In 2005, against the backdrop of the post-9/11 war on terror and Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, Turkey and Spain sought to counteract the polarization between the Muslim world and the West. Since then, Turkey has stylized itself as a mediator between civilizations – yet is not a genuine mediator for international understanding either. By Nuray Atmaca
The Spanish-Turkish initiative was later adopted by then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and became a UN-project referred to as the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). A pillar of the initiative is the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Group of Friends, which currently consists of 142 member states and international organizations that actively promote implementing national plans and strategies for cross-cultural dialogue. The common goal is to work together in order to create a world “free from cultural conflicts, where cultural diversity is an asset and not a liability.“
Well-intentioned, but a mere banner
An analysis of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s previous writings and speeches reveals a deep-rooted perception of civilizational antagonism. Davutoğlu criticizes the post-Cold War theories of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington as new instruments for Western powers to legitimize imperial aspirations. He argues that Fukuyama’s thesis of Western liberal democracy as the end point of human development and Huntington’s prophecy of an inevitable confrontation of Muslim and non-Muslim societies are considered to be two complementary narratives: “Huntington completes the picture drawn by Fukuyama by providing the hegemonic powers with a theoretical justification for the overall political and military strategies required to control and reshape the international system.”
In other words, with the end of the Cold War and the paradigm change in the perception of security, Islam and Islamic regimes were securitized by the West for political ends. Davutoğlu and others believe(d) that “this approach became the intellectual vanguard and secular baptismal creed of the universal democratic crusade in the name of New World Order.”
Since these words were written in 1997, a conviction has persisted within the ranks of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that an “anti-Islam fundamentalism” prevails in non-Muslim societies, especially in the West. At the fourth conference of ambassadors in the beginning of 2012 Davutoğlu claimed, in reference and opposition to Fukuyama’s “end of history”, that “the flow of history“ would proceed even faster. The metaphor of the flow and normalization of history is a recurrent symbol in the speeches of Davutoğlu; it refers to an irresistible democratization trend which was supposed to manifest in the Middle East in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, as it was the case in Eastern Europe.
But again, according to the Turkish narrative, it was the Western fear of the Islamic threat that denied the Muslim Middle East its natural pursuit of democracy. Moreover, this,”Orientalist attitude“ believes that Middle Eastern societies, incapable of democracy, have to be ruled by authoritarian regimes, which became a natural ally of the so called Western liberal democracies. The AKP believes that the uprisings in the “Arab sister nations” have refuted Fukuyama and Huntington’s Western essentialist prejudices and once more proved that democracy and human rights are not distinctly Western privileges, but universal values.
Turkey as Orientalist as the West
Despite denouncing the West for its cultural-essentialist approach, Davutoğlu is ideologically entangled in the same essentialist parameters. While decrying the Western powers’ essentialist bias, the Turkish narrative on the Middle East is at least as Orientalist as that of the West. Though in diametrical opposition to the Western approach, Turkey still believes that a one-size-fits-all democratic model, namely that of the AKP, can be imposed on the predominantly Islamic societies of the Middle East. This democratic model is labeled “conservative democracy”, a form of moderate political Islam. Similarly, when the American-led coalition entered Iraq in 2003 they were driven to reshape the country with its own model of “liberal democracy”.
According to Associate Professor Behlül Özkan of Marmara University, a former student of Davutoğlu who analyzed over 300 of his instructor’s essays from his days as a young doctoral candidate, Davutoğlu is an “organic intellectual“ of the ideological group he is part of. Even at the end of the 1980s the deep impact of European imperialist theoreticians on Davutoğlu was noticeable. Although Özkan admits that these essays Davutoğlu wrote (primarily for Islamic journals) present a more dogmatic character than the Davutoğlu of today, his ideological conviction persists.
Accordingly, Soner Çağaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, describes Turkish foreign policy not as Islamic but as explicitly Islamist. For him, Turkish foreign policy is driven by a political ideology that considers the West to be in a persistent conflict with Islam. “Because the AKP sees a clash of civilizations in regional politics, it cannot be an impartial mediator“, Çağaptay says.
Within this context it is highly questionable if Turkey, as a self-proclaimed mediator between civilizations, can meet its own ideal.
This explains Erdoğan’s imbalanced positioning regarding the International Criminal Court’s charge of genocide against Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, when he claimed that “it is impossible for someone affiliated to our religion, Islam, to commit genocide.” Moreover, this statement is inherently essentialist itself, laying claim to the moral superiority of the Islamic religion while suggesting the Christian and Jewish religion is less moral.
“Nowhere in the world we will allow the insult of the Prophet”
Thus, at the 5th global forum of the UNAOC in Vienna, Erdoğan called upon the international community to declare Islamophobia a crime against humanity. “We can never accept Islam, which is the religion of peace, being labeled a religion of terror”, Erdoğan said. Accordingly, he refuses to call ISIL with the self-appointed term Islamic State but calls it with the Arabic acronym DAESH (al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi-l Iraq wa-Sham), which shares the same semantic meaning as ISIL but is used by its opponents to discredit the terror group that claims to act in the name of Islam.
Although it’s highly unlikely that a proposal to make Islamophobia a crime against humanity will ever be implemented, one rationale behind that is to prevent the publication of satire and satirical caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. The Turkish government harshly condemned the terror attack on the satire journal Charlie Hebdo, which took the lives of twelve people in Paris. Nevertheless, Davutoğlu was unequivocal that Turkey will “ nowhere in the world (…) allow the insult of the prophet“. The government promptly reacted to the newspaper Cumhuriyet’s reprinting of a selection of the caricatures from Charlie Hebdo with a police raid on its office and an injunction prohibiting the distribution of the caricatures. “Press freedom is not the freedom to insult. In this country we will not allow the insult of the prophet”, Davutoğlu declared.
The last sentence especially sends out a clear signal to the West: In this “cultural hemisphere” it is not the Eurocentric narrative which applies, but an indigenous and equally legitimate narrative which makes claims of sovereignty within its own cultural-religious context – a justifiable claim though.
Hence, a peaceful co-existence of nations is only possible if, in the words of Davutoğlu, the dominance of a “uni-cultural monopolization” comes to an end. Part of this is reforming the United Nations – especially the Security Council – by 2023, the Turkish Republic’s centenary, which has been made a benchmark for Turkey to become an effective promoter of global peace and the re-shaping of the global order.
But things are not going well for Turkey. In the beginning of this year co-sponsor Spain announced its definite cancelation of the UNAOC due to its growing irrelevance. The incumbent conservative People’s Party (PP) even added that such an initiative is not a priority at a time when “jihadists terrorize Europe”, the Doğan News Agency reported. Consequently, the current Spanish government removed the initiative when it updated then Prime Minister Zapatero’s 2011 National Security Strategy.
Turkey does not believe in international understanding
The virtue of such a proposal notwithstanding, the methods and language of the AKP to achieve this goal are not constructive. In fact, the Turkish government’s rhetoric – so essential to dialogue – reduces its campaign for international understanding to a farce. Aside from failing in its purpose, this rhetoric is, at heart, a challenge to the West to accept Muslim countries as equal partners. It is also a battle cry for the people of Muslim countries to take power from their cultural heritage in order to overcome Western dominance. Expert on Turkey and professor at the National War College, Ömer Taşpınar, even labels the often defiant rhetoric and foreign policy of the AKP-government as a form of “Turkish Gaullism”, being nationalistic, independent, self-confident and obstreperous.
In line with that, Turkey’s pursuit of these two conflicting “policies” is on the one hand due to the government playing to two different audiences – on one side the Turkish society and on the other side the international community. On the other hand, and more importantly, this inconsistent attitude derives from the Turkish government’s disbelief in genuine international understanding. The self-declared role of a morally superior promoter of civilizational understanding is a mere useful “camouflage” to install Turkey in international organizations as a global power and mouthpiece of Muslim countries. Obviously, there is no morally superior adversary and narratives as well as perceptions are framed according to interests. After all, it was Davutoğlu himself who put it: “A clash starts when civilizational difference is being utilized for a strategic objective”.