Ottoman Dreams: Why Are Americans Surprised by Turkey's Islamic Turn?

There is a distinct disadvantage to being an expert in certain professions and occupations. Standing too close to one’s subject, nose against the canvas, tends to lead to a loss of perspective. Clean demarcations and the multitude of critical details dissolve into an unintelligible blur. This is true of many different fields, from sports where team general managers make bonehead decisions to business in which CEOs bankrupt their companies. But it is especially true of politics where a variant of the law of diminishing returns seems to hold. With only a few exceptions, the more one professes to know, the less one understands. The closer one is to one’s subject, the farther one recedes from insight and comprehension. The reasons for this apparent paradox— apart from the usual ideological blinders -- are an impermeable conviction in one’s political sagacity, historical ignorance, and an abysmal lack of common sense, which inevitably interfere with clear, perspectival thinking.

Over the last decade or so, this form of intellectual myopia was perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the West’s standard assessment of the “Turkish problem” -- which was, of course, regularly and steadfastly deproblematized. The vast preponderance of politicians, journalists, academics, and talking heads, boasting an unwarranted attitude of inflated self-importance and influenced by the favonian winds of both the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy and a belief in a misnamed “realism,” sailed like the Israeli navy into a carefully prepared Turkish trap. Turkey was extolled as a beacon nation, a reliable member of NATO, a Western-leaning Muslim country, and a prime illustration of the compatibility between Islam and democracy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be just another little dictator with a trademark mustache (which, at the beginning of his political career, he refused to shave off when ordered to do so by his quondam superior). But he wore a suit and not a Ghaddafi-style caftan, carried himself with dignity, and talked a consoling line to his ministerial peers in the West. Moreover, Turkey had established strong bilateral relations with Israel, even to the point of collaborating on military matters.

All countervailing signs were studiously discounted in order to preserve a cherished illusion. That Turkey refused to allow American overflights during the second Gulf War was somehow brushed aside as a mere diplomatic blip. That it launched forays into northern Iraq to attack the Kurds, America’s allies in the war against Saddam Hussein, was quickly forgotten. That Erdogan twice welcomed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted on charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court, was conveniently disregarded. Erdogan gave the show away as early as the 1990s, proclaiming that “democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off,” a revelation which had not the slightest impact on the supposed political acumen of most Western diplomats and public intellectuals.

Better had they listened to Serge Trifkovic, who wrote in The Sword of the Prophet: “If and when Turkey becomes a fully-fledged democracy, that instant it will become Islamic and anti-Western.” Even better had they read Erdogan’s celebrated 1998 poem containing the lines, translated as: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” But, of course, our nomenklatura do not read. Turkey’s brokering of a nuclear fuel exchange with Iran to frustrate a possible sanctions consensus aimed at the mullahs’ nuclear program and its complicity in the infamous flotilla episode are merely further indications of the trajectory it is plotting.

What we are witnessing is a new and distressing, unromantic version of what Russian novelist Boris Akunin calls, in his book of that title, the Turkish gambit. As Erdogan gradually but inexorably began to move Turkey out of the Western ambit, attempting to criminalize adultery as an affront to “Turkish honor” and to overturn the ban against veiling in classrooms, working against the so-called “deep state” by arresting key officers in the Turkish army that had been rooted in the secular-oriented Kemalist tradition, and demonstrably aligning the country with the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus of radical Islamic forces, those who are presumed to know something about the international arena -- the “experts” -- remained generally blinkered and indifferent to what was afoot.