Turkey finds itself thrust to the top of geopolitical visibility although it suffers credibility gap and identity problem. Stuck in the midst of Asian, European, and Arab cultural influences, it is the home of such Biblical figures as Noah the arc builder. It had its great times in the dying days of the Roman Empire.
It was at Nicea that, in 325 CE, Emperor Constantine ordered bishops to agree on the divinity of Jesus. They produced the Nicean Creed that Christians recite in churches on Sundays. As the Ottoman Empire, it gained the epithet of ‘Sick Man of Europe’ in the 19th Century and, after the Great War, 1914 to 1918, lost its empire to Britain, France, and the House of Saud.
Kemal Ataturk tried to redeem its prestige by shedding off Asiatic and Arab cultural trappings and embracing European everything as modern. ‘Modern’ Turkey then assumed it could participate in European affairs only to be rejected in the new ‘Club of Europe’ mainly because of its Arabic, Islamic, and Asiatic background. In frustration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tries to assert his global presence and to revive the Ottoman Empire that would stretch to Eastern Africa. In December 2021, Erdogan changed the country’s name to ‘Republic of Turkiye’ to fit respectability.
Erdogan is not the only contender for influence in Turkey which affects Turkey’s standing on the geopolitical map. He is at loggerheads with Hizmet Movement leader Fethullah Gulen, his former ally. The Hizmet Movement is relatively young, going back to the 1970s in Turkey and then spreading globally. Operating mainly through schools that outclass the others in all the countries, the Hizmets engage in interfaith dialogues, civic activities, and plays down religious differences. Rather than build Mosques, temples, churches or other places of worship, Gulen advised the followers to establish schools and to teach the sciences as he pointed out that there is no conflict or contradiction between faith and science.
Schools, he asserts, are laboratories for building and advancing long lasting ethical behaviour that produces good people in the world. The Quran, he teaches, is a teaching manual on practicing faith but it is not prescription for theocracy or any governing system. One can thus be religious and still live and operate ethically in a secular state. With such instructions and understanding, his followers spread across the globe and initially appeared like promoters of Turkish culture. In Kenya, they opened the first school, Light Academy, in 1998, later followed by schools in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Malindi.
The success was not all smooth, mainly because of Gulen/Erdogan friction. In a February 2023 Hizmet meeting in California, involving over 20 countries, the contrast of visions between Gulen, the philosopher, and Erdogan, the raw political dealer, was clear. Gulen, the spiritual and moral thinker, leads a worldwide educational movement; Erdogan the rough political player, aspires to greatness mostly within Turkey. Erdogan is unhappy mostly because Gulen leads in believability. To reduce Gulen’s global influence, Erdogan turned schools into political battle zones. Having problems containing the Turks or convincing other ‘leaders’ that he should suppress his former ally, Erdogan turned to pressuring host countries to close the Hizmet schools, donate the schools to himself as ‘gift’, or simply transfer them to his newly created Maarif Foundation. He, therefore, tried to transform schools into tools of his foreign policy and succeeded in a few countries. In the process, the contest between these two men, played in host countries, negatively affected Turkey’s global image. .
Turkey is on the map for the wrong reasons, mostly due to Erdogan’s weaknesses. His diminished credibility undermines his aspirations to be greater than Osman and Ataturk. He loses it when he accuses Gulen, the philosopher, of terrorism. His seeming inability to respond quickly to the earthquake eroded his leadership standing. With an unflattering image, he falls short of desired greatness.