The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. In this keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace on 9 December 2016, I look back on the highs and lows of two decades of change.
The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.
Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.
Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.
All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.
The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.
This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.
But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.
What went right?
It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.
But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.
Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.
- The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
- The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
- The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
- Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
- The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
- After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
- For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.
Losing Cruising Altitude
Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.
- A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
- Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
- Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
- The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
- Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
- The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
- Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
- Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
- The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
- War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.
Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.
Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?
Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.
There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.
At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.
1 – Know what is happening on the ground
There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:
- Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
- Restless police and military forces;
- Regional or ethnic divisions;
- Economic strains in the broader public;
- Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.
For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.
Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.
2 – Maintain relationships with all parties
Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.
In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.
For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.
In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.
3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy
With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.
An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.
For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.
The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.
4 – Strategic planning and communication
This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.
Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.
A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama’s demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.
A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.
In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.
5 – Creating pathways to peace
Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.
Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.
Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.
Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.
In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.
Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.
For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.
Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.
The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.
In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.
Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.
Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.
After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).
But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.
Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .
Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.
Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.
Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.
In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.
Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.
It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.
The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.
For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.
I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.
The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:
A belated posting of a talk that I did in Istanbul in May, trying to explain in a TED Talks lookalike why after 28 years in Turkey I felt that somehow the country will likely always do better – and more slowly – than its Middle Eastern neighbours. Turkish Review also published a cleaned-up text of the speech.
As jihadists make Yezidis suffer once again on the Syrian-Iraq border, here’s my chapter from Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to my weeks with the community during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
THE YEZIDI HERESY
An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation
We rejoiced at the rising Nile, then it drowned us. — EGYPTIAN PROVERB
A good introduction is an invaluable asset. My fixer, Sagvan Murad, was a young and active member of an ancient religious community called the Yezidis. They numbered about half a million people in Iraq, the bulk of them living south of the front line and under Saddam Hussein’s government control. Murad told me that community leaders on the side that was free, liberated, and developing since 1991, had organized a plan for a smooth takeover of the Saddam-controlled areas. It was his boss in a Yezidi cultural center, a part-time guerrilla chief, who had invited us to accompany them south when Saddam’s control collapsed. This offer of open access to whatever…
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In 2011, a book review monthly sent me Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, asking for 5,000 words on all that it might mean. It set my head spinning, a dense, comprehensive battery of sources writing in 1908-1914, making me feel like I was in the same busy conference as a crowd of bourgeois Ottomans. There were also many uncanny parallels with what was going on in 2011 in Tahrir Square and other places of ferment during the Arab Uprisings. I wrote nothing about it at the time – I wasn’t part of those Arab events and wasn’t sure it was a fair to make the comparison. I delayed and prevaricated. I stopped hearing from the book review monthly. Then, in the summer of 2013, protests poured onto the streets of Istanbul outside my house, and I understood what I could and had to say. And, at last, I achieved a long-held ambition: to weave my electricity subscriber number into a story.
Istanbul’s Pro-Constitution Coup of 1908 Haunts Erdogan’s Turkey
By Hugh Pope
An old enamel electricity subscriber disk, No. 77, hangs over the high wooden door to my Istanbul apartment. The number likely dates back to one of the Ottoman Empire’s first public power generators, and, in today’s metropolis, my bills duly come to subscriber No. 00000000077. My neighbor below, a prosperous Armenian furrier who cuts Dutch mink and exotic furs for the bourgeoisie, speaks fluent Kurdish due to his family’s once wide land-ownings in the pre-1915 east of the country. On the floor above, the direct descendants of the aga or commander of the 56th Regiment of Ottoman janissaries, whose surname translates as “Son of the 56th,” manage their family’s charitable foundation—set up in 1826.
The Republic of Turkey, founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, spent most of the last century deliberately framing itself as the opposite of much that was Ottoman or even Islamic. Yet the Ottoman legacy remains tangible in many parts of Turkey’s geography and culture, and the Turkish people have become increasingly fascinated by their long-belittled past.
A taste for post-Ottoman chic (and kitsch) emerged in the 1990s, cropping up in places from restored Greek taverns to mosque design. The once-banished Ottoman royal family began making it into the society pages. For the secular rich, a restored Ottoman mansion became the desirable abode. The trend has reached new heights since 2002, as the pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan restored parts of Istanbul to resemble an Ottoman Disneyland and blended neo-Ottoman themes into party ideology.
This has triggered a deeper debate. How much is Turkey still rooted in the Empire that held sway for centuries over territories in the Balkans and Middle East that now encompasses more than 30 modern states? And do these roots represent a past best forgotten, an inherited magnificence to be recreated or a cautionary history of the region’s ethnic, sectarian and historical cleavages?
Take, for instance, the scenes on the streets in front of my apartment building near Taksim Square during Istanbul’s 2013 summer of political unrest [my first blog on that here]. “Now nothing will be like it was before,” read one slogan spray-painted onto a nearby wall. There was an intoxicating spontaneity and a freedom to say anything at all, out loud and in public—including egregious insults hurled by both the government and secularist sides. But was this outpouring on city walls and social media really so new? Was it a replay of Egyptians’ freedom-loving chants on Tahrir Square two years before? Or the Syrians’ later demonstrations? Or was this an echo of something from the Ottoman Empire, whose own pro-secular and pro-Islamist ructions in 1908-1909 reached a bloody climax in that same Taksim Square?
Prime Minister Erdoğan certainly thinks they are linked. He insistently uses an obscure insult, çapulcu (“looter”), as a label for the pro-secular demonstrators against his government, recalling the name given to Bulgarian irregulars who joined the secularists against the Ottoman Sultan in 1909. In a way, he may be right. Taksim and Tahrir’s praise of freedom, their early anti-sectarianism, and their heady moments of civil society asserting civic rights, do echo exactly those that inspired Ottoman public squares and meeting halls in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in 1908-1909.
This early cycle of revolution and counter-revolution, of secularist nationalism and Islamism, is captured in vivid detail by the book Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, by American Middle East specialist Michelle U. Campos (Stanford University Press, 2011). Just as with the heady days of 2011 when Arab peoples were carried away by the dream of an ‘Arab Spring,’ Istanbul’s pro-constitution coup of 1908 swept the empire’s multi-ethnic citizenry off their feet.
Above all—as in Tahrir in 2011—the word “hurriyya”, or freedom, seemed to herald a new dawn. “It sometimes seems as if one lives in a dream” one resident of Jaffa writes to his friend in Beirut in 1908. Another, reformist Rafiz Al-Azm, wrote that “wherever I met an Ottoman friend who was known for his love of freedom, whether in Syria or Egypt, we became overwhelmed with emotions, and our eyes burst with tears for the joy that was within us.” In 2013, such spontaneity was an unprecedented feature in Turkey too, as thousands of ordinary pedestrians expressed euphoria and togetherness with impromptu waves of clapping along the length of İstiklal Street leading to Taksim.
If Twitter and Facebook define communications now, the social media of the earlier era lagged only slightly behind, to judge by the wealth of telegrams, letters, wire reports, posters, diary entries and newspaper columns quoted by Campos. Crowds in Palestine shouted “Long live the Padishah [Sultan]!”—because the sultan had brought back the secular constitution—just as Turkey’s crowds shouted “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s republican founder, who died in 1938 and invented Turkey’s secular constitution). In both Palestine then and Turkey today, months of extemporaneous meetings in parks and public places followed, in which all were welcome to express their views.
Among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine in 1908, and the Copts and Muslims in the first weeks of Tahrir in 2011, observers were astonished at the extent that people put aside differences to embrace and support each other. Then as now, the army leaned to the modernist side. Ottoman intellectuals’ narrative of “awakening,” “revolution,” “rebirth” and “throwing off tyranny” all “reasserted the empire’s role at the center of Europe rather than at its margins,” Campos argues. Similarly, the “occupy” spirit and “anti-authoritarian” language in Taksim and Tahrir persuaded European visitors in 2011-13 that these events were a breakthrough for Western values. The same language echoes in the title of Ashraf Khalil’s bracing account of Tahrir: Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation (St. Martin’s Press, 2012).
Another parallel binds these oft-scorned neighbors of Europe to the old continent. The old Sultan cultivated an image of divine-paternal-political omnipresence, copied from the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg or Russian Romanov dynasties, while today’s Taksim demonstrators attacked Erdoğan as a “Putin,” shorthand in their minds for an oppressive Russian autocrat. And to cap off the comparisons: just as Tehran’s Green Revolution of 2009 came two years before the Arab uprisings, so did the Iranian Revolution of 1906 come two years before the Ottoman upheavals.
Of course, there are differences too. The scenes of ethnic and sectarian intermingling during the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution were more extraordinary than in 2011, with priests, rabbis and imams hugging and kissing in front of everyone. It was also accompanied by real changes in laws and prisoners’ releases, it was an empire-wide affair against an Islamic establishment backed by the army and a strong new political secularist faction, the Committee of Union and Progress, and it roundly defeated a 1909 counter-revolution by pro-Sultan Islamists in the old Taksim Barracks. By contrast, if there is a region-wide political movement involved in the unrest today, it is pro-Islamic, including Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods. There is no neat story line. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood now represents a failed revolution. Meanwhile, the AKP has overcome many traps laid by the pro-secular establishment and built itself into a new pro-Islamic status quo. Istanbul’s summer protests rumble on with tear gas-filled weekend moments on İstiklal, confounding the pro-Islamic Erdoğan, but not overthrowing him.
Neo-Ottoman aspects of Erdoğan’s policy, however, are clearly at a dead end. The AKP’s idealistic attempt in the late 2000s to create a Middle Eastern area of free trade, free movement of people, regular joint Cabinet meetings and infrastructure integration collapsed with the Arab uprisings. Erdoğan’s chief policy guru Ahmet Davutoğlu—foreign minister since 2009—denied this was an attempt to turn back the historical clock, and indeed it also looked like an attempt to copy the European Union’s success. But Davutoğlu read from Ottoman firmans (royal decrees) when visiting former Ottoman lands, drew attention to what he considered good Ottoman policies and publicly praised Ottoman leaders.
More dramatically, Davutoğlu repeatedly vowed to smash the Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 British-French pact that divided up the Middle Eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. AKP leaders also seemed seduced by the ideal of Islamic brotherhood, disregarding the lessons of the Ottoman period. The Sublime Porte’s policy was rarely pan-Islamic and kept a suspicious eye on non-Ottoman Muslims. And the Turkish republic’s policy of caution, neutrality and commercial opportunism towards the Middle East was based on the memory of how pan-Ottomanism failed and realism about Turkey’s limited capacity for regional hegemony.
The republic’s skepticism was branded into the Turkish consciousness by how brutally short-lived the euphoria of the empire’s 1908 revolution proved to be. The 1909 Armenian massacres and Ottoman defeats in a new Balkan War made it even harder to keep all the empire’s religions and ethnicities in balance, and defeat in the First World War of 1914-18 devastated Turkey’s geography. Ultimately, the events of 1908-09 presaged the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—just as the Arab uprisings are now putting under pressure the Sykes-Picot borders drawn one century ago.
The 1908 upsurge of pan-Ottoman citizenship may not have survived imperial collapse, but other Ottoman ghosts live on. The long-lasting pain of the Greeks forced out of Anatolia in the 1923 population exchange has been excellently explained by Bruce Clark in his book Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (Granta, 2007). And a revelatory new book by French journalists Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier La Turquie et le fantôme arménien : Sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, 2013 (Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide) found much that has survived the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second-hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, as well as songs and traditions that have blended into mainstream Turkish culture.
Do the Arab uprisings presage a worse fragmentation to come, a regional rebalancing as dramatic and bloody as the First World War? Michelle Campos’s book argues that the failure of Ottomanism was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the 1908 outburst of togetherness and reform showed an empire that was arguably more tolerant than its European contemporaries. She also notes that later, the First World War’s European victors tried to buttress the political role they seized in the Middle East “by ignoring or even reversing the developments that had taken place in the last decade of Ottoman rule.”
Certainly, many Ottomans regretted the social disintegration. As Campos quotes an Ottoman Jewish writer in Liberty in November 1909: “Everyone says to give it time and our situation will improve … our situation gets worse by the day.” In Palestine, Campos argues, Zionism did not gain adherents so much as the failure of the idea of a common Ottoman identity lost the Zionists. She also details how the confused unscrambling of the imperial omelet made Arabs and Turks unintentionally lose their sense of common cause.
When Ottomanism did collapse, however, it rent apart the Middle East’s society and geography. Similarly, the retreat of the twentieth century order is today tearing open ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, even putting pressure on the fault-lines of Turkey, the region’s most stable and successful twentieth century state. Indeed, when Foreign Minister Davutoğlu rejoices that the whole twentieth century was an aberrant “parenthesis” that has now closed, this may mean more challenges than opportunities for Turkey. Already, Kurdish intellectuals demanding autonomy in Turkey today regularly use the same arguments as Michelle Campos quotes from the Arabs’ Decentralization Committee in 1913:
“Every thinking Arab who understands the meaning of life demands that his place will be side by side with the Turk in this empire…where neither of them takes advantage of the other….But if our brothers do not want to understand this fact … then the Arab people want life and will struggle for it.”
Some words of wisdom from a friend deep in U.S. officialdom. I had complained about the superficiality of some American approaches to the Arab revolts in the Mideast (continuing a theme of Dining with al-Qaeda), thus:
[There is] unjustified hoopla about the dynamics of the Arab spring … and then, when it turns out that it’s all much more complicated than it looked, then it’s uh-oh, Arab winter again, and consign the region back to the dump with weary self-righteous sighs.
To which my friend replied from Washington, DC:
“On the simplicity of the Mideast coverage, you are certainly right descriptively. In my view, though these simplistic narratives aren’t a result of not understanding the dynamics that you mention. People are, for example, very aware that the all of the emerging “Arab Spring” governments will, at best, be problematic partners for the US. It is rather an effort to create reality by insisting that it is so—and people will certainly continue to do so until it becomes so dramatically at variance with reality that they exercise a 180 degree and express with equal confidence the exact opposite (i.e. Arab Winter). There is a general feeling in DC that public expressions of nuance, however accurate, are not useful, demonstrate uncertainty and hesitation, and are doomed to misinterpretation. I’m not sure if this should make you feel better or worse. It means there is more understanding than you imagine, but also that education will not cure the problem.”