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Lessons from Ottoman past risk falling on deaf ears 25 juin 2012

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK) FT Report-Turkey, June 25, 2012, p. 3

By Andrew Finkel *

It was certainly a sword-and-spear spectacular – replete with cauldrons of molten pitch and computer-enhanced biceps – but was it also an allegorical tale of eurozone decline? Either way, the Turkish film to break box office records this year was Conquest 1453 – a lavish recreation of the 15th century siege of Constantinople.

It is a story of virtue triumphant. The Ottoman armies pray and sharpen their blades. The Byzantines do not argue over point spread and sovereign debt, but they do spend a lot of time scheming and watching dancing girls. And by the final credits, the true grit of Turkey’s imperial forebears triumphs over European decadence and fatigue.

To the cinema-going cohorts, Conquest captured a growing mood that Turkey no longer needs to cling to the coat-tails of its western allies. Instead, the country is surging ahead under its own steam helped by the current of an illustrious past.

Seated centre-screen, metaphorical popcorn in hand, is the country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. He is a diminutive man with a scholarly turn of phrase and is an unlikely figure, in the brutal rough and tumble of Turkish politics, to rally the troops.

He is also the author of a book that translates as Strategic Depth , which has become the vade mecum of the Justice and Development (AK) Party government’s foreign policy. In the book, he tries to make the case that Turkey should no longer be the handmaiden of someone else’s world vision but the master of its own.

Prof Davutoglu in effect argues that Turkey is able to exercise soft power in its region because of the very qualities the founders of the Turkish Republic in 1923 tried to cast aside. The nation’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, famously tried to draw a line under a stale and unprofitable historical legacy in order to play catch-up with the west. And while the AKP would never cast aspersions on Atatürk’s legacy, it does suggest it is time to move on.

Prof Davutoglu is certainly not the first Turkish politician to identify with the Ottoman past. Even the military when in power after the 1980 coup tried to instil a national identity melded from the more radical ideologies of right and left with what was called at the time the « Turkish-Islamic synthesis ».

Nor will today’s foreign ministry admit that Turkey is trying to establish a Pax Ottomanica or neo-Ottoman revival in its broader neighbourhood, which is riven with ethnic and sectarian disputes.

Yet the AKP does assert that Turkey will enter the ranks of the top 10 economies by 2023. Its undeclared plan is to conduct centennial celebrations in 2023 with the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, completing a second five-year term as president.

Its confidence is reinforced by the belief that it exercises soft power in a part of the globe where it has a cultural affinity based on a shared Ottoman past and common Islamic heritage. And it is this ability to negotiate its way in a difficult part of the world that Ankara markets to its Nato allies.

Just as Conquest appeals almost exclusively to a domestic audience, the story of a looming Turkish century does not always go down well abroad. Foreign diplomats readily acknowledge that Ankara is now an important actor in a string of hotspots, from Pristina to Kabul.

However, with the Arab uprising turning into a season of attrition, Turkey is discovering the limits to its reach.

The slow and painful implosion in Syria has exacerbated relations with neighbours Iran and Iraq.

If anything, Ankara’s new best friend is Washington, as it seeks an active ally in the region. However, when under attack by the parliamentary opposition, Prof Davutoglu’s confidence in the new Turkey did not bend.

The era of « wait-and-see », when Turkey would be swept along in the wake of great power politics and other people’s policies was at an end, he told parliament last April.

« A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East, » the foreign minister said.

The history lesson Professor Davutoglu may be most eager to teach is the one that makes his compatriots feel good about themselves, but it is not always an easy message to convey.

A sad example is the effort of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to do Turkey’s public relations for it and stage a blockbuster exhibition on the Ottoman Empire.

Those plans are now on hold. The reason is that Turkey’s ministry for culture and tourism is determined to retrieve a stone head of Eros from a third century BC sarcophagus to which it believes Turkey has title. The V&A says it owns the object legitimately, but is prepared to consider a long-term loan.

In retaliation, the Turkish ministry is refusing to co-operate on loans to the larger exhibition.

The danger is that in its efforts to play a greater role on the global stage, Turkey will instead become more inward-looking.

* Andrew Finkel is the author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know, published by Oxford University Press.

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1. Lessons from Ottoman past risk falling on deaf ears juin 25, 2012 « Ataturk Society UK - 28 juin 2012

[…] 28, 2012 by Ataturk Society UK  juin 25, 2012 https://acturca.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/ottoman-past/ Posted by Acturca Financial Times (UK) FT Report-Turkey, June 25, 2012, p. 3 By Andrew Finkel * […]

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