How has Turkey become a global actor?

Etyen Mahcupyan

If anyone had argued a decade ago that Turkey would become an influential reference in the Middle East in the near future and that it would move forward to becoming a strong partner of the West despite disagreements with Israel, perhaps everybody would have laughed at that person.
However, the two fundamentals of the ongoing state of affairs have been laid down since early 1990s. Simply put, in order to become a global actor, you need a globalized world. If you are not powerful enough to globalize the world through your own choices, you’ll have to wait for this happy coincidence. On the other hand, globalization of the world would not suffice for a country to become a global actor. That country needs to globalize itself first. This is possible through having of a global identity and association with the “proper” mentality that the world is subscribed to in that period.
All these conditions have been fulfilled gradually over the last two decades for Turkey. It short, it became evident that the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union could not be ruled by the US. The emerging multipolar world made different parts of the world politically important for the sake of global stability, bringing some nations that had remained on the periphery in the past as well as their issues to the political stage. This created an opportunity for Turkey to become a regional actor. However, another process of change in Turkey also offered an opportunity for this country to conduct politics based on a broader perspective. This change started with the move of the criticism of modernity from the West to the East. After a lengthy period of admiration for the Occident, for the first time, people in Turkey realized that the Western countries were unable to solve some of their problems and that they fell short for creating the world of the future. This enabled the people in Turkey to overcome the feeling of worry and depression, and it were the religious Muslims who welcomed this new state of affairs because the secular segment of society created its identity through Westernization and the only identity that would serve as alternative was based on Turkish nationalism. However, Turkishness was not a global identity. On the other hand, the Islamic circles found themselves in a rather more advantageous situation because Islam is global and enabled the politicians of Turkey to have a say in the world.

Besides, the religious people of Turkey were moving towards this position by relying on this own internal dynamics. A process of intensive deliberation and self-evaluation has taken place in the aftermath of the military intervention on Feb. 28, 1997 and the view that the Welfare Party, regarded as the Islamic representative of the time, pursued improper policies gained credibility. In other words, they realized that the Islamic politics of the future could not be based on religious conservatism and opposition to the West and that it needed to incorporate universal norms. The criticism of modernity reminded that these universal norms should not be derived from the West alone. In other words, Islamic sources were also functional to achieve this.

In this way, Turkey’s Sunni Muslim religious actors have taken some radical steps. While preserving their religiosity, they also became secular on a mental level. This not only led to the separation of religion and politics, economy, culture and ethics, but also enabled development of a new perspective to reassess the history and the state. The outcome of this multilayered dynamic was an unexpected situation: the Turkish Islam synthesis that has been promoted as a state strategy after 1980 collapsed. The separation of piety and secularism set the Islamic identity free and encouraged particularly the young generation Muslims to integrate the universal values with their beliefs.

The result was the birth of an Islamic outlook with global significance. This ensured the separation of a group of politicians from Welfare Party to found the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and to transform this party into a vessel that “rides the waves” of the social energy of Turkish society. This led to a combination that has never been experienced before and was surprising for those who were unfamiliar with Turkey: a political movement that was based on Islam as a global identity, but that kept a certain amount of distance between Islam and the social spheres, ranging from politics to ethics, and one that filled the vacuum between ethical criteria such as service and honesty.

More interestingly, the basis of the said ethics was not only Islam, but also the common heritage of mankind. Islam was only perceived as the perfect carrier of this heritage.

Turkey was lucky and fortunate because this radical transformation ran parallel to  globalization and the world found the change in Turkey meaningful. The rest was the ability of the AK Party to use this opportunity, and it did.

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