our defense ministry are ready,” said Oktay.
Later, Erdogan, having got his message across and won the overwhelming support of the parliament, sought to defuse any panic the announcement—and the vitriolic criticisms it elicited from governments and observers the world over—may have had on the Turkish public. He took upon himself to reassure, saying that Turkey did not intend to fight and stressing that the country’s Libyan engagement was not only necessary, but it was virtuous as well. “Our goal is not to fight, but to support the legitimate government and avoid a humanitarian tragedy,” Erdogan told CNN Turk.
These two episodes—the Kuala Lumpur meeting and the decision to be militarily involved in Libya—are inextricably linked; they share the same ethical and ideological underpinnings. What they convey is the pointed nostalgia of a country determined to claim the prestige and diplomatic (or geostrategic) prominence and reverence it thinks it deserves.
Neo-Ottomanism as pan-Islamism
Turkey’s allure as the democratic success story of the Arabo-Muslim world may have remarkably faded post 2013, when Erdogan’s leadership went awry, turning exceedingly authoritarian and estranging Ankara from the illustrious clubs, including NATO, whose membership it once proudly flaunted. But three years away from the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish republic in 2023, the dominant, overly optimistic narrative in Ankara remains focused on regaining the country’s lost, and increasingly dimming, prestige.
“Having taken lessons from the mistakes made 100 years ago, Turkey is now building a dynamic line of defense,” one Turkish analyst recently argued. The obvious reference is to Turkey’s growing influence in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the wake of the Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agreement Erdogan and GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj signed in late November.
The latent point, however, is the still-fresh wounds of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after War Word I. The “Sevres Syndrome” still runs deep in the Turkish imaginary, and most of the country’s geostrategic calculations (or miscalculations) in recent decades have been motivated by the undimmed urge to emerge from the affront and humiliation it believes it has continued to suffer since the Sevres Treaty.
One of the prime movers of Turkish politics under Erdogan, as Turkish political scientist Hakki Tas has remarked, is the profound “conviction that Turkey is surrounded by powers intending to divide it.”
While Turkey has always felt this powerful twinge of Ottoman nostalgia and has even sometimes been open about its ambitions to project or recover its influence in former Ottoman territories across the MENA, it is only in post-Arab Spring years that Ankara effectively embraced pan-Islamism as a driving principle of its foreign policy.
To critics, though, Erdogan’s Turkey’s self-proclaimed pan-Islamist calling is just a cunning move to make its neo-Ottoman ambitions palatable to a broader regional audience, or, as Erdogan himself would have it, Turkey’s “fellow Muslim brothers.”
While countries other than those directly engaged in the Libyan quagmire have not strongly called out Turkey’s call to send boots on the ground, they have suggested they do not support the foreign intervention turn that the crisis is experiencing, as the same forces that destroyed Syria now seem to be confronting each other in Libya, keen to relive the same proxy wars that made Syria the failed state it now is. It is as if no lessons were learned from the monumental failures in Syria.
Trump, for example, has been quoted as saying that foreign intervention would further complicate Libya’s predicament. True, the American president, whose petulant and erratic foreign policy decisions are set to wreak more havoc in the MENA, is the farthest thing there is to a voice of reason and measure when it comes to foreign policy.
But he had a point in advising Erdogan and everyone else involved in Libya against exporting their unsettled proxy wars from Syria to North Africa. By any rate, the effects of such confrontations will be more ruinous and more desperate than whatever state of lawlessness Tripoli finds itself in at the moment.
The end of the ‘Turkish model’
One frequently deployed argument in recent months has had to do with the monumental paradigm shift Turkey’s politics and foreign policy have witnessed in the second, more hawkish and authoritarian phase, of the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The prevailing idea is that Ankara is no longer the reliable and reasonable Western ally it was under the auspices of figures like Ahmet Davutoglu, who, as foreign minister and then Prime Minister, devised a foreign policy guided by concepts and ideals like “strategic depth,” “zero problems with neighbors,” and Turkey as “a center country” or “order setter.”
Or, in the words of one commentator, Turkey is increasingly and alarmingly morphing into a “rogue” player whose “strategic estrangement from the West” is bound to yield more disastrous consequences. In lieu of a “strategic depth”-guided diplomacy has emerged one of high-risk gambles, fueled by a convenient overlap of hot and banal nationalisms, Ottoman nostalgia, and the corresponding hegemonic miscalculations.
Looked at from a more regional perspective, the main, though somehow unarticulated, truth behind the reluctance—or wholesale rejection—that Turkey’s Libyan move has generated in the MENA is that, whereas it was once hailed and lauded as the regional standard-bearer and the face of what Muslim success should like in the 21st century, Turkey’s appeal is gradually fading. In other words, while Ankara remains a serious contender for the most powerful military or the most technologically advanced country in the region, it is no longer an ideological bellwether, or the democratic inspiration it was until at least 2013, when Erdogan decided that Turkey had reached its final destination on the bus to democratic consolidation.
This is a narrative that finds particular resonance in the crisis the US’ hitherto unchallenged global dominance is now facing. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US and the ideology it represented ran very high on world affairs steroids, unilaterally ruling the world and convincing others that America’s was the only viable and serious alternative.
Or, as one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the American exceptionalism thesis memorably put, the idea was that history had ended, that the victory of the Western—or American, by extension—paradigm was resounding and definitive. Such was the euphoria in the heydays of post-Cold War uni-polarization: America’s ideological triumph was unmistakable, while the corresponding allure of its hegemony was deemed irresistible.
And then came the 21st century with its new sets of challenges, exposing the limits of America’s hegemony. There was the abysmal failure in Afghanistan; the spectacular miscalculation and the utter pointlessness of the Iraq invasion; the inescapable rise of China; the “return of global Russia.”
Suddenly, America was no longer the unrivaled superpower it once was. To be sure, the American empire is still impressive in its yet-to-be equaled military might, its remarkable technological prowess, and its unequalled cultural appeal. It’s just that it is no longer the only game in town. There are now countless alternatives to America’s, spearheaded by regional leaders and aspiring global hegemons who want to assert themselves as much as the ordered anarchy of the multipolar age would allow.
By comparison, yes, there was a time when Turkey was the face of Muslim success, the poster child of democratic consolidation in the Muslim world, or the litmus test par excellence for the Islam-democracy compatibility thesis. That time, when the “Turkish model” was coveted in the region, and then-Prime Minister Erdogan was rightly credited for leading the country out of its depressing socio-economic economic state of the 1990s, feels like a very distant past.
Another, ultimate, proof of Turkey’s regional appeal was evidenced, among other developments, in the rise in prominence of the Rached Ghannouchi-led Ennahda in post-Arab Spring Tunisia, the electoral success of the Mohamed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood in post-Spring Egypt, as well as the success of Morocco’s AKP-inspired Justice and Development Party (PJD).
These were developments that turned Oliver Roy’s “failure of political Islam” thesis on its head, as more countries in the region seemed to have been won over by the idea that moderate and democracy-friendly Islamism like AKP’s was the future of the MENA. And, quite naturally, Ankara became what Turkish political Islam had dreamt of for decades after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: the ultimate standard-bearer of pan-Islamism; the country other Muslim states would have to look to for inspiration and guidance to face their own challenges, or resist the domination of the non-Islamic world.
To Erdogan’s and Ankara’s dismay, however, Turkey, quite simply, is no longer that regional poster child. At this point, the region is a buzzing hive of diverging alternatives. There are financial or military powerhouses like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar; aspiring but bold and self-confident (sub)regional leaders like Morocco and Algeria; a historically ideological leader like Egypt. And the list is far from exhaustive. All of them have strategic aspirations or “national interests” of their own and do not welcome what they perceive as Turkey’s attempt to restore its Ottoman-era prestige while portraying itself as the savior of the Muslim world.
Algeria and Morocco, for example, have especially been pissed off by Turkey’s Libyan adventure, as they consider North Africa and the Sahelo-Saharan corridor as their “chasse gardee” (preserve). Both countries have strongly condemned any foreign intervention in Libya, saying that dialogue between the two warring parties, under the auspices of the UN or the Arab League, is the best course of action to prevent further degradation in North Africa, especially in the alarming security context in the Sahel.
At the heart of it all, therefore, is a clash of visions in terms of what the Muslim world should look like as it struggles to come to terms with the numerous challenges of this century. The result is a kind of Islamic or Muslim multi-polarization, where all the countries with the political and financial means to do so want to take part in a symmetric dialogue about what is to be done to solve the regions’ issues.
The internal logic at work here, at least so far as the Libyan chaos is concerned, is that it is inherently difficult to strike a balance between foreign intervention and domestic or regional stability. Contrary to what it has always keenly been fanfared as, foreign intervention almost never guarantees stability or peace.
Libya is in its current situation because of the “unintended consequences” of a grossly miscalculated foreign (or Western, most precisely) intervention to topple a leader the West did not like. The “collateral damage” of what is happening now will surely be more devastating than when NATO’s illegitimate and failed intervention led to the ousting and then killing of Mouammar Kadhafi.
Listening to what both Turkey and General Haftar’s foreign backers have said in support of their military involvement in Libya, Edward Said’s telling observation about every powerful country’s belief in its righteous anointment to spread civilization and protect others by fighting their wars readily came to mind. “Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort,” Said wrote in the 2003 preface to his monumental “Orientalism.”
The point is not that Turkey is the bad guy in this second internalization phase of the Libyan quagmire; the point is that Turkey is not the good guy it thinks of itself either. It is not the utterly selfless and fervently pan-Islamist empire Erdoğan effectively projects it as. Turkey, like any other military power, is in this fight primarily for its own hegemonic aspirations in the MENA, to increase its political weight and maintain its diplomatic relevance in the region.
As such, therefore, with proxy confrontations threatening to complicate Libya’s status as a failed state, Turkey is set to be one of the bad guys, along with other foreign powers currently or formerly involved in Libya’s predicament. War is what it is, and the inherent problem with foreign intervention is that it is almost never the best course of action, even when it looks like the best, or most reasonable, or convenient, thing to do.