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Erdogan's national project using the Turkish language cannot be underestimated

Haitham al-Zubaidi

Published: Updated:

Some Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members would advise Erdogan to learn from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s experience, taking a deeper look at his nationalism that, while met with initial success, ultimately ended in failure. While it may be true that Erdogan makes mistakes, he learns fast and adapts even faster.

Re-establishing a Turkish empire with new characteristics.

If you happened to live in the city of Kirkuk in the late seventies and early eighties, you would have noted the state of distress that has accompanied its Turkmen population since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern Iraqi state. The Iraqi Turkmen population is a small ethnic minority with major influence. They are a Turkish-speaking ethnic group that belongs to the Turks. The significance of this ethnic group goes beyond the number of its members or their spread in Kirkuk and the towns and villages surrounding the city. This minority had long lived in the balance of its hatred of the Kurds and its fear of Baghdad.

The Iraqi Turkmen defended their rightful existence in the city of Kirkuk and strived to preserve their Turkish language and heritage. The presence of large numbers of Turkmen in a major city such as Kirkuk only made them a target, from the Kirkuk massacre in 1959 up until the referendum in 2017. Despite enjoying Turkey’s protection for a long time, the Turkmen’s greatest fears came true. They are now caught in between the pressure from the Kurds and the infiltration of Arabs from the south since the seventies, not to mention the central government's keenness to keep matters unresolved between it and the Kurds regarding Kirkuk, without looking carefully at what all this means to the Turkmen, or even to the Kurds who insist that Kirkuk is historically theirs and that they themselves are victims of displacement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan realizes what it means for the Turkmen to cling to their Iraqi-ess along with their ethnic Turkish origins. He is too clever to squander such an opportunity. Nationalism and language are two powerful weapons to use to Turkey’s advantage.

Kirkuk is just an example of Erdogan's expansion ambitions, which are much broader and more elaborate. After dedicating major efforts to achieve his aspirations, Erdogan is now pushing his agenda through playing on ideological intangible sentiments. He believes that the time has come to re-establish a new Turkish empire but not in its previous form. An empire that invests in ideological hegemony. An intangible empire that exists in the minds of its followers built on a network of common interests and connections with well-established influential countries or with countries aspiring to gain Turkey’s support.

Erdogan does not need to search long in the history books. He can simply look back to the early 1990s in order to learn from a strategic mistake made by the late Turkish President Turgut Özal. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the chain of countries that stretched from the borders of China to the edges of Turkey searched for a godfather. Turkey was in an ideal place to assume this position, but it missed its opportunity.

Now on the other hand, Erdogan is more than ready. He has paved the way to assume a leading position in the region both politically and economically. He has also formulated an optimal ideology for ensuring this homogeny by adopting both Turkish nationalism and political Islam and reinforced his position with an economy that has been on the rise for decades, before entering the cycle of debt and ill-advised actions taken by the likes of his son-in-law, former finance minister Berat Albayrak.

To ensure his plan’s success, any aspect left out by politics, ideology, or the economy, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization handles it or leaves it to the army. The National Intelligence Organization has been operating without interruption since the time of the Seljuk empire, and the army sees itself as an extension of the Janissaries. Only two aspects remain that are currently being handled by Erdogan: the Turkish language / Turkish nationalism and the systematic infiltration of Turkish influence through the power of spreading ideological narratives.

The Turks say that they went to Misrata in order to protect ethnic Turks, which are Libyan citizens with Turkish ancestry. They achieved victory and gained a foothold in North Africa. The people of Misrata do not speak Turkish, but their Turkish pride is palpable, and it has increased even more with Erdogan’s support.

They also say that they went to Azerbaijan for that same purpose. Azeris are Turks at heart, but they are Shiites, which suggests that they are closer to Iran. With his political savvy, Erdogan realized the importance of race and language, and how they precede sectarianism. He immediately interfered with his marches and experts and resolved the war in Armenia while Iran stood idle.

This would be the ideal time to recall and emphasize the new imperial national project.

Let us consider this example, Erdogan now talks openly about “the Turkish world.” He means a world that is Turkish, ethnically and linguistically. Without hesitation, he told the Azeri prime minister, “The Turkish world has shown the importance of solidarity, cooperation and joint action, at all levels, from the Nagorno-Karabakh War to the Covid-19 pandemic, to diplomacy and defense, health, agriculture, tourism and energy.” He launched a campaign titled “Turkish is a global language” to commemorate Turkish poet Yunus Emre’s legacy.

The language, according to the Turks, “is the nation’s first guardian before the army.” It was noteworthy to hear him refer to the army in an event that was supposed to celebrate language and poetry. It was also noteworthy that he was speaking to young people and inviting them to restore their Ottoman Turkish heritage. He told them: Learn to read the inscriptions written on gravestones because they are written in an alphabet that has been replaced, and do not cram too many English and French terms into the Turkish language. He then thanked the representatives of Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia to UNESCO for their support for Emre’s project and his world year. He was hinting that he intends to thank more countries soon.

The systematic spread of a Turkish ideological narrative requires remembrance of past victories. The Turkish army is now in a strong position after achieving victories in Libya and Azerbaijan. But its spirits must be lifted considering its faltering war against the Kurds. Here, we recall the Janissary history and the almost mythical character of the godfather of the Janissaries, Haji Bektash Veli, who lived 750 years ago. Erdogan has declared the Year 2021 as "Haji Bektash Veli Year".

The Bektashi Order was part of the ideological organization of the Janissary army, which was the backbone of the Ottoman army and the striking force in the hands of the sultans. This Sufi order was key to the recruitment of the Janissaries from different races and from a predominantly Christian background. The sultans highly relied on this method and used it to their advantage very efficiently, and it became one of the most important roles played by Sufi orders in the organization of the Ottoman Empire.

Erdogan did not lose sight of the fact that Haji Bektash Veli was born in Nishapur in the Khwarezmian empire. To Azerbaijan, he was saying Turkish connections are present, as well as Alawite lineage. This connection is important when it comes to a sheikh of the Bektashi Sufi order, who had Christian recruits in the Balkans and integrated them into the battalions of Janissaries. Haji Bektash Veli has become a symbolic figure.

It is safe to say that Erdogan wants to complete his empire. This is a historic opportunity for him that cannot be overlooked. He has withdrawn from the European project. He has left the matter of Turkish influence in Europe in the hands of millions of Turkish residents and expatriates, and to hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have been influenced by his thoughts and ideology, whether because they are Muslim Brotherhood members or just people looking for an idol to follow. According to Erdogan, the time has come for Turkey to focus on its Asian Caucasian expansion project.

It is hard to tell if Erdogan has looked at the rise and fall of the Nasserite project. However, there is no doubt that there are Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood affiliates who could advise him to learn from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s experience — his nationalism and early success, and then the accumulation of mistakes in domestic, regional and global policies, leading to his defeat and demise. It is true that Erdogan makes many mistakes, but he learns quickly from them and adapts even faster.

Finally, we should remember that while Kirkuk and its Turkmen population are important, as are Misrata and the Turkish origins of its people, Erdogan’s expansionism aspirations are limitless and his plans are much broader.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily al-Arab news channel.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.