Turkey’s new ‘pan-Islamist’ PM wants to reshape Middle East
ISTANBUL // In early 2009, a nine-year-old addressed a letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister. In it, she complained of her father’s frantic travel and work schedule.
“Uncle Tayyip, I don’t get to see my daddy,” she wrote. “Could you please fire him?”
The little girl, Hacer Buke Davutoglu, did not get her wish. Her father, Ahmet Davutoglu, stayed on as Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser. Making things worse, at least for Hacer Buke, he was soon promoted to foreign minister.
Last week, with Mr Erdogan sworn in as president, the workaholic Mr Davutoglu was given yet another promotion. On August 28, he became Turkey’s new prime minister and chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
For years, Mr Davutoglu, a former university professor, placed a special focus on resetting Turkey’s relations with Middle East countries.
Rather than being a country relegated to the periphery of Europe and Nato, Turkey should seize on historical, geographical and cultural links with its neighbours, Mr Davutoglu believed.
In Mr Erdogan, whom he advised on foreign policy issues since 2003, he found an eager disciple and partner. To make the case for re-establishing Turkey’s bygone glory, the quiet thinker and the fiery populist often invoked Turkey’s Islamic heritage and anti-colonialist discourse.
“We are the new Ottomans,” Mr Davutoglu said in 2009, the year he became foreign minister.
By the end of the decade, Mr Davutoglu’s vision appeared to be coming true. Turkey’s trade with its neighbours was booming. Improved relations with Arab countries, greased by investments and visa-free travel agreements, inspired talk of economic and even political integration.
The most spectacular turnaround occurred in Turkey’s relations with Syria. In 1998, the two countries were on the verge of war. Just over a decade later they were holding joint cabinet meetings.
Mr Davutoglu was in perpetual motion, accumulating thousands of frequent flyer miles, to his daughter’s dismay, and soaking up the adulation of Arab leaders, Turkish voters and Western analysts.
“Not a leaf will stir in the Middle East without Ankara hearing of it and responding,” he once said. Many were inclined to believe it.
In the spring of 2011, all the leaves stirred at once. Caught by surprise but eager to be on the right side of history and to deepen Turkey’s regional footprint, Mr Davutoglu and Mr Erdogan backed the popular uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria.
They broke with the entrenched leadership and embraced the Islamists, with whom they had shared a common ideological lineage. The AKP itself had been built on the ruins of an overtly Islamist party, of which Mr Erdogan had been a leading member.
Certain that Syria’s Bashar Al Assad would fall like Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, Turkey went so far as to open its southern border to the anti-regime rebels. Rhetoric began to outpace reality.
“Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands between 2011 to 2023,” Mr Davutoglu said in 2012, referring to the World War I era and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. “We shall break the mould shaped for us by Sykes-Picot,” he said a year later.
Today, Mr Davutoglu’s “pan-Islamist” foreign policy, as Behlul Ozkan, a former student of his, called it in a recent essay, is backfiring.
Turkey finds itself bordering two failed states, Iraq and Syria, its southern border awash with waves of extremist militants.
After the Muslim Brotherhood was violently unseated by the Egyptian army, something no amount of Turkish indignation could undo, Ankara’s ambassador to Cairo has become a persona non grata.
Relations with Israel, particularly following the latest fighting in Gaza, are at a nadir.
In northern Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have held 49 Turkish citizens hostage since June, forcing the Turkish army to think twice before pursuing the militants. The country’s media has been barred from covering the hostage crisis.
That Mr Davutoglu not only managed to retain his job after all this but also got the nod to become prime minister, owes to two things.
One is his unflinching loyalty to Mr Erdogan. The other, says Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), is that even if an increasing number of Turks see Mr Davutoglu’s Middle East policy as a failure, many in the AKP camp view it as the opposite.
“They see it as having increased Turkey’s profile, having allowed it to take its rightful place in the world,” he said. “Erdogan agrees with this interpretation. They share a vision about Turkey’s future and a vision of the world.”
Perhaps because he knew he would succeed Mr Erdogan and lead the AKP into the 2015 parliamentary elections, Mr Davutoglu has gradually shed his bookish persona, channelling a more spirited, impassioned voice.
It was on display last Wednesday when the newly anointed prime minister took the stage to address the AKP faithful at the party’s convention, strutting the stage, Erdogan-style, removing his jacket, and occasionally raising his voice.
“They accused us of being utopians, they said we were only dreaming,” he said. “It’s true, we dream. But it’s those who do not dream should be ashamed.”
Mr Davutoglu left no doubt that he would continue reading from Mr Erdogan’s playbook. Turkey’s main challenges, he said, echoing his predecessor’s priorities for the next half decade, would include securing a durable peace process with Kurdish militants, forging ahead with a new constitution, and eradicating the “parallel state”, as the AKP refers to the Gulen community, an Islamic movement that has turned into Mr Erdogan’s archenemy over the past year.
Last week, only days after he was nominated as prime minister, the ruling party unveiled a short film, part hagiography, part music video, about Mr Davutoglu. “He is the hope of the oppressed,” promised the song that served as the video’s soundtrack.
Footage appeared of the bespectacled Mr Davutoglu embracing distraught Palestinians, Rohingyas and Syrians.
“He is the awaited spirit of Abdul Hamid,” the lyrics went, referencing the 19th century sultan who deployed Islamism to try to stall the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. “For the nation, for the ummah, for Allah.”
At the AKP congress, Mr Davutoglu struck the same note.
“No one should clamp Turkey between Europe and Asia,” he said. “May Allah give us the strength to help those who ask, ‘Where is the person who will help me? Is there nobody coming?’”