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Davutoğlu and the “New Turkey”: The Closing of a “Hundred Year Old Parenthesis”

In a game of musical chairs, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is set to become the country’s new prime minister this week, after the outgoing prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is sworn in as president on August 28, 2014. The choice may seem odd, given the widespread sense in the West, as well as in many circles in Turkey, that Davutoğlu presided over a failed Turkish foreign policy. But from Erdoğan’s perspective, Davutoğlu was the natural choice. The new leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the new prime minister could not just be a technocrat: he had to be someone ambitious and charismatic enough to ensure that the party secures another convincing victory in the parliamentary election next year. But at the same time, the new leader had to be someone who naturally defers to Erdoğan’s authority. Davutoğlu fits this profile perfectly.

A New AKP and a “New Turkey”

Davutoğlu’s elevation enshrines the end of the old AKP and ushers the party into a new era. The defining characteristic of this period is not only Davutoğlu’s greater role on the political stage, but also the departure of two of the party’s original co-founders – Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç. That departure has not been entirely voluntary, the outgoing President Gül made a bid to return to the party and assume its leadership, but Erdoğan ensured that it came to naught. As a result, the next generation of the AKP is going to owe its ascent to Erdoğan and be devoted to him alone.

Indeed, Erdoğan appointed Davutoğlu as his care-taker of the ruling party and the government, and will certainly continue to call the shots. Yet, although Davutoğlu will play second fiddle, this does not mean that his appointment has no implications. Quite to the contrary, it hints at where this course is likely to lead Turkey: it represents a doubling down on the party’s Sunni Islamist ideology.

The selection of Davutoğlu has been celebrate`d by pro-government pundits as heralding nothing less than the birth of a “New Turkey.” The editor-in-chief of the daily Yeni Şafak, the leading messenger of the ruling party, wrote that Davutoğlu’s appointment “represents one of the most crucial thresholds of the New Turkey project.” The editorial assured that “the New Turkey is not a slogan: It is the project to redesign Turkey, to found it again after a hundred years.”

Turkey’s “Hundred Year Old Parenthesis” and Davutoğlu’s Worldview

The rhetoric may be overblown, but it is suggestive of the ideas and of the worldview that animate Erdoğan’s regime. More to the point, it is directly inspired by what Davutoğlu himself has been saying and writing for more than two decades. Like no other representative of Turkey’s Islamic movement, Ahmet Davutoğlu has provided it with a historical and ideological narrative that explains and justifies the AKP’s political mission in terms that explicitly negate the ideas that have inspired Ottoman and Turkish modernizers – from the first modernizing Ottoman pashas that set the course of the empire toward the West at the beginning of the 19th century to the modern-day followers of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic that is now to be “re-founded.”

Davutoğlu stated as much last year, when he said “it is now high time to close a hundred year old parenthesis.” Davutoğlu’s writings leave no doubt that his is an unabashedly imperial vision, one in which Turkey ascends to its proper place as one of the greater powers of the world. There was a time when Davutoğlu’s extravagant vision was hailed in the West and by Turkish liberals. It was assumed that the closing of the “hundred year old parenthesis” meant that Turkey was breaking out of the isolation to which the Kemalist tradition supposedly had confined the country and that Davutoğlu was a liberal internationalist, seeking “zero problems with neighbors.” But that is a highly superficial reading of Davutoğlu’s ideas, one that does not correspond with his published work.

Indeed, Davutoğlu has been taking issue not only with what was – in his view – an allegedly passive foreign policy but also, much more fundamentally, he has been challenging – as an intellectual and as a policy maker – the very tradition that has defined Turkey’s historical “parenthesis.”

In fact, the main thrust of Davutoğlu’s work could not be clearer: it is dominated by a deep conviction in the incompatibility of the West and the Islamic world and by resentment of the West for its attempt to impose its values and political system on the rest of the world. As we have described elsewhere, including the Bipartisan Policy Center study on “Roots of Turkish Conduct,” Davutoğlu rejects the Western “modernist paradigm” because of the “peripherality of revelation,” that is, the West’s emphasis on reason and experience, versus divine revelation, which he argues results in an “acute crisis of Western civilization.”1

By implication, Davutoğlu argues that the Western and Islamic worlds are essentially different and rejects Turkey’s efforts to become part of the West. He terms this impossible and undesirable, because it goes against the country’s intrinsic nature and seeks to join a West that is, anyway, in crisis. Atatürk’s republican endeavor was, he argues, “an ambitious and utopian project to achieve a total civilizational change which ignored the real cultural, historical, social, and political forces in the society.”

Davutoğlu’s thoughts on the roles of Israel and the West in the Middle East are clear. He once referred to Israel as a “geostrategic tumor” and “alien to its geography.” While he said that in 1984, he said the following in a speech just this year: “We will work day and night until the colonialists are removed from the Middle East. We will raise up a great torch of humanity from the Middle East which they call a quagmire, with God’s permission.”

By contrast, Davutoğlu approves of the emergence of the Islamic state as a response to the imposition of Western nation-states on the world. He goes further, however: he suggests that “the core issue for Islamic polity seems to be to reinterpret its political tradition and theory as an alternative world-system rather than merely as a program for the Islamization of nation-states.”

Tellingly, Davutoğlu takes issue not only with the Kemalists, but also with those conservatives who have been as zealous as the Kemalists in their desire to make Turkey a part of the West. Davutoğlu thus condemned Turgut Özal, the former president and prime minister who, in 1987, took the historical step of applying for Turkish membership in the European Community. Özal was a religious conservative and economic liberal. But in Davutoğlu’s view, as Behlül Özkan has observed, Özal committed the same mistake as the 19th century Ottoman reformist “pashas who sought to save the empire by forging ties of friendship with the West.” Instead, Davutoğlu prescribes Islamic solidarity as the right course for Turkey.

Davutoğlu, thus, is going to be something much more than Erdoğan’s loyal lieutenant: while Erdoğan will continue to wield absolute power, the discourse that legitimizes this power will be provided by Davutoğlu, the ideologue of the “new Turkey.” His elevation inspired the editor-in-chief of Yeni Şafak to announce that “the legacies of the Seljuks and the Ottomans are going to be rekindled,” and that the new Turkey is going to be a power that “challenges” and redesigns its neighborhood.

There’s an element of truth to this assertion. Turkey’s support, both indirect as well as direct, to Sunni radical movements in Syria and Iraq has indeed already contributed to redesigning its neighborhood, disastrously so. Yet, it increasingly appears to be U.S. government policy, according to the Washington Post, to work with “Sunni-led states, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, [to] help persuade Iraq’s Sunnis to turn away from the extremists and join their government’s fight against them.”

Implications for the United States

But as the Obama administration grapples with how to respond to the threat posed by ISIS, it can ill afford to harbor illusions about Turkey’s role. Interviewed on a Turkish television channel on August 7, Davutoğlu once again refused to condemn ISIS, and went as far as even excusing it. “ISIS may be seen as a structure that is terrorizing, but it was born as a reaction,” Davutoğlu said. “If the Sunni Arabs had not been excluded in Iraq, there would not have been such a growth of anger,” he said. He concluded by saying that “ISIS is a threat that grows with anger, but one must not forget what’s at the heart of the issue.” And for Davutoğlu, “what’s at the heart of the issue” is the status of the Sunnis.

While Davutoğlu is the AKP’s leading ideologue, he is also pragmatic. His appointment does not mean that Turkey will confront America directly. Quite to the contrary, the past decade has shown that Turkey both wants to, and has succeeded, in getting implicit American support both for its domestic transformation and for its interventionist and sectarian foreign policy. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will continue to work with American leaders simply because they need to.

But as the United States elaborates a new strategy in the Middle East, it needs to take into account that its NATO ally Turkey has a regime that has closed a “hundred year old parenthesis” – which was defined by the ambition to become a part of the West. Neither can America afford to overlook what’s nowadays “the heart of the issue” for this new Turkey.

Halil Karaveli and Svante Cornell (@SvanteCornell) are members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative. Karaveli serves as a senior fellow and Cornell as the director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute/Silk Road Studies Program, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University. 

1Ahmet Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms: the Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993), p. 195; Davutoğlu, Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World, (Kuala Lumpur: Mahir Publications, 1994), pp. 13-4.

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