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Secularism in Ankara vs. Ottoman nostalgia in Cape Town: the paradox of Turkey’s foreign policy

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Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu paid a visit to South Africa last week, unusual timing since the country does not typically receive high-profile visitors at the beginning of the year. South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Dr. Naledi Pandor, emphasized the importance of prioritizing economic relations between Turkey and South Africa during a press conference they held on Jan. 10. However, Çavuşoğlu’s trip was more focused on Turkey’s cultural and religious ties with South African Muslims.

The Republic of Turkey, established in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, had a secular and Western-aligned foreign policy for many years until the rise to power of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2003. Initially, Erdoğan pushed for reforms to limit the military’s interference in politics and sought European Union membership. However, following the Arab Spring, he began to present himself as a leader of the Muslim world and focused on improving ties with Muslims globally.

Erdoğan’s foreign policy then came to be seen as a reflection of neo-Ottomanism, a political ideology in Turkey that emphasizes the country’s Ottoman past and advocates for a greater presence and influence in regions that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. This ideology is often associated with Islamism and irredentism, and it calls for the expansion of Turkey’s political influence in territories that were once under Ottoman rule. It encompasses a broad range of ideas, and some view it as an imperialistic agenda. Neo-Ottomanism challenges the Kemalist ideology that has, for over a century, defined Turkey as a Westernized nation that does not embrace its Ottoman past and is strongly secular.

This shift in foreign policy has led to the transformation of Turkey’s Kemalist regime into a more Islamist state through the use of religious discourse and the manipulation of democratic institutions, which has been met with opposition from strong Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, the AKP has managed to strengthen ties with non-Arab Muslim states such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Somalia as well as North African nations.

Turkey’s foreign policy, however, has shifted its focus to Africa in the last decade. The continent has become a key export and investment destination for Turkey, which has a strong economic presence in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, but mineral-rich Sub-Saharan Africa remains a region where Turkey has not yet established a significant presence. On the other hand, the Southern African region is fertile ground for Erdoğan to implement his neo-Ottomanist ideology since relations between Turkey and this region go back to the late 19th century.

Turkey’s populist Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu started his South Africa visit in line with this ideology by visiting the Nur el-Hamidia Mosque in Cape Town, an Ottoman mosque built 137 years ago with the support of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), a state-run aid agency, renovated the mosque. TİKA officials said the mosque was a symbol of engagement between the two countries, Turkey’s pro-AKP newspaper Daily Sabah reported in July 2020.

Following his visit to the mosque, Çavuşoğlu then went to the grave of Ottoman scholar Ebu Bekir Effendi in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap area. Effendi was sent to Cape Town in 1862 at the request of the British Empire to teach Islamic thought and resolve religious and social conflicts among the Muslim communities. He established a Muslim school in the city, learned Dutch and English and translated many key religious books into local languages. Effendi married a local woman and had six children, who followed in their father’s footsteps by running the school. His son, Ahmet Atâullah Effendi, was the only Cape Muslim to compete for a seat in the Cape Parliament and was appointed as the first ambassador of the Ottoman Caliphate to Singapore. Today, the Effendi family is prominent in Cape Town, and the Turkish government has recently started awarding them Turkish citizenship to carry out religious and cultural diplomacy in South Africa.

During his visit to Cape Town, Çavuşoğlu met with the Effendi family and stated afterwards, “We maintain strong ties with the grandchildren of Ebu Bekir Effendi today. We had really emotional moments.” Turkey’s previous ambassador, Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen, tweeted on September 16, 2020 that “15 of the descendants of Ebu Bekir Effendi became Turkish citizens with a presidential decree on August 20, 2020. We are proud and elated to be able to witness the closure of a rift that lasted over 100 years and to duly commemorate Ebu Bekir Effendi, who established the foundations of the strong ties between the Muslims of Turkey and South Africa.”

Ülgen also worked to support the Ottoman Cricket Club, which was founded in 1882. Rydwaun Salie, chairman of the club, stated that Turkey offered significant assistance to the club through TIKA. Ülgen emphasized that the Ottoman Cricket Club is very valuable as it represents the century-old ties between Turkey and South Africa. She also supported the Ottoman Marching Band, which was founded by Malaysian immigrants in 1949, and highlighted its significance as they have chosen the “red fez” as their symbol and have kept these uniforms to this day.

Çavuşoğlu also visited the grave of the Ottoman Empire’s last consul general, Mehmet Remzi Bey, in Johannesburg. Remzi Bey was appointed on April 21, 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, but was arrested by British authorities and died in custody in 1916.

It is ironic that Turkish career ambassadors are known for their staunch secular views and have not traditionally promoted Ottoman religious and cultural history in Turkey. Additionally, it is sad that neither Ottoman Empire officials nor the secular Turkish Republic extended any help to Remzi Bey’s family. Following Remzi Bey’s arrest in Johannesburg, his pregnant Russian wife, Helene, was evicted from her consular residence along with her small baby and had to seek refuge with a friend. Despite her frequent communication with Istanbul, she did not receive any help from Ottoman authorities. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the leaders of the newly formed Turkish Republic ordered the exile of members of the Ottoman imperial family, and the new republic did not remember Remzi Bey’s family in the south.

Turkey is scheduled to hold general elections in June 2023. During his two decades in power Erdoğan has promoted neo-Ottomanism. However, recent polls indicate that Erdoğan’s support is low. As a result, he is now promoting Turkish secularism to gain more votes. But his diplomats continue to embrace Ottoman nostalgia in many parts of the world, including South Africa.

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