In his “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” (2010), futurist George Friedman predictably addressed the challenges of U.S., China, Russia, Europe and Japan. More surprisingly, he singled out Turkey as one of the key pivots to this century’s future.
Despite its being mostly out of the limelight to all the Middle East crises of the day, Friedman provides the reminder that Turkey is the dominant power of the region. Having a Western-style economy with a strong manufacturing sector, it has the largest gross domestic product in the entire Muslim world. Further, as a member of the Western NATO alliance, according to the Correlates of War research project headed by J. David Singer, Turkey ranks 12th in the world in military power, making it first in the Middle East. It also has the second-largest military in NATO, after the United States.
Demographically, there is what Turkish President Recep Erdogan calls “the brotherhood of Turks.” He refers to the 200 million Turkic speakers that form a diaspora extending from Eastern Europe through all the “stans” of Central Asia to the Turkic Uighurs of Western China. Not counting Indonesia or South Asia, this brotherhood represents the world’s largest concentration of Muslims.
There is a proud history behind this geographical sweep. The original Turks were the Uighurs, and they were the first people to be conquered by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in the 12th century. They soon became the main foot soldiers to Khan’s Golden Horde, and then constituted its principal occupying force in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. With the breakup of the Mongols in the 14th century, after toying with Christianity, the Turks converted to Islam and established the Ottoman Empire atop the dead Mongolian shell. In 1453, the Ottomans conquered the East European Byzantine Empire. In so doing, they declared their empire to be the new Islamic caliphate, replacing the earlier ones of Baghdad and Damascus.
The Ottomans fought on the losing side in World War I (1914-18), and, at the Treaty of Versailles (1919), they were stripped of their empire. Turkey itself fell under allied occupation. Four years later, Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s national hero, led a successful war of independence against the European powers. He established Turkey as a secular republic and abolished the Muslim caliphate. He also promulgated the reforms and launched the institutions that have created modern Turkey. Ataturk’s dream was to have Turkey join the ranks of European powers, thereby becoming a model for the Westernization of the Islamic world.
Today his dream hangs in the balance. Another futurist, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, also called attention to Turkey in his “The Clash of Civilizations” (1996). He predicted that the ideological struggles of the Cold War would be replaced by a global clash of eight civilizations. The key to the resolution of these clashes was whether these civilizations would separate into mutual hostility or cross the fault lines that divided them and integrate into larger live-and-let-live societies.
Along these fault lines lay “torn” countries — with one foot in one civilization and the other foot in another — that would determine the fate of bordering civilizations, whether one of conflict or cooperation. Thus, between the Christian civilization of Europe and the Islamic civilization of the Middle East sits Turkey, geographically straddling Europe and the Middle East and culturally divided between European norms of politics and the spiritual values of Islam.
Under Turkey’s current president, Recep Erdogan, it has backpedaled from a European-style democracy and embraced an Islamist agenda that has led to conflicts with its neighbors. But Ataturk’s dream remains alive, as Turkey still maintains its application for membership in the European Union, which, however, insists that Turkey restores democratic government.
An encouraging sign of a more cooperative future for the Middle East is the recent diplomatic recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein orchestrated by President Trump. This acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as an integral part to the society of the Middle East has laid the groundwork for regional peace. If Jews and Muslims can live side by side, it should follow that Muslim Turks and Christian Europeans can as well.
In any case, Turkey has to decide whether to continue to seek membership in the European Union or withdraw into Islamic militancy. How this “torn” country pivots will determine the stability of the entire Mediterranean basin for the 21st century.