Behlül Özkan (Photo: Today’s Zaman, Hüseyin Sarı)
Once a student of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and now an academic himself, Dr. Behlül Özkan, a political scientist at Marmara University, analyzed all articles and books of Davutoğlu before labeling him a pan-Islamist.
In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Dr. Özkan said he tries to unravel Davutoğlu’s mindset based on his own work while arguing that Davutoğlu lives in a world of dreams.
According to Özkan, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy resulted in Turkey’s downfall and that calling it a “global power,” as Davutoğlu does, is against the facts of political science. However, for Davutoğlu, abandoning his claims would mean throwing all his academic work in the trash, which would be a big blow to his ego. See the details of an interview ranging from Syria to the Kurdish issue below:
What do you mean by pan-Islamist? Uniting all Muslim countries under one shelter?
Let’s see what the idea of “pan” means first. The main problem with all pan movements is that they have issues with the borders of nation states and target a supranational body. This is an authoritarian idea. There is no “pan” idea that has been successful so far. On the contrary, the ideas bring downfall to countries. They are utopic but are seen as saviors by societies at times of crisis. Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II is criticized for being pan-Islamist, but he was defending borders. Pan-Islamism is a more modern and irredentist thought. Interestingly, Davutoğlu takes Abdülhamid II as an example.
Then did he not misinterpret Abdülhamid II?
This is exactly what I say. He completely misreads Abdulhamid II. According to all credible sources, Abdülhamid adopted a defensive Islamism since the Ottoman state did not have the capacity to do so, and he was not an unrealistic dreamer. Davutoğlu and his protégé argue that he is capable of writing in many fields, but regarding history, he makes important mistakes.
But you called him a good professor when he was teaching…
I did not read Davutoğlu’s own writings when I was his student. He made us read other texts and he taught them well. He was helpful to his students. I have no personal issue with him. I am trying to make an objective assessment based on his work. Davutoğlu has had no published articles listed in the Social Science Citation Index since 2002. Publishing under such standards requires a lot of referee work. Having the lack of such a work means that Davutoğlu has avoided criticism. Today, he cannot even interview with a few critical journalists. As an academic he was the same. In the 1990s he responded to the demands of Islamist magazines such as İzlenim.
Why was he perceived neo-Ottoman, then?
I think Davutoğlu would laugh at such a description. This is a label given by journalists who do not know about the meaning of that concept, because it was seen as a sexy term. Davutoğlu criticized neo-Ottomanism in his own work because, in the 19th century, Ottomans defended a multi-ethnic and religious structure to save the country from destruction and introduced Westernizing reforms. Davutoğlu argues that Ottomans collapsed because they did not adopt an Islamist identity. He rejects Ottomanism and Westernization while accusing the elites of betraying society.
Did he not receive a Western education? Is this not ironic?
Yes, but he sees himself as an exception. Indeed, we witness a serious identity clash here. Because there is not a single Islamic reference in Davutoğlu’s writings.
When was his pan-Islamist agenda introduced in foreign policy?
This is a very important question. There is a group of academics around Davutoğlu who work in think tanks that are financed by the state. This team began to polish Davutoğlu’s credentials after 2007. I believe the role of Abdullah Gül (the predecessor of Davutoğlu as foreign minister) has been seriously omitted.
Gül always said it was he who introduced Davutoğlu to politics, anyway…
Davutoğlu was only an advisor. Final decisions rest with politicians. When we look at the decisions made before Davutoğlu by Yaşar Yakış, Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan, and those made by him after 2009, there has been an important break with the past: Going after dreams, going way beyond Turkey’s capacity and collapse. We see that Davutoğlu’s impact was limited to relations with Hamas, Ira and Palestine during Gül’s term as minister. The academic team around Davutoğlu did the PR for him. There were journalists who polished up Davutoğlu. How could you write “who am I to criticize Davutoğlu?” in a book? As a result, all successes were attributed to Davutoğlu. Also, following the closure of the case against the AKP (opened in 2009 in an attempt to shut it down), the government wanted to eliminate all checks and balances by using the pretext of EU reforms. At this point, we see that they only did it to have an authoritarian rule.
According to political science AKP is a far-right party
Did they have a hidden agenda?
We cannot know that, but there was a fundamental mistake in the analysis that the AKP would promote Turkish democracy. The AKP is no center-right party, it is a far-right party according to political science literature. Assuming that the AKP would take Turkey forward was no different than thinking that Le Pen in France would advance democracy. When placed in the right-left spectrum, the AKP believes that it has a sacred mission and will remain in power forever. None of these are compatible with democracy. This extremism would emerge as racism in Europe, while it would become sectarianism in Turkey and would not consider other parties as representatives of the nation. The AKP is a model not for the Middle East but for the far right in Europe on how to instrumentalize democracy.
Going back to the pan-Islamist agenda…
Pan-Islamism is also a right-wing idea — extreme policy of an extremist party. Davutoğlu always referred to expansionist, archaic theorists in his book, “Strategic Depth.” He applied their terms, such as Lebensraum, to Turkey.
What does Davutoğlu understand as Lebensraum for Muslims?
This is an academic term that became popular in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. It is the idea that our territory is not sufficient for us, that we have to establish an area of influence and expand. Davutoğlu uses this term in his book and, as a politician always says that political borders are problematic.
Could he not say that his policies differed from his theories?
The question is whether there is a parallel between his writings and his policies. In a December 2011 speech in Parliament, Davutoğlu said that “strategic depth is the backbone of our policy today.” He says he wants to implement it. What else can I say?
What exactly did Davutoğlu try to implement?
Borders have lost their impact, Islamic movements in the Middle East (Ennahda in Tunisia, Ikhwan in Egypt, Tareq al-Hashimi in Iraq and the Reform Party in Yemen) will rise and come to power and Turkey would lead them. His dream was an Islamic union that is led by Turkey. Khaled Mashaal’s attendance at the AKP convention, Rashid Gannushi’s visit to the party event in Adıyaman, the participation of Morsi and Hashimi in the 2012 party congress are all signs of it. Plus, Erdoğan is called the leader of the ummah in the rallies.
Turkey’s traditional foreign policy has been dumped
Has there been a tension within the state since this line is in contradiction with traditional foreign policy?
Diplomats I talked to within the ministry complain about this. Turkey’s traditional foreign policy has been completely dumped. Davutoğlu himself says this, referring to restoration. He wrote that republican era foreign policy locked Turkey in its boundaries and a broader definition of national borders is necessary.
When did Turkey switch from soft power to hard power?
This is a good question as well. Turkey is defined as a middle-sized power. Davutoğlu says this is wrong and calls Turkey a global power. Any middle-sized power who acted like a global power — Nasser’s Egypt, pre-1945 Germany, and Italy — has collapsed. History is full of its examples.
You call yourself a global power, but cannot protect your territory
It is almost a given that Turkey acted beyond its capacity. Why does Davutoğlu not see it?
It is difficult to answer this question. Davutoğlu lives in a world of dreams, detached from political realities, and there is no team around him to warn him. When you warn Davutoğlu that Turkey is not a global power, you also say that “Professor, all you have written until now is wrong.” There is nobody to say this because in Turkey the merit system no longer works. All advisors who are assigned to the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), the Anadolu news agency and other state institutions are selected based on their loyalty to the party. Any system where loyalty replaces merit is doomed for failure. The best example is the Soviet Union. For Davutoğlu, facing that he lives in a world of dreams means dumping all of his work.
Is this a personal matter, then?
This is about a world view which says that nation-state identity is wrong, let’s restore it with an Islamic identity. It does not have an appeal in the Muslim world. Cyprus is the best that Turkey could do, and we are still paying its price. You call yourself a global power, but you cannot even protect the Süleyman Şah tomb, the only Turkish territory that was within the borders of Syria. Losing territory in the last 90 years has been the legacy of Davutoğlu, who suggested expansionism.
Why is there still support for the AKP?
The people who have been voting for the AKP in the last 13 years resemble someone who is married for 20 years with children and shown photos of adultery. There was denial, but they have begun to question.
Turkey’s Syria policy won’t change unless government changes
Following the agreement of Russia and the US, is Turkey’s Syria policy being revised, too?
Turkey’s Syria policy won’t be revised unless this government changes. The Syria problem is no longer the problem of Syria. It is Europe’s problem given that more than 800,000 refugees are there. It has gone beyond a tolerable point for the West. As a result, they want a cease-fire and a stop to the refugee influx. US Secretary of State John Kerry wants a unified and secular structure in Syria. We are reaching the end of a system that supported the Islamists in the Middle East. The West made the same mistake in Iraq and Libya. Asking Assad to go means the removal of a secular-Arab nationalist regime and replacing it with an Islamist regime.
Why would the West not want the status quo?
The existing status quo did not work for the West. Assad is, and Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were, anti-Western leaders. The West thought that the AKP, which works with the West and believes in liberal economics, would be a model to the region, but this model failed. At this point, the West, along with Russia, wants to contain the radical groups in Syria. For the US — from the beginning — there has not been a specific goal. Regimes do not change when you say that you would change them. In Tunisia and Egypt, because institutions were protected, no civil war erupted.
Why did Erdoğan change his rhetoric, then?
I think the government would like to increase its bargaining power because Turkey is still an important country as far as Syria is concerned. They could say “We’ll agree to a transition period with Assad but do not interfere in our fight against the PKK.”
What is your projection for the Kurdish issue?
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) should not define itself as an anti-Kurdish party. Peace and prosperity in Turkey depend on an agreement between the MHP and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The rule of law and democracy should be the common denominators for these parties. A united Kurdistan is not possible, either. There will not be a solution with the maximalist demands of the Kurds. Turkey’s Kurdish problem will not be eliminated. The question is whether we could make it sustainable, or will we continue to kill each other…
Behlül Özkan completed his bachelor’s degree at Boğaziçi University’s department of political science and international relations. He then did graduate studies and received a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is currently an assistant professor in the department of international relations at Marmara University. He is the author of “From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: Making of a National Homeland in Turkey” (Yale University Press, 2012). He has also contributed op-eds to The New York Times, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, the Hurriyet Daily News and openDemocracy.
SEVGİ AKARÇEŞME / ISTANBUL