Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a comfortable majority in Turkey’s parliamentary election on 12 June – not enough to change the national constitution without the agreement of a parliamentary coalition, but a solid 325 or so out of 550 seats, and a higher margin of victory than AKP achieved in 2007.
Erdogan wasted no time projecting a decidedly Ottoman-sounding theme in his victory speech. According to foreign media:
In his victory speech, Mr Erdogan … alluded to Turkey’s aspiration to be a voice in the West for the Middle Eastern region and Muslims, saying Bosnians, Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians also benefited from his victory.
“Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”
Imagine Nicolas Sarkozy proclaiming in a victory speech that Moscow had won as much as Paris, Washington as much as Lyon, Ankara as much as Marseilles. Equally to the point, imagine David Cameron announcing that New Delhi had won, as much as London; Boston as much as York; Dublin as much as Leeds.
You can’t. Because it is freighted wording – imperialist at worst, absurdly arrogant at best – to speak of your electoral victories as conferring benefits on foreign humanity – especially on those once occupied by your nation in its days of empire.
Granted, Barack Obama spoke in arguably similar terms after his election to the Oval Office. He didn’t make the case explicitly, but there was an implied “Cairo won, as much as Washington” theme in his early speeches. So you could make the case that he started it, if you wanted to put in the effort.
But Erdogan’s references are awful darn particular. Sarajevo, Damascus, Beirut, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. The tenor of his appeal is both Islamist and Ottoman – and, of course, from a historical perspective, the two go together. The West’s most recent memories of Islamic conquest involve the Ottoman Empire, which controlled parts of the Balkans – gained in bloody wars of conquest and occupation – right up to the last years before World War I.
Sarajevo, in particular, was an emblem of Ottoman conquest, much as Cordoba, Spain was an emblem of conquest by the Muslim Umayyads several hundred years earlier. Sarajevo’s Ottoman conquerors used the city as a capital from the mid-15th to the late 17th century. Although they were driven out of it by Austria-Hungary in 1697, after their defeat at the “gates of Vienna” in the previous decade, Ottoman rule continued in much of the Balkans, including Sarajevo, for two more centuries. Ottoman officials put down revolts mounted by Bosnian Serbs in the Sarajevo of the 1830s, and it was not until 1878 that Austria-Hungary wrested Sarajevo from Istanbul for good. The Ottomans continued to rule parts of the Balkans until the First Balkan War in 1912.
Erdogan’s allusion to Sarajevo is the exact opposite of a throw-away line. He knows perfectly well how incendiary the reference is for East Europeans – just as he knows that naming cities in the West Bank one after another, and concluding with “Jerusalem” (which he called Al-Quds), implies a direct Turkish interest in the disposition of these cities that evokes the era when they, too, were under Ottoman rule.
His rhetorical pairing of Ramallah and Jerusalem with Diyarbakir is of particular interest, considering that Diyarbakir is in a majority Kurdish area of Turkey, and regularly exploded in protest in the weeks leading up the 12 June election. Many in Diyarbakir would disagree that Erdogan’s win was a win for them; his outreach gesture of allowing the Kurdish nationalist party to field candidates in this election resulted in several jailed Kurdish leaders, deemed terrorists by the central government, being elected to parliament. Their status is unclear, and a number of observers think the electoral gains by the Kurds will only encourage them to press harder for autonomy. But Erdogan’s going to “name it and claim it” anyway. The implied signal to the Palestinian Arabs seems dubious, at best.
Perhaps most interesting of all is Erdogan’s list itself. Sarajevo, Damascus, Beirut, Ramallah, Jerusalem. In four of these former Ottoman holdings, there is, or has been, an acknowledged modern dispute over sovereignty. But what about Damascus? Should the Assads – or Iran – be alarmed that it was on Erdogan’s list? Does Damascus need the healing hand of Erdogan and the AKP? Or is Syria – but not Jordan, Egypt, or Iraq – considered by Erdogan to be properly in modern Turkey’s “sphere”?
The answers to these questions and others we will presumably discern in the days ahead. But there he is, folks. The new voice of the Middle East in the West – representing Muslims from Sarajevo to Jerusalem.