The recent elections in Turkey have confirmed the enduring political life of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has re-shaped the country that had been viewed by many as the “model” for severing links with the past and re-moulding its future on liberal values. In the past two decades there have been ideological and political re-indoctrination of Turkey, the cradle of the longest Islamic empire. The European Union has detested the country and rebuffed its advances to become a member. Yet it remained part of NATO while extending its hands to Russia and Iran. With a strong economy and diverse but committed Muslim population, what could be Turkey’s future regional alliances? How much of the post-Ottoman culture has remained? And where did the West err in its confrontational approach to this expanding regional superpower?
Dr Turhan Ozen: I didn’t prepare a speech. I was hoping I could give a brief introduction and then take questions. I would like to share some of my experiences. I came to the UK in 1988 and in that time Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul. His party had popular support because the regime in Turkey was not sharing everything with the majority of the people. This brought Erdogan to power. I felt as a member of that group as well. I went to Turkey for elections and I voted for the AKP party for the first few elections. In the UK I was a member of the party and I was inviting members of the AKP party because I felt under represented and I should make every effort that I can to help the people who did not have representation and a voice in the running of the country. I tried to help them to create the environment to make their case. In the last elections I did not vote for the party and I did not support the party. I think it has changed quite a lot. This is not only an experience that has been observed in Turkey. If you look at the story of how Orban went through that same transformation as well. He started as liberal. He got the scholarship and came to study in the UK at Oxford University for those values. He was leading the liberal movement in the country. But now he has become a cult using all kinds of tools to keep control. I feel Turkey has gone through a similar experience. They won the elections again, they got 52 percent of the vote but the people who were supporting them until 2011 are not the same people who voted in the last election. After being in power for 21 years it has used all the power of the state to create mass hysteria. It is dangerous. It feels like the Arthur Miller play if you have read it or have seen it. A few women have a problem with other woman in the village and they start rumours about them and in the end the hysteria gets so big that the people who know the rumours are not true say nothing and they end up burning those people. The 52 percent of the supporters of the party could easily be made to carry out such crimes as well because the hysteria that was created during the election was crazy. The people were not choosing between two leaders who had the right to rule the country but between two enemies. The accusations and the propaganda was really ugly. It used all the state resources. The president was travelling everywhere with the presidential plane. All the ministers were candidates as MPs and they were using ministerial resources. The opposition has enough money but they did not have a chance. As a person living in the U.K I feel we need to do something. That is why I wanted to share these thoughts with you. We need to do something to protect our citizens in the UK from influences of these kind or regimes. When I speak to my Indian friends, I feel we are under a similar influence from Mod’s regime that we were going through in the experience with Erdogan. And Putin has also committed crimes here. He has killed people who were in the UK. I try to focus my thoughts on how to reduce the influence that this regime has on people who have roots in those countries and also to make sure that they are safe. So, this is what I want to share with you and I am happy to take some questions.
Reza Shaban: I will be taking over the historical aspect of this debate with a lecture entitled Sultans, Sufis and Scholars institutional power dynamics in the Ottoman Empire. So I will be looking at Islamic institutional power, how it permeated the Ottoman Empire until it was abolished in 1922 and I will be looking at how political institutions loosely interpreted Islam in different ways as they were jostling for power. I have a strict time limit so I can’t go into to much detail. This is a very extensive topic. I can just give you an overview. We are going to answer a few questions today. Some of the questions we will cover are how did powerful groups interact with each other in the Ottoman Empire, how did they check one another’s power, was there a hierarchy between these powers, how did the global phenomenon of the ideal of returning to former glory play out in the Turkish arena? So, I will make a lots of dots from the historical context and leave you to join them in terms of the modern arena. There is a quote from Soner Cagaptay. He is the director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute. He argues that nations that were once great powers have a malleable and inflatable sense of their heyday. Today we will be exploring what were the characteristics of that heyday in the Ottoman context and what were the differences between what that heyday truly was and how that hey day is interpreted today. I will start with a few definitions of what we really mean by sultans, Sufis and scholars and then we will go into the constituents of power and how they interacted with one another. What were the checks on power, how did each of these powers limit one another and at the end we will very likely touch on the idea of returning to former glory and connecting the historical context with the modern. In terms of Sultans it is very self explanatory. He is the Ottoman head of state a hereditary lineage. In terms of scholars what I mean by scholars is a group know as the ulema. It was an institution – some historians describe it as a meta institution which was made up of historians, theologians, jurists, historical interpreters, religious interpreters and so on. I really want to get into what we mean by Sufis. They had a really massive influence on Ottoman power dynamics and there are many misconceptions around them. They embodied very different movements, different forms underwent many different metamorphises and we will take a look at what that means in the Ottoman context. We boil the core of what that Sufism was about – it embodied it was essentially a direct consciousness with God and I will be returning to this point and why this point was so critical to their ascension to power. They rose essentially as a reaction against dogmatic religion. In the Islamic empires wherever you had social and political instability you had the counterpart to that which was the Sufi movement. So, it was often seen as a peripheral movement and that only changed between the 11th and 12th centuries. What happened was that for the very first time Sufism became institutionalised. This was as a result of the works of famous Sufis such as Al Ghazali. What they did was they reconciled Sufism for the very first time with Islamic shariah. What this meant was that Sufism was transported from the periphery of Islamic sects right into the mainstream. At the same time Sufism was becoming institutionalised the ulema began codifying Islam into a formal esoteric entity. What that meant was whereas the ulema were codifying Islam into something that was very rigid and formal there was a clear alternative which was Sufism which was something that was very simple and devoid of dogma. It boils down to that simple direct point of direct consciousness with God. So, what that essentially meant was the emergence of an alternative locus of political authority. One the one side you had the ulema as one side of political- religious authority and on the other side were the Sufis. So as a leader if you are faced with an alternative locus of political authority you are faced with two options. Anyone who has read Machiavelli the Prince will be familiar with these two options. You either eradicate that movement entirely or you patronize it. Of course Sufism wasn’t eradicated. Why couldn’t Sufism be removed from the Ottoman context. If we look at the origin of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 the very first Ottoman sultan Osman 1was knighted by the sword of Osman and he was knighted (girded) by the Malawi of the Sufi order. And every sultan that followed was girded by the same sword by the leader of the same sect. At the same time there was a critical association between the Ottoman cultural elites and the Malawi Sufi order. And that is just one Sufi order. The Bektashi order of Sufism, that is an order that is concentrated in the Balkan region, was the official sect of the Janissary corps – the elite fighting force of the Ottoman army. So, we can see that there was widespread support within the Sufi orders. That was not something that could be removed from the Ottoman context. It had to be embraced and it was the first empire and the first dynasty to embrace Sufism. So, when we talk about sultans, Sufis and scholars we have to understand why we have these three groups. So, these three groups come from idea that essentially emerged from the Malawi Sufi order itself. They created the main frame for these three groups to be present. This fell under three categories: It is in this particular hierarchal order. It starts with the idea of vilayet which is spiritual authority or guardianship. This is what was attributed to the Sufis. Beneath that you have sultana which is executive power. This is what was attributed to the sultan and after that you have the prophethood in the theological sense and this is what is attributed to the ulema, the scholars. The Malawi Sufis interpreted these as the three constituents of power derived from the idea that they emerged from the Prophet Muhammad. They believe that in temporal power these three concepts have to be embodied as well. So, this shows the predominance of Sufism in the Ottoman context. The power structure in the Ottoman Empire was derived from the Malawi Sufi order conception. But of course, in politics ideology is malleable. The Sufis at various points encompassed more of these constituents of power to stay within their region of spiritual authority. They believed that they could encompass all three at times. This meant that for the sultan his power was being encroached upon by the Sufis. They wanted his executive power and of course there was a reaction against this. So many of you are familiar with the idea of the Ottoman sultan as someone with spiritual power – a mystical person. This is something that is intrinsic in the reaction against the Sufis by the sultan and his institution. They would not allow the Sufis to encroach upon their territory of executive power. They fought back. They defined the sultan as someone who had spiritual authority. They entered into the realm of the Sufis. So, there was this back and forth – the borders were blurred between the three categories. So now that we know who we are talking about, these three groups and why the existed and how they pushed back and forth against each other we will explore the checks on power. This is a very critical aspect of power dynamics because you didn’t have an authoritarian leader in the Ottoman Empire but this leader was subject to checks on his powers. There were institutions that would not allow the Ottoman sultan to do everything he wished. So, we will take a look at three examples of coups that took place against sultans of the Ottoman Empire and keep in mind what we said in the beginning: questions of how different institutional powers interact with each other and what kind of hierarchy there is and how they corporate and go against one another. So we will start with the coup against Sultan Ibrahim 1st. This was a sultan that was deemed as incompetent. He raised taxes, he lived a very lavish lifestyle and especially in times of hardship for the Ottoman people he raised taxes and publicised his luxurious life style which led to a back lash by the Janissaries. They were the first group who pushed back against the sultan. They led a revolt and they eventually imprisoned him. But once they imprisoned him there was nothing more they could do. They were restricted till the ulema entered the scene in 1648. At this point when the ulema came in the sheikh of Islam was the leader of the ulema group a significant standing in the Ottoman political court. He issued a fatwa allowing for the murder of the sultan. He was eventually strangled. So, we have the ulema building on the discontent of the Janissaries. The second example we will take is Sultan Ahmed III. The reason for discontent against him was for very similar reasons: excessive luxury, extravagant life style. Except the first to voice their discontent against him were the Malawi Sufis. They criticised his excesses as simplicity and aestheticism is the core of the Sufi ideology and not indulging in excesses and luxury spending. Following this discontent the Janeseries took action and instigated a revolt and disposed Ahmed III. Finally, we will take the example of Sultan Salim III. His crime was instituting Western style reforms, most importantly a new Western style army that was parallel to the Jane series. So, of course they were under minded as they believed there would be a parallel force to them. There wouldn’t be an elite force anymore. So they revolted against Salim III. But very critically the reason for the ulema not being pleased was the imposition of Western style policies and reforms. The ulema are very traditionalist, they oppose Western policies so that was a joint revolt. The ulema and the Janeseries worked together and we see this in the decree of deposition against Salim III. In the decree he was accused of failing to respect the religion of Islam and the tradition of the Ottomans. So, we can see how these groups the Janeseries, the Sufis and the ulema interacted and how they checked on the Ottoman sultan’s power. However, in 1826 Mahmoud II abolished the institutions of the Janeseires. In 1922 with the fall of the Ottoman empire religious authority was completely abolished and in 1925 there was a ban on all Sufi sects in what was then the Republic of Turkey. All their property was confiscated. So, there was a gradual process of the eradication of the abolition of these institutions that once held executive power to account. So that brings us to the modern period of the republic of Turkey. There were 15 years at the beginning of the Republic of Turkey when executive power was helped in an authoritarian way by the Muslim ulema known as Ata Turk. There was a quote by Harold Armstrong who wrote about Ata Turk. Ata Turk is a dictator so that Turkey may never again have a dictator. That was what he said. Essentially Ata Turk’s rule was a break from the past, the over haul of the principles of the state that once existed. Critically there was a constant that remained the same from the Ottoman empire all the way into the Republic of Turkey and that was authoritarianism. So, to bring it even further into the modern day we can see the consolidation of power increasing without checks. We see in April 2017 a referendum that brought presidential control of the budget, the military, judicial appointments, the ability to dissolve parliament and extend term limits. We see the returning to the former glory of the resurrection of the Ottomans. We see this in even simple aspects. The conversion of the Aya Sophia museum into Aya Sophia the mosque in 2020. If anyone watches Netflix they will be very familiar with Turkish shows glorifying the Ottoman past. So, what we are seeing is a centralisation of the constituents of power; sultans, Sufis and scholars. At various points the constituents of power attempted to encroach on the others constituents to absorb some of the power that was shared between the three groups. And on many occasions they failed. But today we see the same effort has become successful. The consolidation, the centralisation of the various constituents of power into one of those constituents – the executive power Meanwhile the institutions that once checked the executive power have been abolished. If you look at this through the Turkish lens, Turkey or Turkia is unique in being an Islamic country whose state was not colonised but abolished. So, there is this Turkish conception that their country was not a product of Western intervention. It was an obstacle for Western intervention and an obstacle for a world order that the Western powers wanted to impose but they failed to do so in a Turkish context. What this results in is a sense of entitlement to former glory, an entitlement to the consolidation of power and an entitlement to the resurrection of a heyday. Nations that were once a great power have a malleable and inflatable sense of their heyday. I would add to that that in the Turkish conception this heyday is malleable. It has eradicated the borders between the constituents of power and it has eradicated the checks on power that once maintained equilibrium.
Dr Saeed Shehabi: We have heard that authoritarianism has its roots in the history of the Ottoman Empire. This is a description of Erdoğan. We would like to see who he is, what he stands for. In the midst of all the controversies in the Middle East on the borders between the East and the West and the intersection of two or three continents. It is part of NATO but it is not part of Europe. The Europeans are still reluctant to admit Turkey into the European Union to the extent that it managed to anger Sweden but not allowing them accession to NATO due to its internal problems. So from a Middle Eastern and from and Islamic perspective Turkey remains a powerful entity in the Middle East, where we have a lot of vying for power and also the abolition of the recent structure of dominance in the Middle East. Where is Egypt? – it is nowhere to be seen as a power in the Middle East. Where is Iraq? Where is Syria? They have just disappeared. Now Turkey and Iran remain strong and they remain on reasonably good terms. At the same time there are problems within the Middle East, especially with Israel. There is a debate about how much our countries should go towards normalization of relations with Israel. Many people view Erdogan as a great man and a great saviour of Muslims especially after his election for the third or fourth time as the president. It is clear that he has some great influence with his party the AKP. So Erdogan will remain one of the major leaders in the Middle East. He is unparalleled in his successes and failures. His successes cannot be underestimated. He has transformed Turkey into a powerful regional power with a big economy, probably the largest in the Middle East. Larger than any other country in the Middle East. It produces cars. It has a lot of agricultural products. It is a big country and a big destination for tourism so Turkey cannot just be brushed aside. From a Muslim point of view they will always look to Turkey remaining on the side of Muslim causes especially on Palestine. They could not disengage from Israel and that is a contradiction. On the one hand some people would look at Erdogan as the caliph. On the other hand he is also betraying the cause and there is a lot of anger anxiety. Turkey will always remain influential. We hope that Turkey will prosper. Dr Ozen talked about authoritarianism and his lack of support for the AKP. Whatever you say Turkey has remained stable. It has its own problems. It has some challenges from the PKK which is a very big problem for Turkey and a security nightmare. Turkey has its own ambitions in the Middle East. It had some relations with Qatar and at times it sided with the Brotherhood in Egypt. This happened ten years ago but gradually it came back to Egypt and now relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are flourishing somehow. So, Turkey needs to be studied in more detail and also there should be a realisation that whatever happens in Turkey it will have its influence on the Middle East, on the regional dynamics and on the balance of power in the region. That is why there is a lot of pressure on Turkey, from America to go deeper into relations with Israel. When Turkey was not admitted into the European Union it stopped asking for that. For ten years they have not been talking about entry into the European Union. So, the Turks have there own dignity, I am not talking about Erdogan, I am talking about Turkey as a whole, Turkey as a nation, Turkey as an empire. So, we have to look at what are the prospects for Turkey to play a leading role in the Muslim world. I believe it would be good for the Muslim world if Turkey had good relations with Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia and Egypt. But unfortunately, the Arab countries including Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, they have there own internal problems and conflicts that have prevented them from playing a major role in Middle East politics. But Turkey can play that role. It can still be a mediator. It can be a leader in bringing about some understanding among those countries. It can help the Arab countries in the struggle to liberate Palestine.