100 Years After WWI, Turkish Leaders Nostalgic For Empire

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

This Armistice Day (November 11) marks the 100 year anniversary of the World War I which saw the collapse of the 700 year old Turkish Ottoman Empire. Yet on Friday (Nov. 7) Prime Minister Ahmet Davotuglu spoke of Turkey’s Ottoman colonial territories as if they still belong to them arguing that “Al-Quds [Jerusalem] has been entrusted with us by [Muslim caliph] Hazrat Omar. Al-Quds has been entrusted to us by [Ottoman Sultan] Yavuz Sultan Selim and [Ottoman Sultan] Süleyman the Magnificent. Al-Quds has been entrusted to us by the last soldier of the Ottomans.”

Jerusalem was captured by the British in 1917 along with Turkey’s other imperial possessions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. The division of the empire by the victorious powers created the modern map of the Middle East.

After the war the only victorious Ottoman general, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, created modern Turkey out of the Anatolian heartland of the empire (Ataturk means ‘Father of the Turks) and invented a new Turkish nationalism on which to base the identity of the new country.

As part of his reforms he formally abolished the Ottoman Caliphate on March 3rd 1924.

This event marked the first time in Islamic history that there had been no caliph. It had a profound emotional effect on Muslim identity and group consciousness worldwide.

The tension between the secularist forces imposed by Ataturk that have been dominant in Turkish society since the 1920s and the resurgent Islamism of Turkey’s President Tayyip Recep Erdogan and the AKP party is the primary fissure in Turkish political culture today.  Erdogan’s Islamist ideology landed him in prison in 1998 when he was given a 10 month prison sentence for reciting a poem which included the lines “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” The secularist judiciary held it to be “inciting religious hatred.”

Turkey has since begun to re-evaluate its Ottoman history, led by the now ruling Islamist AKP party. In a speech in mid-October 2014, Erdogan evoked his ‘neo-Ottoman’ outlook, blaming modern day ‘Lawrences of Arabia’ for Turkey’s woes in the region, referring to T.E. Lawrence, the British liaison to Arab leaders during WWI. He said: “Lawrence was an English spy disguised as an Arab. There are new voluntary Lawrences, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.”

When asked what he thought of allegations that he was a “neo-Ottoman” by Time magazine in 2011, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan said “We were born and raised on the land that is the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. They are our ancestors. It is out of the question that we might deny that presence. Of course, the Empire had some beautiful parts and some not so beautiful parts. It’s a very natural right for us to use what was beautiful about the Ottoman Empire today.”

Erdogan’s Islamism has cost him on the international stage. His close links with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have severely damaged Turkey’s relationship with Egypt, where general turned president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is busily engaged in crushing any visible signs of the movement.

The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), heavily linked to Erdogan’s AK party, was involved in recruiting and funding for the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Hamas, damaging Turkey’s previously warm relationship with Israel.

Following Erdogan‘s speech at the UN attacking Egypt,  President Sisi blasted Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance saying that Ankara was “keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through its support for groups and terrorist organizations.”

In something of an Ottoman cultural revival in Turkey, the most popular television show is called Magnificent Century, a soap opera about the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, regarded by many as the high point of the empire.

In 2009 Erdogan even opened a museum commemorating Sultan Mehmet’s 1453 conquest of Constantinople. He has also presided over a far broader beatification campaign in Istanbul, seeking to restore the erstwhile imperial capital to something of its former glory, neglecting the republican capital of Ankara. An attempt to bulldoze trees at Taksim square in order to make room for the reconstruction of Ottoman era barracks prompted widespread protests against his increasingly corrupt and authoritarian rule.  The move was seen by many as an attempt to wash away the secular legacy of Ataturk.

Returning to Lawrence of Arabia, it is easy to see why Erdogan chose that reference. Lawrence’s role was to precipitate the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, aiding Western powers in dethroning Turkey from its place as the leader of the Middle East and the caliph as spiritual leader of the Muslim world.

His neighbors certainly regard Erdogan as ‘neo-Ottoman’. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying “he [Erdogan] personally thinks that he is the new sultan of the Ottomans and he can control the region as it was during the Ottoman Empire under a new umbrella. In his heart he thinks he is a caliph.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

By entering your email, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.