The history of Turkey, particularly its relatively recent history, is a complex one and we can't possibly cover all of it in one article. For example, we will produce a separate piece to look at the intimately-related "Kurdish Question", in which the demand for national self-determination was already an anachronism at the turn of last century. But in looking at some significant examples of the operations of the Turkish state from its inception, and particularly since the 1990's, we can clearly identify the global developments of economic crisis, repression, militarism and irrationality that have marked the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. We can ask the questions of what global components of the decadence of capitalism, and what specific elements of Turkey's past, affect and direct the present situation of a totalitarian, militarised and increasingly Islamicised state; and we can also ask to what extent this dire situation is the result of the unbridled ambition of one man and his "vision" or whether it represents the latest twists of Turkish imperialism in the increasing chaos in the Middle East imposed on it by a generalised capitalist decomposition.
The new Turkish "empire" resurrected from the past
But first let's start nearly a thousand years ago, with the Battle of Manzikert, 1071, where a Turkic tribe from Central Asia routed the Christians in Byzantium and started a chain of events which allowed the Seljuk Turks to capture the lands of modern Turkey and create an empire stretching across modern-day Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Syria, thus laying the ground for the construction of the mighty transcontinental Ottoman Empire. The rather obscure fact of the Manzikert battle is important for our investigation because it has been talked about a lot recently by Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. The fact that much of the story is lies, exaggeration and wishful thinking doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter to any other scurrilous politician who wants to take us back to a mythical and rose-coloured "great past of the nation". It won't stop Bilal Erdogan for example, the son of Recip directing Turkey's education policy (who because of his - and his family’s - financial dealings with the 'Caliphate' earned the name of "oil minister to Isis"), drumming up the example of Manzikert in Turkey’s now heavily Islamicised schools. The religious schools, the Imam Hatip Lisesi (IHL), have grown from 23,000 to well over a million pupils in a year and, in most cases, evolution theory and physics have been dropped or downgraded, with many thousands of teachers intimidated, sacked or imprisoned so that the loaded concept of jihad can be taught to what President Erdogan now calls, the "Pious Generation" in schools under surveillance by the religious police. The Wall Street Journal recently called Turkey "the other Islamic State".
Apart from Erdogan's preparations for the millennial anniversary in 2071, he has also been laying out his vision for the challenges facing the "New Turkey" over the next two decades. At fiercely nationalist rallies, imbued with the trappings of the Ottoman Empire, including scimitar-wielding soldiers in traditional garb and soldiers playing Ottoman-style instruments, Erdogan has talked about the emergence and prospects of the "New Turkey" for the next twenty years, based on the Grand Vision he laid out in the 4th Congress of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2013. He has subsequently elaborated that Turkey would become the "Epicentre" of the Middle East, a New Middle East where Turkey holds a central and model role (New York Times, 24.9.17), "A great nation, a great power... where brother and sister Arabs with the same civilisation and common history... work together". Erdogan is prone to ranting, changing his mind and exaggeration, but there's no doubt that under his leadership Turkish imperialism is going to try to reassert itself over the region of the Middle East and beyond. Erdogan's praise for the past poses the vision for the new Turkish "empire". The hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Turkish state in 2023, much vaunted by and campaigned around by Erdogan, carries the idea that his country will become as powerful and influential as the Ottoman Empire was during its heyday. And today Turkey is indeed becoming the "Epicentre", but the epicentre of capitalist decomposition where centrifugal tendencies, corruption, the cynical use of refugees, debt and war predominate.
The geostrategic position of Turkey and its role in the birth of the country from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire
Turkey is both a barrier and a bridge between two continents at the very centre of imperialist rivalries that date back well before the existence of the country; and its geographical position and size gives it the ability to shape events around the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Its geographical position gave it the ability to hold back Russia from its passage via the Black Sea into the warm waters of the Mediterranean, and this made it of central importance in the 19th century for France and Britain in their rivalry with the Czarist state. This was a key issue during the Crimean War, ending in defeat for Russia, which was registered in the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. The war marked the ascendency of France as a major power, continued the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which Britain wanted to maintain against Russia, thus giving it a brief lease of life. It also saw the beginning of the end of Czarist rule. It was successful for Britain in reducing and confining the Russian fleet to the Black Sea, leaving Britain free to "rule the waves" for the next two or three decades. The war accelerated the decay of the Eurasian and African-wide Ottoman Empire, with nationalist ambitions arising in its various constituent parts, sponsored or influenced by Britain and France. The Empire had already been weakening since the 1820's with the internal decay of its ruling class, originating in fetters that were more akin to Asiatic despotism than a pre-capitalist feudalism. It was unable to staunch the tide of capitalism whose framework is the nation state, and the national movements which resulted in independence for Greece in 1832, Serbia in 1867 and Bulgaria in 1878 further accelerated its decline.
There were tensions within the Ottoman state apparatus itself, with some elements welcoming capitalist relations; the same relations which when implemented gave rise to workers' struggles from the 1860's into the early 1900's, including Christian and Muslim shipyard workers striking together in Kasimpasha (in modern day Turkey) and larger strikes in Constantinople in various industries involving workers from different ethnicities and religions fighting side by side[i]. The subsequent break-up of the Empire, from Bulgaria to Arabia, would be exploited by the major powers during and after World War I where, in the image of its decadence, imperialism would draw up the new frontiers. The world war was in fact the final nail in its coffin. Turkey came into the war on the side of Germany after its resources had been greatly depleted in the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. There had already been growing German influence on the Ottomans before the war with the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad railway, and their attack on Russia as one the Central Powers brought Russia's now allies, Britain and France, to declare war on them in November 1914[ii].
The rise of Kurdish nationalism is entirely linked to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It first appeared in 1880 when the Ottoman rulers used mainly Kurdish forces to protect their borders against Russia. To this end they co-opted powerful Kurdish leaders to its government and the latter gave considerable support to the regime, including being involved in the massacres of Armenians at the end of the 19th century and fighting for them during the First World War. Attempts at Kurdish independence, promoted by the British for their own imperialist ends, were squashed by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. A real Kurdish independence could not survive the shocks of World War One and its subsequent convulsions and many thousands of Kurds were displaced and perished, following a pattern that preceded the war. The Kurds were mainly against the secularisation policies of Kemal Ataturk and his new regime and a number of Kurdish revolts were violently repressed by the Turkish state through the 20's and 30's.
The new Turkish state, born through violence and genocide
The residues of the decomposing Ottoman Empire were carved-up by the European colonial powers, particularly Britain and France. In 1916, the French and British, with the assent of Imperial Russia, drew up the secret Sykes-Picot agreement. This plan divided up zones of interest and imposed arbitrary borders, giving rise to Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Lebanon and the formation of the modern Turkish state, the Turkish Republic founded by its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1923. The terms of the Republic were codified by the major powers in the Treaty of Lausanne signed in July 1923. It brought an official end to the conflicts of the war and defined Turkey's borders and its relationship with its neighbours. Turkey was to cede all claims to the remnants of the Ottoman Empire[iii]. The break-up of the Empire and the character of the "nations" born from its ruins show the inescapable dynamics of capitalism's decadence and its descent into full-blown imperialism as outlined by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1915, Junius Pamphlet: "Imperialism is not the creation of one or of any group of states. It is a product of a particular stage in the ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognised only in all its relations and from which no nation can hold aloof".
Thus the new Turkish state was born out of the decay of the Ottoman Empire and plunged straight into the whirlpool of capitalism's decadence, a whirlpool of violence, war, state capitalism and ethnic cleansing. One of the first recorded incidents of capitalist genocide took place under the new regime, with one-and-a-half million Armenians dying as a result of forced marches, rape and murder in May 1915. Up to a similar number of Greeks were killed by the Turks and over a quarter-million Assyrians at the end of World War I. Pogroms were carried out in Turkey, including those against its substantial Alevi minority[iv]. Religion was frowned upon by the new ruling class, the nascent bourgeoisie, the leading cadres of which had fought against the old regime. The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished along with Sharia courts. They abolished all the trappings of the Ulamas (Islamic religious leaders), purged them from the state apparatus and transferred their wealth and property to the treasury. Kemalism's fight against religion was also the struggle against the old regime. Kemal was from the very first determined to crush any attempt at Kurdish resistance: "There were no Kurdish representatives at the Lausanne Conference and the Kurds played no role in the presence of non-Muslim minorities - Armenians, Greeks and Jews in Turkey"[v]. Kemal Ataturk's regime was further strengthened by support of the Bolsheviks in their disastrous foreign policy which was made official in 1921.
The secular republic was an early expression of state capitalism and this was an expression of the necessity for the Turkish "rump" of the old empire to survive and compete. The early concentration of power in the secular Turkish state explains why the army has always been central to Turkish politics.
The Kemalists had to create a secular Turkey that hardly existed in anyone's mind so it took time to take hold and its grip was far from solid. The religious fervour of the Menemen incident, an Islamist inspired revolt in 1930, and various Kurdish uprisings, are examples of these upheavals. The Kemalists allowed two official opposition parties (the Progressive Republican Party, 1924, and the Free Republican Party, 1930), but both had strong religious elements and were closed down by the state in a very short time[vi].
As far as the working class was concerned it followed and deepened the struggles that had taken place under the Ottoman ruling class. The appearance of a communist left, a left wing of the Turkish communist party (TKP) paralleled the development of these struggles and both took place in very dangerous and sometimes deadly situations for revolutionaries and workers. This was an expression of the revolutionary wave that was sweeping the world, and some of these left communists had been involved in the Spartacist uprisings in Germany and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The reality of the workers' situation meant that they clearly confronted the now reactionary nature of "national liberation" from the outset. From Mayday 1920 through most of the twenties, strikes and demonstrations broke out amongst workers in Turkey with frequent internationalist slogans and banners raised in solidarity with workers' struggle everywhere[vii].
Turkey remained a powerful component of imperialism up to and into the Second World War. Due to the historic conditions imperialist tensions had sharpened primarily in the Far East in the thirties and were just brewing in Europe. This is why in the 30's Kemal Ataturk's policy could still steer clear of foreign intervention, enabling him to focus on stabilising his internal power. This was apart from one exception in 1937-38, when he risked war with France by trying to annex the Alexandretta province of the then French-held Syria. There were also concerns about the position of Mosul, but his policy of “non-intervention” lasted after his death and into the 1939 world war. Prior to that there were factions in the Turkish bourgeoisie that wanted to align with Germany, and there was a "non-aggression" pact between the two countries but there were also secret agreements and pacts with the British. The Allies were generally satisfied with Turkish neutrality during the war and its position blocking German access to Middle Eastern oil. It also denied Germany access to its vast resources of chromium, which is vital for military production and which the Allies had plenty of access to elsewhere[viii]. In February 1945, Turkey declared war on the Axis forces.
1945 - 1990: Cold War, coups and continuity of sorts
Again, given the importance of Turkey's geostrategic position at the onset of capitalism's decadence, the same imperialist conditions applied even more so during the Cold War. Under US and British auspices, Turkey became one of the original members of the United Nations in 1945, fought for the West in Korea, and by 1952 was a member of NATO. Right after the war Russia was leaning heavily on Turkey for the establishment of military bases in Turkey and for free access for its navy through the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits (the so-called "Straits Crisis"). This move was countered by the Truman Doctrine of 1947, where America guaranteed the security of Greece and Turkey against Russia. It was followed by massive US economic and military aid to Turkey which was now a secure part of the western bloc. Turkey was one of the first countries to take part in Operation Gladio, a clandestine NATO-based structure with links to the secret services, bourgeois elites and organised crime[ix] .
The merchant and small producer class in Turkey became flush with capital from the war and their interests came up against the state capitalist imperatives of the Kemalists. Their ability to invest and accumulate was hobbled by the restrictions imposed on them by the centralised grip of Kemalism. Thus arose the legal opposition force of the Democratic Party, unseating the Kemalist Republican People's Party which had ruled during the "single party period" from 1923 to 1945. The former was made up of some elements of the latter, and while it facilitated the rise of Islam, it did nothing to endanger Turkey's membership of NATO and even encouraged moves towards the West; nor did it encourage any attempt of Kurdish nationalism. The hardships and shortages of the war, along with the government's emergency measures, badly affected large sections of the peasantry. The new electoral process gave the rural vote a great weight. The one element of difference (there wasn't much else) between the Republican Peoples’ Party and the Democratic Party was the latter's attitude to religion, demanding greater respect for it and less interference from the state. This mobilised large numbers of the rural population including many Islamist elements. The RPP was forced to go after the rural/religious vote and this led to a relaxation of interference with religion.
The tenure of the DP came to an end in the 1960 coup, the first of several such "adjustments" by the Turkish state between 1960 and 1997. The coup was led by military elements set up for Operation Gladio. One of the legacies of the DP was to see the strengthening and expansion of Islamism in Turkey which was also related to increased agricultural output and the prosperity of the merchants and petty-bourgeoisie along with the weight of the rural vote. These latter elements used Islam as a rallying cry against the regime and they eventually coalesced in the National Salvation Party founded in 1972.
As the global economic crisis hit at the end of the 60's and US aid tailed off, rapid industrialisation and rural migration in Turkey led to rising waves of workers' militancy, peasant occupations and demonstrations. Unofficial Islam grew alongside “official” Islam, producing madrasas, youth clubs, associations and a number of publications. Various religious brotherhoods flourished and armed street confrontations took place between them, the security forces and fascist and leftist groups. Around this time the Muslim Brotherhood[x] made its first appearance in Turkey. It was significant that the working class stayed well off this poisonous terrain, taking up its own means of struggle, strikes, demonstrations, etc., even if more or less controlled by the unions.
An event in the 1970's presaged the coming period of decomposition where the cement of the bloc structures was to become less stable and centrifugal tendencies were to prevail. Turkey invaded the Republic of Cyprus in 1974, giving rise to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus - recognised only by Turkey to this day. This was significant in that it was a war between two NATO countries. It was an indication of how the tendencies to "each for themselves" would be imposed with the collapse of the Russian bloc a decade and a half later. Another portent of decomposition, one that didn't come directly from the imperialist ambitions of the Turkish state, was the "third way" (between the two blocs) advocated by Turkish Maoist groups. These forces fought a "people's war" in the 70's and 80's, influenced the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and, not for the last time, brought together elements of the capitalist left and Islamic fundamentalism[xi].
The 1971 military coup was aimed at dealing with a state of chaos that included both workers' unrest and the rise of aggressive fascist and Islamist movements. The military high command took effective power with the support of the US and pursued the class war against workers and enacted anti-leftist and anti-Kurdish separatist policies. Turkey became all the more important for the US in the region following the overthrow of its major pawn in the region, the Shah of Iran, in the late seventies, but it was itself nearing chaos with workers' strikes and demonstrations, three-digit inflation, Maoist agitation, and the rise of the fascist 'Grey Wolves' openly working with the state. In Taksim Square on Mayday 1977, half-a-million demonstrated and dozens were killed, many injured and thousands arrested in the state's repression. The upheavals eventually resulted in the 1980 military coup backed by the US and Britain and involving the CIA, the US ITT corporation and forces of the Gladio counter-guerrilla. Military order was restored. By 1997 the Turkish army was the second largest in NATO with over 700,000 soldiers.
The rest of the 80's saw the Turkish bourgeoisie in relative control, even applying for full membership of the EEC (of which it had been an associate member since 1963). The main event in this period, which is covered by us elsewhere, was the full-scale insurgency of the 1978-founded Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose terror the Turkish state responded to in spades.
The 1989 implosion of the Soviet Union: consequences for Turkey and NATO
The collapse of the Russian-led bloc in 1989 also signalled the end of the two-bloc constellation and this had profound consequences for Turkey given its geostrategic history and weight. All the factors of decomposition enter the scene and worsen the situation: militaristic chaos; imperialist ambitions in the context of each for themselves; the irrationality of rising religious fundamentalism; strengthening totalitarian tendencies; outright repression against impossible-to-fulfil nationalist ambitions; up and down relations with other nations; and the arrival of millions of refugees and the displaced, a consequence of all these developments, one that has been used as a weapon of imperialism. The "new", strong Turkey emerging is thus an illustration of capitalist weakness and decomposition. Instead of the "victory" of capitalism and its dominant superpower, the USA, we see the weakening of the latter in the face of the economic and political instability, irrationality and unpredictability, of which the Middle East, with Turkey at the centre of it, is a prime example.
During the Cold War Turkey was a main bastion of the West against Russia. Once Russia collapsed, once the threat against Turkey was gone, Turkey didn't have the same need for NATO. Even the recent annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Russia hasn't seemed to threaten Turkey. In fact the growing relationship between Turkey and Russia is of some concern to the West. Turkey benefited from the Russian invasion of Crimea to the extent that it managed to obtain cheap energy sanctioned by the West. Russia continues to rely on Turkey for keeping its straits open, giving access for its navy to the warm water seas. With Russia no longer threatening its eastern flank, and accommodations between the two countries on its western, Syrian flank (though these are certainly not written in stone), Turkey's need for NATO has shrunk. On its eastern flank Turkey has deepened its relations with Azerbaijan whose oil and gas are exactly what Turkey is lacking, its "missing link". Since the collapse of Russia, Turkey has developed close cultural, economic and military ties with Azerbaijan and supported it in its 2016 war with Russian-backed Armenia, whose "independent republic of Nargono-Karabakh" Turkey still refuses to recognise. But, overall, just as Turkey's need of NATO has declined so NATO's need of Turkey has increased.
Through the pursuance of its own, independent ambitions, which means it no longer submits itself to any military alliance, discipline or agreements, Turkey has not only become unreliable but unpredictable. Already in 2003, when the US was facing problems in Iraq, the Turkish parliament refused the stationing of US troops in Eastern Anatolia that the latter hoped would be used as springboard. To be committed to confronting Russia becomes an unnecessary and unwanted burden for Turkey and instead of this we see tendencies the other way, towards rapprochement with Russia, which makes Turkey a force in itself undermining and weakening NATO. If Russia manages to pull Turkey into its orbit, along with Iran, it will strengthen the former enormously. In this direction Turkey has just finalised the deal to buy Russia's S-400 missile system and has had talks with Russia over Syria in mid-November, with further talks to come in Sochi with both Putin and Iran.
Given the large and concentrated numbers of Turkish and Kurdish emigrant workers around the world, and particularly those in Germany and the rest of Europe, there is a clear danger of these elements being mobilised behind nationalist interests. Turkish imperialism has the means for the propagation of its perceived interests to its Diaspora in the form of the Milli Gorus (national/religious vision) organisation, formed in 1969[xii].
It took some time, as it did with many western politicians, for the consequences of the collapse of Russia to sink in. The Turkish economy was performing relatively well even though debt was racking up. In the late 90's Turkey joined the EU customs union and in 2005 started negotiations around access to the EU. During this period the secular/Kemalist army coup of 1997, finally occasioned by an anti-Israeli demonstration festooned with images of Hamas and Hezbollah, removed the Islamist leader Erbakan and forced the ban on religious expressions and institutions. The Turkish army thus made another of its "balanced adjustments". Coming up on the wing at this time was former footballer and ex-mayor of Istanbul, Recip Erdogan who, though still banned from politics because of his Islamist affectations, helped set up the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. He declared that the party would not have an Islamic axis.
The rise of Recip Tayyip Erdogan
The AKP came to power in Turkey in 2002 in a landslide victory after squabbling ruling class factions drove the country to near-bankruptcy, forcing an IMF bail-out in the previous year. Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 when emigration of Turkish workers, a powerful pressure-relief-valve for the Turkish economy, was slowing down and when, more generally in the Middle East, there was a weakening of the more secular powers and a rise of religious fundamentalism. Thanks to a network of mafia-type structures, corruption and clannism within the AKP, Erdogan became prime minister and immediately began putting forward strong nationalist ambitions and projects: modernising infrastructure, job creation (even if low-paid) through debt and foreign investment within a wider and more ambitious Islamic fundamentalism that was based on more backward elements. In order to weaken the grip of the military, which remained a threat to the AKP, Erdogan struck a tactical alliance with the powerful cleric Fethullah Gulen, the leader of a pragmatic, transnational Islamist Hizmet (service) movement that was strong in the Turkish police, education, journalism and the judiciary. Gulen served Erdogan well, weakening the military and its secularism through his grip on the courts and various other shady manoeuvres and intrigues. The two men, in a faction fight within the Turkish bourgeoisie, fell out over corruption charges made against Erdogan and issues over Turkish intelligence (MIT)[xiii]. The Turkish state under Erdogan has since designated Gulen and his organisation as "terrorist". Erdogan has demanded the extradition of Gulen from the United States for his supposed role in the 2016 coup attempt, but the Americans are unlikely to comply given the weight that the Gulen organisation has for US imperialism and the message it would send to any potential "exile" that was useful for the State Department.
Since the 1980s in particular, there has been a rise of Islamic influence and increasing Islamic fundamentalism throughout the whole Middle East. For example in the election campaign of 1987 the wearing of the headscarf by women in public places such as schools, hospitals and state buildings was a big issue. As one of many counter-actions the army in 1997 opposed the plans of Erbakan to give equal status to the Iman Hatip Lisesi (IHL) as state-run schools. As a result the number of students of IHL dropped from around 500,000 in 1996/7 to around 100,000 in 2004/5. In 1998 Erdogan was condemned to a prison sentence of ten months (released after four) for "inciting religious hatred" and barred from standing in elections and from holding political office. In March 2008 the General State Attorney with the backing of the army was planning to declare the AKP illegal because it was becoming a "point of crystallisation of anti-secular activities" following the ending of the ban on wearing the headscarf at universities. Shortly afterwards the Supreme Court rejected the plan of the State Attorney. Consequently, Erdogan's AKP became all the more determined to trim the power of the army. However, after the split between Gulen and Erdogan there are now even more divisions between "white and black" Turks, the "Kemalites" and the "religious". In addition the Islamic groups are now divided into two wings. Since the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, all the attempts to "contain" the influence of Islamic forces and their penetration into the state structures have failed; in fact since the 1980's - as elsewhere (for example the rise of the Mujahedeen and Khomeini in Iran at the end of the 70's) - this rise of Islamic fundamentalism of different kinds reflects the more global flight towards an extremely reactionary religious militancy[xiv]. At the same time, with the army having exercised a decade-long iron fist against all oppositional groups (whether Islamic, Kurdish or other) this set up a false polarisation between an army presented as "undemocratic" and opposed to the true "democratic" forces, the AKP, who were no less authoritarian.
Today, the Erdogan clan is running the state as his own company with all the charges of corruption against them long since dropped and those involved in the judicial process around it purged. But behind the Erdogan clan lies a particular form of state totalitarianism, built on reactionary religious exclusion, rabid nationalist speeches and strong imperialist ambitions.
The refugee question manipulated by Turkish imperialism
Again, demonstrating the importance of its geostrategic position, Turkey is also a bridgehead for all the war-torn refugees from the Middle East. But the refugees are also used as a cynical exercise in blackmailing the EU. The EU has been paying large sums to Erdogan-AKP to hold the refugees back and Erdogan has often threatened to "let them go" and head towards Europe. To this end, Turkey has recently demanded another 3 billion euros from Europe by 2018 (Reuters, 16.11.17). The Turkish bourgeoisie has also been profiting from its people-smuggling organisation from Africa to Europe, which also throws a light on Turkey's imperialist aspirations towards the continent. Turkish embassies, consulates, companies and the like have spread across Africa, as have Turkish airlines. Using cheap, subsidised flights, would-be emigrants can fly from northern and sub-Saharan Africa to Turkey from where they are taken to the borders of Europe with necessary advice[xv] from the organised crime networks that permeate the Turkish state. Several times Erdogan has proposed a visa-free zone for Muslim countries, a sort of "Islamic Schengen" that Europe would see as a serious threat.
Along with Milli Gorus mentioned above, Turkey has a number of "NGO's" that push its imperialist interests. Among these is the "International Humanitarian Organisation" (IHH) that has major health projects in many African countries and is now present in dozens more. Its strengthening has coincided with Erdogan's many trips to Africa and a general build-up of Turkey's "soft" power that goes beyond Africa. The IHH is structured along Muslim Brotherhood "charity work" lines and in fact it contains cadres of the Brotherhood. It was this organisation that, under Erdogan's direction, launched the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" in 2010 which included elements of the left wing of capital that had no problem in cosying-up to their fellow Islamic fundamentalist crew[xvi]. Most of the medicines that the flotilla was carrying in this imperialist charade had expired before running into the subsequent Israeli blockade.
Turkey's use of soft power extends into its ally Pakistan, where its NGO, Kizilay, has built Ottoman-style mosques close to the Indian border. Erdogan has given his support to Pakistan over Kashmir, and in return the Pakistan regime has facilitated his purge of "Gulenist" elements in the Pak-Turk school chain. Both these countries need each other to stand up for their own interests against the US.
Erdogan strengthens his position and authority
After posing as a "friend" and "peace-maker" to the Kurds, soon after he became head of state Erdogan could no longer keep up the facade due to the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) which threatened the AKP's parliamentary majority. But his about-face was mainly due to the success of the Kurdish YPG in gaining swathes of territory along the Syrian/Turkish border. Just as the Israeli bourgeoisie would like to be rid of the Palestinians then so too would Turkey with the Kurds. In July 2015 the Turkish military launched a virtual blitzkrieg against Kurdish separatist positions in the south-east, wiping out the wider civilian areas that were sheltering the Kurdish armed fighters.
Following the landslide victory with 49.8% votes for the AKP in 2011, in the June 2014 election this dropped to 40.9%. In addition, for the first time the Kurdish HDP got 13.1% and thus admission to the Turkish parliament. The result meant that Erdogan had not achieved the necessary two-thirds majority needed for changing the constitution. Obsessed with his goal of becoming the "new Sultan" of the neo-Ottoman Empire, Erdogan's AKP ordered the judicial apparatus to begin outlawing the Kurdish HDP. Under the combined effect of state-provoked terror, terrorist attacks from Isis and the PKK, an intimidated population ran into the arms of Erdogan and in the November 2015 election the AKP achieved its necessary majority. Once again repression against the Kurds was reinforced as the party increased its power.
Erdogan strengthened his position by winning the 2017 referendum, changing the Turkish constitution and consolidating broad powers in the hands of his Presidency. Given the loaded nature of the election by the ruling AKP, Erdogan only won by a narrow majority of 51%. It was significant that Turkey's three biggest cities, including Istanbul, voted against him but, according to the Washington Post (17.4.17), he did better than expected among Kurdish voters (most probably terrified by the turn of events). It's not the first narrow escape that Erdogan has had: he also had one during the attempted coup of 2016[xvii]. Erdogan survived the coup stronger and after a Stalinist-type purge that continues to this day: waves of propaganda against "plotters" and "terrorists" have continually emanated from the state while all and any dissent is squashed. In its particular fundamentalist-tinged development of state capitalism, Turkey has moved further away from the European Union; its already shaky role in NATO has become even shakier, unreliable even, and while involved in various diplomatic spats with the US and NATO to the extent of pulling out of exercises with the latter (Times of Israel, 17.11.17), it has moved, tentatively, towards friendlier, almost tactical but very erratic relations with Russia.
Even though presented by the media as the "new Sultan" and Erdogan himself as the architect of the new modern "Islamic Turkey" after Ataturk's "modern (secular) Turkey", and one which differs from the Iranian "model" of a theocratic state, this project is in no way just the ambition of a megalomaniac leader. As mentioned above, it represents the revival of the imperialist ambitions of a Turkey in a fragmenting and increasingly chaotic imperialist nexus. In fact all parts of the ruling class under the AKP have been engaged in these aspirations.
What next for Turkey and the working class?
Erdogan is pressing ahead with his project with very openly defined ambitions to make Turkey a superpower in 20-30 years. That this appears a hare-brained scheme takes no account of the present irrationality of decomposing capitalism. For this new "Sultanate" to come about the "Kurdish question" needs settling once and for all and relations with Russia need to become closer. As his power has increased, Erdogan has moved away from NATO, distanced himself from the EU and Germany and sees the US as an unfriendly force. Turkey is not in a state of declared war but is engulfed in war operations outside of its own territory and is more and more the battleground with those groups which the Turkish army has attacked within or outside Turkey (PKK, Isis); the country itself now risks sliding into a spiral of militarist chaos while surrounded by millions of refugees and general imperialist instability.
There are some unpredictable factors in play though. Given the nature of present US foreign policy under Trump, the increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its backlash against Lebanon, the possibility of Israeli military strikes in the region, all these are factors that are likely to have an effect on areas of fundamental Turkish interests: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon[xviii], Gaza, etc.
The impressive economic performance of the last years in Turkey, which underpins Erdogan's "popularity", looks to be short-term and under threat from geo-political instability, which means that this advantage will be petering out at the same time as the emigration safety-valve is closing and debt is rising. No amount of religious intoxication and delusions about a new "empire" will make up for that. The weight of the war economy, which swallows up enormous sums, is also likely to have an effect on the living conditions of the working class. The Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013 followed a wave of anti-war and anti-government demonstrations in the south that brought together protesters across ethnic, gender and religious divides in places. The working class was present in these protests but not with a strong sense of class identity. Is the proletariat prepared to slave and die for Erdogan's projects? The working class in Turkey has shown historically that it has a sound tradition of struggle and has pursued it with militancy. It needs to stay on its own terrain and develop autonomous struggle, refusing to be drawn into nationalist and pro or anti-Erdogan campaigns.
[ii] Rosa Luxemburg's 1896 analysis on the "Polish question" is useful here, https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1896/07/polish-question.htm, along with elements of her Junius Pamphlet. Also relevant is The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913, by Leon Trotsky.
[iii] Recently Erdogan has expressed his "...sorrow for what we lost at Lausanne" and has pronounced that the Treaty "is not irrefutable" while calling it "a disgrace to the nation" - see https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170425-turkish-ambitions-set-to-grow...
[iv] The Alevis make up about a quarter of Turkey's population. It's a broad-based, fairly laid-back branch of Shia religion, which does not accept Sharia law and in which women have a much greater degree of equality than in traditional Islam. Its leadership has tended to support secular elements in Turkey, as much for self-protection as anything else. Further pogroms against them broke out in the 1980's and 90's. Erdogan said he would support them (as he did with the Kurds) but has instead marginalised and isolated them further.
[vi] For more on political Islam in Turkey, see https://merip.org/mer/mer153/political-uses-islam-turkey
[vii] Read the very interesting ICC pamphlet Left Wing of the Turkish Communist Party (not available online).
[viii] Turkey has the largest-known stocks of chromium which is essential for strengthening steel and therefore indispensable for armament production. See the wider-ranging thesis: The Sinews of War: Turkey, Chromite and the Second World War - https://www.thesis.bilkent.edu.tr/0006102.pdf
[ix] See: https://en.internationalism.org/node/3588. Gladio was a "stay-behind" secret military force in Europe potentially to confront moves westward by Russian imperialism. But the bourgeoisie also had the experience of what happened after WWI, and therefore had an eye on possible working class uprisings.
[x] The Muslim Brotherhood is a hard-line Sunni Islamist group that, from the thirties at least, has built up its power base through Islamic "charity" work. The Trump administration is trying to get it designated a "Foreign Terrorist Organisation" (FTO) while the British government recognised and supported it until very recently. It was originally financed by the Saudis but they no longer recognise it. Erdogan was close to the MB when it was elected to power in Egypt in 2012. Its removal from power there cost lives, brought down repression and cost the Saudis more treasure. The election of the President Mohamed Morsi of the MB caused a shock in the west. It was both an expression of the weakening of the US in the region and the growing irrationality of capitalism. The Brotherhood is a strong force in Qatar - where Turkey has a military base and within Hamas, of whom Erdogan has been one of its main sponsors.
[xi] See The use of Political Islam in Turkey - note 3.
[xii] [xii]. Milli Gorus is an anti-western and pro-Muslim organisation. It has around 2,500 local groups, built around 500 mosques and created a number of foundations. It includes not just Islamic Turks but Sunnis from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Its main centre is Germany but it has branches in many other European countries as well as Australia, Canada and the US. The organisation was founded by Necmettin Erbakan, Islamist, anti-EU, anti-Kemalist, who was prime minister of Turkey from 1996-97. It's said that Erdogan is taking up Erbakan's legacy and he will certainly use Milli Gorus to spread it.
[xiii] Gulen resides in the USA now and is generally portrayed in the western media as a simple preacher. In fact he sits on top of a vast, penetrative organisation worth billions and is close to the Clintons and the US Democrats.
[xiv] According to the Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2009, pp 55 - 66, in 2008 "Turkey has over 85,000 mosques, one for every 350 citizens - compared to one hospital for every 6000 citizens - the highest per-capita number in the world and, with 90,000 Imams, more Imams than doctors or teachers".
[xvi] In Britain a few years ago, there were a number of demonstrations called by the left that supported attacks on Israel and marched side-by-side with elements of Hamas using the odious slogan "We are all Hamas". This wasn't entirely out of tune with official British foreign policy at the time which actively supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
[xvii] Erdogan just got away from a commando unit that was sent to deal with him by forces involved in the attempted coup of July 2016 while he was holidaying in the resort of Marmaris and once safely aboard his jet again avoided two F-16 fighter-bombers under the control of the coup forces who were trying to hunt him down (Reuters, 17.7.17) But, like much of the goings-on behind the coup, this is surrounded by mystery.
[xviii] Visa requirements between Turkey and Lebanon have been abolished and various memoranda of understanding and cooperation established.