September 30, 2021 | Harvard Kennedy School's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Society

Spectacles of Tolerance: The Precarity of Turkey’s Religious Minorities in the Era of Neo-Ottoman Delusions

September 30, 2021 | Harvard Kennedy School's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Society

Spectacles of Tolerance: The Precarity of Turkey’s Religious Minorities in the Era of Neo-Ottoman Delusions

Excerpt

Turkey watchers continue to debate whether neo-Ottomanism, an ideological proclivity to exalt and revive an imagined Ottoman past and its traditions of religio-political authority and domination, accurately describes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly belligerent foreign and security policy.1 While some analysts have offered pan-Islamism as a more accurate designation,2 others describe Turkey’s policy simply as an “assertive” one that reflects the realities of Ankara’s shifting interests and outlook in an era of great-power competition.3

On the domestic front, however, it should not be controversial to claim that neo-Ottomanism has informed Erdogan’s policies. This much is clear from his government’s frequent references to Ottoman grandeur and its praise of Ottoman sultans and their rule at home, and given Erdogan’s attempts to replicate their manner of ruling over and interacting with subject peoples, especially religious minorities. This phenomenon calls for an examination of the impact of the current Turkish ruling elite’s neo-Ottoman delusions on Turkey’s religious minorities and how these communities cope with the ensuing demands, challenges, and threats.

The defining characteristic of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman domestic policy under Erdoğan has been its Janus-faced nature, which combines benevolence with an iron fist. On the one hand, Ankara embraces policies and discourses that highlight the government’s tolerance of and generosity toward religious minorities, particularly Christians and Jews.4 On the other hand, the government scapegoats minorities for imagined crimes while requiring them to serve as props in organized spectacles of tolerance, whose purpose is to rebut foreign accusations of government-sponsored abuse.5 Instead of enjoying the constitutional rights of true citizens, religious minorities must pay tribute to Erdoğan to ensure his forbearance.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

  1. Marwa Maziad and Jake Sotiriadis, “Turkey’s Dangerous New Exports: Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman Visions and Regional Instability,” Middle East Institute, 21 April 2020, https://www. mei.edu/publications/turkeys-dangerous-new-exports-pan-islamist-neo-ottoman-visions-and-regional; Nicholas Danforth, “The Nonsense of ‘neo-Ottomanism’”, 29 May 2020, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2020/05/the-nonsense-of-neo-ottomanism/, Axel Corlu, “Erdogan’s micro-imperialism could prove disastrous for Turkey and its neighbours” Ahval, 11 February 2020, https://ahvalnews.com/turkey-foreign-policy/erdogans-micro-imperialism-could-prove-disastrous-turkey-and-its-neighbours
  2. Behlul Ozkan, “Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy,” The New York Times, 28 August 2014, https://www.nytimes. com/2014/08/29/opinion/ahmet-davutoglu-and-turkeys-imperial-fantasy.html; Behlul Ozkan, “Turkey, Davutoglu and the Idea of Pan-Islamism,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 56:4, 119-140, 2014, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.941570
  3. Asli Aydintasbas, “Turkey Will Not Return to the Western Fold: Ankara’s Assertive Foreign Policy Is Here to Stay,” Foreign Affairs, 19 May 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ articles/turkey/2021-05-19/turkey-will-not-return-western-fold; Sinan Ülgen, “A Weak Economy Won’t Stop Turkey’s Activist Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Europe, 6 October 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2020/10/06/weak-economy-won-t-stop-turkey-sactivist-foreign-policy-pub-82935
  4. Given the stormy relations between the Ottoman ruling elite and various Alevi groups, especially since the 16th century, the Erdogan government’s treatment of Alevis differs significantly from his treatment of other religious minorities, and therefore, would require a separate assessment beyond the scope of this piece. See Aykan Erdemir, “The Limits of Erdoğan’s ‘Nation,” The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Perspectives Papers No. 724, Bar-Ilan University, 25 January 2018. https://besacenter.org/ turkey-erdogan-nationalism/
  5. For an in-depth analysis, see Aykan Erdemir, “Scapegoats of Wrath, Subjects of Benevolence: Turkey’s Minorities Under Erdoğan” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology Vol.24, 5-23, 19 April 2019, https://www.hudson.org/research/14970-scapegoats-of-wrath-subjects-of-benevolence-turkey-s-minorities-under-erdo-an
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