Turkic speakers but not Turks. The limits of Turkism in the Maghreb and beyond

(To Andrea Forte)
28/11/21

Each empire leaves a presence of itself after its dissolution. In his provinces they are very often material traces rather than spiritual ones, while for the former dominant stock it is above all a question of self-perception, of a way of imagining and projecting oneself into the world still with the idea of ​​a right to domination. Any subject who claims to be the heir could choose to blow on those presences to awaken their ancient roots.

The Ottoman Empire extended, for a phase of its history, also to the Maghreb. The existence of Turkish-speaking minorities in this region requires reflection, given the increasing Turkish imperial posture in the geopolitical scene. Is their presence a power factor for Turkey? Possibly in what way? Such an analysis involves multiple levels, namely what it means to be Turkish and what Turkey's current project and trajectory are.

It must be said immediately that these minorities, named Kouloughlis (about two million in both Algeria and Tunisia), are assimilated in these countries and do not lend themselves to being the geopolitical lever of Turkish interests in the Maghreb. They are so primarily for historical reasons, for the formation of the Ottoman Empire and its strategic limits, but also for their behavior over the centuries.

The Ottomans do not conquer the Maghreb as a result of a thoughtful and implemented project. The Maghreb "rains" on him, in the form of adhesion of the local potentates and the empire intervenes more to help some faction and marginalize another, rather than to transform those places into real provinces.

From the Ottoman Empire, the Maghreb was divided into the regencies of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, plus a de facto independent sultanate of Morocco. Membership is above all functional to having to defend oneself from Spain, which is much closer and more dangerous.

In the moment of greater accession of this region to the empire, the Turkish elites transfer part of their members to the top of these regencies. From the union of these Turks with local elements, the kouloughlis, a term which, just to demonstrate the lack of Ottoman confidence in their substantial fidelity, means, from the Turkish point of view son of servants, while from the point of view of local elites it is a prestigious name, translated with son of soldiers (especially of Janissaries).

Before demonstrating their partial non-adherence to the Ottoman project i kouloughly have access to all offices. Above all to the odjak, the army, which actually means, in Turkish, home and family, and the three Maghreb regencies themselves are identified in Turkish as garp adjokari (odjack west). This proves that they are initially integrated into the main articulations of Turkism, which is always projected through statehood and the military apparatus. However, the more they rooted at the top the more they felt distant from the empire, until they unleash a revolt in 1629. This revolt was suffocated and the kououghlis they are marginalized, especially by the army, and forced to play only the role of privateers.

Over time they actually manage to reach some key places again, but they quickly resume serving the interests of their local "home and family", so much so that they help suppress the Turkish Janissary Corps, which revolted in 1817. At the same time however, they ally with them to face the French invasion, demonstrating not so much an anti-Turkism as a local nationalism. Certainly elements of distinction of this minority, as proof of their ancient lineage, remain. For example the cultivation of the school's Sunni Islam hanafi, unlike the school maliki, more strictly North African, but in general they are a minority that has proved, even before the birth of the Algerian or Tunisian or Moroccan nations, a progenitor of the North African national consciences and certainly not the vanguard of the Turkish projection in the Maghreb. This also depended on the very nature of the Ottoman Empire, a land empire, which greatly underestimates, not so much force at sea, but the transformation of force into domination of the seas and their use as a more complete form of defense. For this purpose, the assimilation of the North African coast, if truly performed, would have been fundamental.

Going back to today, not even Turkey is trying to leverage these communities. The reason lies in the very problematic nature of the concept of being Turkish. Only Turks can be Turks, and not even Turks per se, because one becomes a Turk. It is therefore not the classic ethnic group, understood as land and blood (possessed), but march, migration and blood (shed).

The Turk is such because he moves, because he migrates from the beginning, from the Altay mountains, and wherever he goes, he conquers and sheds blood, so he becomes a warrior, he becomes stronger and stronger. He does not aim at making the other Turkish, but at harmonizing his difference with his own strength. Strengthening the differences (thus pretending to leave free) strengthens the Turk, who forges himself in the struggle, in a continuous circle of march, struggle and submission, until the final harmony, the mystery of domination, which is the Kizilelma, the red apple. In this sense, being Turkish, or rather becoming Turkish, is a state of mind, a feeling that is not emotional, but spiritual, which brings together the myth of the original march and the final conquest.

Feeling, not boundary; becoming Turkish does not stop at Anatolia, which is not Turkey in the strict sense, but is Turkey today. The myth is in fact in the soul, the Turks carry it whole in every conquest. The Turks of today live in Anatolia, but they are not Anatolians, they are Turks. Where the Turks are it is Turkey, but they are not Turks because they are in Turkey. Turkey is in the soul.

Post-Ottoman minorities cannot be Turks, because as we shall see they did not feel Turks, but Romans / Ottomans when they arrived in the Maghreb. This is why they are of no interest to Turkey.

The current Turkish strategy, with a Kemalist style and much more strategically aware, compared to the Ottoman Empire (because today's Turkey is neo-Ottoman in propaganda, but Kemalist in planning and trajectory), consists in insinuating itself where there is already deconstruction , to restore flowering, or Turkish well-being, but it is the flowering that is Turkish, not the indigenous human element. From Kemal onwards, which defended Libya from the Italian invasion, Turkey frees or defends from the occupiers, thus insinuating itself into North African anti-Western sentiments. Locals can become Turkish, but not Turkish. Autonomous who believe themselves free.

The error of considering the Turkish attitude as neo-Ottoman was somehow promoted by Erdogan himself, who has repeatedly, for internal purposes, spoken of his side as the neo-Ottoman one, but he did not speak of geopolitics, but rather of geopolitics. delegitimize his opponents, making the legacy of the most accomplished imperial form ever achieved by a Turkish state to himself. He aimed to denigrate his opponents, as if they were traitors, because they are not part of that glorious history. Erdogan himself, however, imagined being able to implement the new Kemalist trajectory by taking advantage of the easier, but less geopolitical map, at his disposal, the Muslim religion, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab-Islamic countries, hoping to be able to teach them secularism and through them to convince everyone, especially Saudi Arabia, that there was a political Islam, capable of becoming an apparatus and becoming a barrier to Iran, Riyadh's great rival.

The plan to convey power through religion failed and pushed the blockade of the Gulf even further in an anti-Turkish sense. Then presenting himself as the heir of the Ottomans in an Arab world, who has a very bad memory of that domain, it was a further mistake. For this Erdogan returns to the true figure of the projection of Turkish power, the cult of the state, because where the Turks arrive there always comes a statehood, which takes the form of reconstruction or influence of the apparatuses, primarily in the armed forces. Because precisely the Turkish becomes Turkish by fighting. It is then the apparatuses, even more than the political forces, including the Muslim brotherhood, that have to become Turks and welcome the Turks.

The current reaction of the president of Tunisia, who has expelled the Muslim brothers, hitherto supported by Turkey, from the parliamentary and governmental life of the country, does not contradict the new Turkish approach, because the Tunisian brotherhood was a last remnant of the aforementioned error and already paid with Morsi in Egypt. Turkey now shows that it no longer wants to do this.

Turkish expansionism is the reconstruction or influence of apparatuses. Bringing statehood is the counterpart of a people that has migration in its DNA, it is the only stability, the only rootedness that it can conceive, while it does not conceive of stopping in a specific land as a land, but in that land if it becomes a determined state. Because the state belongs to the people more than the earth. The state is the direct emanation and creation of the people, it is the ancient horse of the knights / archers, the horse on which one rests and travels, and it is what the Turks can carry with them and rebuild wherever they go.

There remains a contradiction in the Turkish posture, which is aware that Turkey is wherever the Turks are, but for now the only real Turkey, which exists, is in Anatolia, and the geopolitical project to be implemented is realistic if it starts from there. For this reason Erdogan and the generations of Kemalist strategists try to treasure the error of the Ottoman Empire, which was to imagine itself Roman and therefore to imagine a center, Constantinople, from which its own power could not radiate, as instead a geopolitical center always ago, because it was not an Ottoman center.

The Ottoman Empire, centering on Constantinople, and as a Roman as they imagine it, leads to reasoning in terms of East and West, and deludes a migrating people that it has finally found a landing point, a center already made, and coordinates, precisely an east and a west to this center, Anatolia to the east and the Balkans to the west. The center was not in Anatolia, but a center, if Turkish, had to be. The Turks, on the other hand, imagine themselves to be Ottomans / Romans, and indeed for them the center exists only if East and West exist and are added together. For this they conquer the Balkans before they have even taken Constantinople and then come back to take it. Because the center only makes sense based on the coordinates. Conquer those the center falls and the center is Constantinople.

After this first mistake, they make the mistake of not understanding the value of the sea, as they are a migratory and terrestrial people, especially since they imagine Rome as an empire of land, which did not take place in the Mediterranean. The Kemalist state instead demonstrates, by immediately moving the capital to Ankara, to imagine a centrality and solidity of Anatolia as an effective Turkey, and it is no longer the Romans East and West that give meaning to the center, but it is the center that gives meaning to the coordinates and coordinates are now mostly north and south. After all, the current east and west walls are in fact impassable for now. To the west, Greece shields the Aegean through the possession of the Dodecanese (with the help of the United Arab Emirates, Israel, France, Egypt), while to the west, despite having taken steps in the Caucasus, it still clashes with powers currently not possible from defeat, like Russia and Iran, so Anatolia must be protected in the north and south. To the north from Russia via the Black Sea and to the south via domination in the Mediterranean.

This is where the importance of North Africa comes into play in the new Kemalist strategy, because North Africa is the possibility of dominating the sea via the coast. In fact, Turkey is aware that the sea is the first line of defense, but it does not yet feel it within itself, it feels it has to replicate the model with which it has always won its glory, which is the land route. For this reason, for now, dominating the coasts is the only way they can get to the sea, instead of landing on the coasts from dominating the sea. Libya then is not only the first trench with which to consolidate the frontier of the blue homeland (and bypass Cyprus), it is also the first point from which to radiate domination in North Africa, to make a whole arc of defense from Gibraltar to Suez, only after it is also the terrestrial point from which to project power, arriving on one side in Somalia and on the other in Senegal, that is to the oceans, crossing the Straits, on one side Gibraltar and on the other of Suez and Bab el Mandeb, once again arriving there by land. This is a fundamental limitation of the Turkish strategy.

Another limitation is that North Africa is not currently under the total control of Turkey. In fact, it owns half of Libya, but Tunisia has rebelled against the infiltration of Turkish power towards the Maghreb and Algeria itself has not yet slipped into its arms. Let's not talk about Egypt. Another big problem in Turkish soft power in North Africa and elsewhere today is knowing that it can no longer fully rely on the Islam of brotherhood in inserting itself into local dynamics, but at the same time it has not been able to find a new mission. For now it is trying to present itself as an Islamic-secular power, outside the channels of Muslim brotherhood, but is it possible to shape the apparatuses and statehood, with all the connected structures, without Islamic-political declination? An unexpected result.

The last and greatest limitation is the fact that Turkey has so far managed to pursue its ambitions in the shadow of US benevolence, a hegemon beyond which and against which Turkey cannot afford to act. Hegemon who assigned precise limits to Turkish power, counterbalance Russia, especially in Libya and North Africa in general, annoy him in the Caucasus, perhaps stretching out to annoy the Chinese, but the real fulfillment of Turkish projects cannot fail to foresee a clash with the US power and at the same time cannot afford such a clash. The geopolitical trajectory of the Turks is in fact still too little based on resources and too much on myth, which as such is a category that has more to do with dreams.

From the Ottoman errors, the Turks learned the need to center themselves in a place and make it a center of irradiation of their power, instead of moving indefinitely; in this sense Anatolia has effectively become Turkey, and they have also understood the importance of the sea, because Anatolia defends itself from the blue sea / homeland, but they have not yet managed to think as a people who are at sea and rely on the limited resources they have at their disposal.

The Turks are still a great people for now, but with too great an ambition.