Pan-Turkism, the Ottoman Empire and Turkish imperial ambitions

Pan-Turkism, the ideology that underpins the modern Turkish state, provides the impetus for the imperial ambitions of President Reyyip Erdogan. Negotiations are currently underway between the US and Turkey, the latter intending to deploy troops to Kabul airport once the US completes its Afghanistan withdrawal. Turkish military forces are already present in Libya, staking out a claim in that nation’s affairs.

Pan-Turkism is the political philosophy that holds all Turkic people, regardless of their cultural and linguistic particularities, belong to one supranational and racial Turkish nation – with Ankara at its head. This idea is not new, originating in the late 19th century with the rise of European and Balkan nationalist movements. However, Pan-Turkism acquired a new lease of life in 1990-91, with the disbanding of the USSR. The newly independent Central Asian republics, most of whom have Turkic ancestry, established relations with Turkey.

Is Pan-Turkism a resurrection of the Ottoman Turkish empire? Yes and no. Certainly, bringing all the Turkic peoples into one overarching political and economic union has its similarities with the Ottomans of old. However, Pan-Turkism is also a distinct departure away from the Ottoman Empire template. The modern day Turkish Republic, established by the Young Turk Revolution (1908), advocated a specifically racial definition of a Turkish person.

The Kemalist Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), deliberately cultivated a racist concept of Turkishness, and projected this template onto any territory where Turkish people lived. For instance, Crimean Tatars, while under Russian sovereignty, were said to be one branch of the Turkic family, and therefore to be brought under Turkish control. The Kemalist authorities set about eliminating non-Turkish minorities, carrying out the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians, and purging vestiges of Hellenism in Turkey.

This is in stark contrast to the cosmopolitan nature of the Ottoman Empire. For while there were conflicts, the Ottoman Sultan accepted the presence – grudgingly – of non-Turkish minorities within the Ottoman realm. Arabs, Greeks, Jews – all found their place within the Ottoman territories. In fact, Ottoman identity was an ethno-religious one, not a racial category. While the Sultan dealt with nationalist rebellions in his empire, the Ottomans attempted to meld a distinctly Ottoman identity from the diverse peoples of the empire.

The European powers, engaging in their own acts of colonialism, postured as ‘champions’ of the Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Their concern was not humanitarian, but cynical politics – the weakening of the Ottoman Turkish polity would open up vast territories for European expansion. In fact, European colonialism, rather than providing self-determination for the formerly subject peoples, implemented a sectarian division of the Arab peoples in furtherance of colonial objectives.

When the French took over the former Ottoman territory of Syria, they created not a united Syrian nation, but a divided confessional patchwork of sectarian polities. Alawis, Druzes, Sunnis, Shias and Maronite Christians all had their sectional territory, with the state of Lebanon carved out of Syria for the Maronite minority. The Ottomans, for all their faults, allowed minorities to live together under the one political federation.

Theodor Herzl, one of the founding fathers of political Zionism, approached the Ottoman sultan with a business proposition; in exchange for a financial contribution to alleviate the Ottoman Empire’s debts to foreign powers, the Zionist movement would acquire Palestine as a territory to build a new Jewish state. Attempting to buy land from the Ottomans was initially an appealing idea; but the Sultan rejected the proposal. Indeed, Ottoman Jews rejected Zionism, professing their loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan.

The military assertiveness of the modern Turkish state derives, not from a sense of Ottoman cosmopolitanism, but from an ideology of racist Pan-Turkish exclusivity. Whether it is the Turkish republic’s covert and critical support for ISIS militants in Syria, or the tactical outreach to the neofascist regime in the Ukraine, Ankara’s motivation is not an Ottoman-era respect for multicultural confessionalism, but a desire to acquire strategic depth and establish an ethnically pure Turkish polity.

Indeed, Pan-Turkism is the application of a European settler-colonial ideology in the context of Western Asia (what we normally call the Middle East). The forced Turkification of place names, cities and villages inside Turkey is the domestic face of an expansionist Pan-Turkism. When linguistic and cultural policies are deployed to construct a racialist narrative of Turkey’s pre-Kemalist history, it is an outright denial of the multinational composition of the Ottoman Empire.

As I frequently remind members of my own Armenian tribe, the enemy is not some amorphous mass called ‘the Turks’, or Muslims, or refugees, or mosques, or Islam. The enemy is Pan-Turkism and its manifestation in the Turkish state. It is not only myself saying this – there are mass Turkish and Kurdish political parties and organisations who strongly oppose the Turkification policies of Ankara, reject imperial expansion, and ally themselves with the oppressed and anti-colonial non-Turk minorities.

An anti-imperialist platform, crossing over multiethnic and confessional boundaries, is a necessary first step in defeating the destructive ideology of Pan-Turkism.

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