History used to be a genre of literature till the nineteenth century. In the sub continental tradition of history, revisionist writers such as Nasim Hijazi and Allama Iqbal employed the tools of literature to glorify history in pursuit of a new form of nationalism. In recent times, different writers have used this technique in a much better way, exploring the history of regions in the guise of fiction. Manto’s short stories on partition are considered more representative of prevalent conditions during the partition of India than the traditional accounts found in the history books. Octavio Paz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez discussed Latin American history and politics in a way that is simply not possible for non-fiction writers. In the same way, it is necessary to read Charles Dickens to understand Victorian era England. Tariq Ali’s “Islam Quintet” belongs to the historical fiction genre, taking place in five different settings in Muslim history. In the third book of the quintet, “The Stone Woman,” Tariq Ali focused on the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century.

The Ottoman Empire stretched from modern day Algeria to Iran on one side and from modern day Romania to Egypt and Ethiopia in the year 1800. The sentiments of the Turkish elite during the time of the upheaval are best summarized in the words of a character in Tariq Ali’s book:

“We are living in uncertain times. The old order as we have known it all our lives is dying. The Sultan is no longer powerful and the Empire has itself become a fairytale now. Everything is being taken away and nothing is ready to take its place.”

The decline continued throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the disastrous decision by Sultan Mehmed V to participate in the First World War alongside German and Austro-Hungarian Empires (collectively known as the central powers). Turkish forces, aided and in many cases led by German soldiers were heavily defeated by the opposition forces composed of the armies of the British Empire, Russian Empire, France and Arab Rebels. The Turkish army was able to defend Istanbul by the skin of their teeth at Gallipoli under the guidance of a charismatic Lieutenant Colonel named Mustafa Kemal. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, its constituent parts were divided amongst the victors. Mustafa Kemal took over the reins of government, abolished the derelict institution of the Caliphate and proclaimed the establishment of a Turkish Republic in 1923.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of the Turks) embarked upon an ambitious project to carve out a new Turkish nation, changing the Arabic script to Latin, banning the use of Fez and forced the modernization of society. Amidst this nation-building project, he inflicted misery upon people who were not compatible (in his eyes) with the Turkish nation, including the Kurds and Armenians. His policies were continued in one way or the other till the 1980s.

In the year 1983, Turgut Özal became the Prime Minister of Turkey. A strong proponent of liberal capitalism, Özal is credited with opening up and modernizing the Turkish economy during his tenure as prime minister. He continued his program of free-market expansion and regional trade as president, laying the groundwork for strong economic growth in the 1990s. It was during his tenure that the concept “neo-Ottomanism” gained credence and Turkey tried to renew its influence in the geopolitical scenario. In 1992, he proclaimed that the twenty-first century would be the “century of the Turks.” He paved the way for improved relations with the former Soviet republics which had historical and cultural ties with Turkey. He also realized that Kurds and Armenians will have to be taken into the folds of Turkey if this project has to succeed. In the early 1990s, he opened negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s main Kurdish rebel group, leading to a ceasefire in 1993.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arose from humble beginnings and was a talented amateur soccer player before becoming active in the Islamist Welfare Party. He was elected Mayor of Istanbul in March 1994. After a short stint in prison, he established the Justice and Development Party (known as AK party), along with Abdullah Gul. The new party swept national elections in 2002 and has held power since then. Turkey progressed at an incredible pace under the control of AK party, with its focus on free market capitalism and keeping the country stable to attract foreign investment. The major accomplishment of the party was to put the intervention-happy military in its rightful place, sealing the doors shut for any future coups. Due to tremendous growth in the last decade, Turkey is considered one of the top twenty economies in the world.

Due to its healthy economy and relative stability, Turkey has attempted to portray itself as a regional superpower in the Middle East. Along with traditional means of diplomacy, Turkish cultural exports (especially the Ottoman-era soap operas) have weaved their spell on audiences in the Middle East, South Asia and Balkan states, boosting Turkey’s soft power. Turkey has voiced its support for the East Turkestan movement, helped Palestinian citizens by sending an aid Flotilla (alongside recent denunciations of Israel by Mr. Erdoğan), paved the way for the Kurdish Regional Authority to sell oil to other countries, and aided Sunni militants in Syria. Additionally, trouble in Ukraine has opened up the prospect of the southern corridor for Energy Supply to Europe, which would undoubtedly increase Turkey’s importance for EU countries.

Within the country itself, there is widespread nostalgia for Ottoman era glory and it is reflected in Turkey’s foreign policy outlook. This policy is not advancing as well as would be expected. Turkey’s overtures towards Central Asia are overshadowed by Russia, its “adventure” in Syria backfired and its posturing towards Israel has caused a warming of relations between Israel and Turkey’s nemesis: Greece. With Erdoğan winning the recently held Presidential election, neo-Ottomanism is expected to remain in vogue, despite temporary setbacks.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

@abdulmajeedabid