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Erdogan and the new Turkey

Erdogan and the new Turkey
August 01
21:05 2020

In what is a significant development in Turkish history and the world, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the congregational prayers at the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish) on Friday July 24, 2020, indicating a definitive seal of approval to the conversion of the centuries old cathedral from a museum to a mosque. The cathedral built in the sixth century during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian was converted to a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of the then Byzantine capital Constantinople in 1453 which was renamed Istanbul.

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In 1934 during the rule of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkey the cathedral was closed as a mosque and converted to a museum as part of the government’s efforts at de-Islamization of Turkey.

But on July 10, this year the Turkish Supreme court overturned the 1934 decree and ruled that the famous cathedral can now again be reconverted to a mosque.

At the centre of all these is president Erdogan who has drawn widespread condemnation in the west as being the mastermind.

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Indeed ever since he came to power in 2014, Erdogan has sought to chart a course different from the past rulers of Turkey. His trajectory of politics in Turkey even before he became its 12th President has been in the direction of trying to restore the glory of its Islamic past even if that meant causing tension with Turkey’s western allies. This of course turned him into a divisive figure both in Turkey and abroad. In Turkey while the secularist forces loathed him as someone who was trying to return the country to its backward past which earned Turkey the unenviable moniker as “the sick man of Europe”, those who however felt that Turkey was losing its proud identity on the altar of unrestrained modernization urged him on.

Abroad especially in the west, he is viewed as a pugnacious, abrasive loose cannon who chooses to go it alone even against western interests where they conflict with those of Turkey. In the Middle East and much of the developing world, he is the hero who has shown willingness to stand up against west in defence of issues pertaining to Islam and Muslims worldwide.

Indeed the Turkey I sojourned for ten months from January to October of 1986 was a country steeped in identity crisis. From the ashes of the Ottoman Empire following defeat in the First World War a new Turkish republic was proclaimed in 1923 with Mustapha Kemal the war hero as founder leader who took on the title ‘’Ataturk’’ meaning ‘’father’’ of Turkey. Ataturk diagnosed Turkey’s problem as being that of backwardness of the society which he attributed to its deep rooted Islamic tradition and culture (sounds familiar doesn’t it?). Thus he abolished the Sultanate and replaced it with a modern secular republic where practices associated with Turkey’s Islamic past were out rightly abolished in some cases or drastically scaled down in others.

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But right up to 1986 when I lived in Turkey, Ataturk’s secularising reforms were still not well received all round Turkey. In the cosmopolitan European parts of Turkey around the regions of Istanbul and cities like Izmir and the capital Ankara the residents of the area welcomed and lived it. But in the vast eastern Anatolia (dogu Anadolu in Turkish), the old Turkish traditions still predominated.
Turkey’s crisis of identity was not helped by the condescending attitude of the west towards the country. One of the main aims of Ataturk’s reforms was to firmly root Turkey in the western alliance in the hope that the west would assist in helping the country modernize. For this Turkey was admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and was required to allow the setting up of military bases on its soil as part of conditions for close relations with the west. The most prominent of these bases were the ones in Incirlik and Diyarbakir which are two of the largest American military bases in the world. Thus Turkey became the bulwark of the southern flank of NATO to face the full might of the USSR in the event of war. Indeed these bases were actually forward operating bases for American military and espionage operations in the then USSR, Middle East, Asia and even within Turkey.

It was from these bases that the military coup of 1980 that installed the head of the Turkish military General Kenan Evren was planned and coordinated. General Evren was made President of the republic (Cumhur Baskan) and Turgut Ozal a former World Bank staff, the Prime Minister (Bas Bakan)
For all these, Turkey expected to be rewarded with membership of the European Economic Community which later became the European Union. But the west mindful of Turkey’s Islamic past continued to give Turkey the run around with stringent conditions which were really meant to deter Turkey.

Good fortune however came the way of Turkey when the Soviet Union eventually collapsed and the newly liberated Soviet Central Asian states, the so called “stans” extremely rich in oil and gas and strategically placed on the east-west trade routes, sought out Turkey with whom they shared linguistic and cultural origins, for economic cooperation. Turkish companies who had made little inroads into Europe were now being contracted to help build massive infrastructural projects in these newly independent republics.

The Turkish economy thus experienced massive boom catapulting it into one of the top twenty in the world.

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It is on the tail of this unprecedented economic development that political tendencies in Turkey of which Erdogan is one of its prominent leaders, who had long argued that Turkey’s salvation did not lie with bowing fully to the west, rode to power.

This has led to a new assertive Turkey which has shown readiness to act independently in pursuit of its own interests, guided by the country’s Islamic past and identity.
That has been behind what is considered Erdogan’s bellicosity to the west as exemplified by the conversion of the Hagia Sophia cathedral to a mosque, among other actions.

The lessons for us in Nigeria is that while we necessarily need to seek the assistance of other countries for our economic development, this should not be at the expense of our long term strategic interests in Africa and black world to which we are the bell weather country.

Email: Iliyasu [email protected] Tel: 08035355706 (sms only)

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