Turkey’s Complicated Relationship with the Middle East, Explained by One Word

The Washington Post

This weekend is Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the hajj pilgrimage season. To nearly all Muslims, it's known simply as Eid. But to Turks and their kin in other nations, it's called Bayram.

The dividing line between the two names offers unexpected insight into how Turkey’s bid for influence in the Muslim world has played out: between one region where it has successfully built on cultural ties to expand its soft power — and another, the Middle East, where it has tried and failed to expand its hard power.

Most Muslim nations in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia use the name “Eid” for this weekend's holiday, as do most Muslim communities in the West. Meanwhile, nations and ethnic groups related to the Turks — Tatars in Russia, Azeris in the Caucasus, Uzbeks and Kazakhs in Central Asia — call the holiday “Bayram,” which is a Turkish word.

So do Bosnians and Albanians, who were introduced to Islam through the Turks during the Ottoman rule, who spell the word “Bajram.” The same is true for other countries in the area that were under Ottoman control for centuries, such as Serbia and Greece.

The major exception, tellingly, seems to be the Kurds, who use the Kurdish word “Jazhn.” It's fitting for a stateless minority that straddles the border between the Turkish and Arabic spheres without feeling fully at home in either.

Since 2003, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — then prime minister — and his Justice and Development Party assumed power, Turkey has launched an ambitious attempt to exert power in Muslim-majority countries. Erdogan tries to link his foreign policy to the past grandeur of the Ottoman Empire and its forebears. As a former imperial and Muslim power, Erdogan reasons, Turkey has natural soft power over Muslim countries in the region.

Yet Erdogan has focused his bid for influence on the Middle East where, as the map shows, Turkey’s religious ties are undercut by real cultural differences. And those differences are reflected in the results. Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria, among other misadventures, has left it more isolated and insecure than ever. In Syria, Turkey has failed to oust the Assad regime and instead generated new enemies such as the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurds.

At the same time, Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, as well as its alliances with Sunni Kurds and Arabs in Iraq against the Baghdad government, have left Ankara woefully isolated. Today, with the exception of Qatar and some Iraqi Kurds, Turkey has no allies or friends in the Middle East, a position one of Erdogan’s advisers optimistically spun as “precious loneliness.”

In contrast with Turkey’s struggles in the Middle East, its more modest efforts to project soft power through cultural and historic ties to the Balkans and Central Asia — call it the Bayram Belt — have met with more success.

A brand of relatively more-open Islam promoted by the Diyanet, Turkey’s highest religious body, has found a positive reception, and Turkish businesses perform best in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Balkan and Central Asian countries are among Turkey’s strongest supporters in international forums, including the United Nations.

As geopolitical visions go, the Bayram Belt may not be much — but at least it beats precious loneliness.

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Nick Danforth writes about Middle Eastern history and politics. He is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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