Opinion: Does Turkey want to be an empire?

Opinion: Does Turkey want to be an empire?

Over the past few months, reporting on Turkish PM announcements in Europe, I've noticed a certain trend, which led to a nagging question: Does Turkey dream of being an empire again?

This article was prepared by the Islam in Europe blog - islamineurope.blogspot.com

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been urging European Turks to 'integrate, not assimilate' for quite a while. On official visits to Germany, Belgium and France, he's repeated this call. It wasn't that surprising. Countries want their expats to keep in touch.

Erdogan has gone further, and called assimilation a 'crime against humanity'. It sounded hypocritical coming from a guy whose country has an official policy to forcibly assimilate its Kurds and force them to be Turks, but besides that: it just sounded wrong.

Forcible assimilation might be a crime against humanity. Voluntary assimilation might be sad, but it's actually a human right.

What does assimilation mean? It means you decide (voluntarily) to give up on your current group identity, the one you were born to and raised in, and join a different group. It means the right to marry whomever you want; the right to choose your own path in life, regardless of your parents' customs; the right to choose your own name; the right to live anywhere you want; the
right to choose your own religion and whether you have any; the right to decide how you dress; the right to decide how you raise your children; the right to decide which language you speak.

Calling assimilation a 'crime against humanity' means that all of those 'rights' are suddenly 'crimes'.

A weird statement, then, but still, I thought it understandable that Turkey would want its expats to keep in touch with their former home-country.

But in his last trip to Paris, Erdogan went even further. He told his audience of European Turks that they should "integrate" in the countries where they live in order to increase [the quantity of] Turkish first names in Europe.

That didn't sound like just 'wanting to keep in touch'.

Turkey recently invited Turkish-European leaders for a conference in Turkey. And there, according to a German Alevi leader, one speaker said that "We need to inoculate European culture with Turkish culture".

I do not know how this word made its way in translation from Turkish to German to English. But 'inoculate' means to introduce an organism (in this case, Turkish culture) into something else (in this case European culture), so that it will grow and reproduce.

Putting those two together it sounds like Turkey wants a lot of little Mehmets around in order to make Europe more Turkish.

Doesn't that sound imperialistic?

I've been thinking that over for quite a while now. And so, I found Asli Aydintasbas' piece at the Daily Beast (h/t Hot Air) to be quite interesting:

A bit of history would help here. Born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey has traditionally looked west, happy to rid itself of the legacy of a declining empire and the troubles in the Arab lands. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, declared “contemporary civilization” as the nation’s ultimate destiny, creating a staunchly secular republic and ultimately becoming NATO’s only Muslim member.

We shed our imperial identity, banned the fez and wore hats, dropped the Arabic alphabet for Latin script, and even got rid of the Caliphate—the papacy for Muslims—early in the establishment of the republic in 1923, hoping to join a club that would not accept us so easily.

But the tide has been going in the other direction for some time now. With the rise of a political Islam in the 1990s and the return to power of the conservative Justice and Development Party (known as AKP) in 2003, Turkey has taken a new interest in its Ottoman past and in the Ottoman lands. The AKP has popularized the notion that Turkey should not solely look to the West but also expand its influence eastward, creating alliances with the Muslim world and Russia to complement its friendship with Europe and the United States.


But there is something in this neo-imperial, neo-Ottoman spirit that has taken over the country since the flotilla episode that is addictive, even for a secular Turk like me.

Does Turkey want to be an empire?

It's quite probable that Turkey has no plans to conquer other countries. But that addictive neo-imperial, neo-Ottoman spirit is leading it to stake a cultural-imperialist claim. Much like the golden arches of McDonald's are a sign of American cultural-imperialism around the globe, it might be that Turkey is looking to put up its own arches, and the first branches are going up in Europe.

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