Hiding in Plain Sight

You don't need to get your hands on secret cables to learn that Turkey's foreign minister has a radically different view of the world than American diplomats. Just read his dissertation.


As the explosive, ongoing release of hundreds of thousands of State Department diplomatic cables shows, official Washington is anxious about the direction that Turkey’s government is taking the country — and particularly the influence of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, long credited as the architect of its foreign policy. And judging by the academic-turned-international-strategist’s doctoral dissertation, they have good reason to worry.

The first batch of cables, published by self-described whistle-blower organization WikiLeaks on Nov. 28, express the unvarnished concerns of U.S. diplomats regarding the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has recently improved Turkey’s ties to Iran and Syria and engaged in a high-profile war of words with Israel following the botched Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in May. One November 2009 cable says that U.S. officials were "wondering if it could any longer count on Turkey to help contain Iran’s profound challenge to regional peace." Another cable quotes a Turkish government official saying that Davutoglu exerts an "exceptionally dangerous" Islamist influence on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But the U.S. diplomatic corps shouldn’t have had to wait for recent events to reveal to them the transformations that Davutoglu had in store for Turkish foreign policy. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 1990 at Istanbul’s Bogazici University and later revised and published under the title "Alternative Paradigms," yields some important clues about his intellectual influences and guiding political philosophy.

The dissertation, written in English and buried in a neglected corner of the university library’s reference collection, is esoterically titled "The Impacts of Alternative Weltanschauungs on Political Theories: A Comparison of Tawhid and Ontological Proximity." It is a dense, 298-page tome regarding the different ways in which Western and Islamic political thought justify political authority and conceive of political institutions and actors. Foreshadowing Samuel Huntington’s famous "clash of civilizations" thesis, its main argument is that the divisions between the Western and Islamic world stem from an irreconcilable chasm between the philosophical and political traditions of the two civilizations, and that both sides can justifiably view the other as being ideologically intransigent.

As Davutoglu writes in his introduction: "The fundamental argument of the thesis is that the conflicts and contrasts between Islamic and Western political thought originate mainly from their philosophical, methodological and theoretical background rather than from only institutional and historical differences."

Islamic revivalism in the Middle East, Davutoglu contends, cannot be explained through sociological or economic reasoning. His work systematically lays out the vastly divergent paths taken by the two intellectual traditions, which he believes lead to important differences concerning both state and society.

Davutoglu traces the arc of Western thought on secularism, demonstrating that secularism is not a modern characteristic of Western civilization, but a persistent element in Western thought and institutions dating back to the pre-Westphalian era that has simply been reshaped in the modern age.

Similarly, Davutoglu shows that the Islamic idea of tawhid, or the oneness of God, is not only a theological concept, but informs a practical theory of the unity of all aspects of life, as opposed to the secular division of matters belonging to "church" and "state." In Islamic political theory, according to Davutoglu, it is "almost impossible to find a political justification without reference to absolute sovereignty of Allah."

The bulk of Davutoglu’s dissertation is a dispassionate analysis of political theory. However, there are a number of places where he tellingly reveals his thoughts on the irreconcilability of Western norms and institutions within Muslim societies. In one chapter, for example, Davutoglu asserts that Muslim societies historically have not accepted Western-style procedural or institutional state legitimacy, which depends on a nontheological view of morality and legitimacy, because they are firmly entrenched in a political culture centered on religiously driven values.

Similarly, Davutoglu also dissects the differences between Western economic models, which he characterizes as seeking to distribute resources with maximum efficiency, and Islamic religious-cultural views, which he argues are more concerned with using economics to establish social stability and justice. He observes that Muslim societies will not be transformed by "imposed institutional transformation strategies directed by a Westernized political elite" and argues that Islamic cultures segmented by religious identity could not coexist with the socioeconomic class divisions that are inherent to Western institutions and societies.

Davutoglu is more explicit about his views on the compatibility of Muslim societies and Western state institutions in his concluding chapter. He describes the Muslim world as a "very impressive and consistent civilizational experience," and asserts in the very next sentence that an "Islamic all-inclusive weltanschauung [worldview] … is absolutely alternative to the Western weltanschauung rather than complementary."

Davutoglu attributes Muslim societies’ resistance to secularism to this fundamental difference, arguing that "scholars and politicians who omit these fundamental differences will continue to be puzzled by the increasing critical response of Muslim societies." In the dissertation’s concluding paragraph, addressing the Western challenge to the Muslim worldview, he warns that "the oppressive institutional transformation strategies being exercised against Muslim societies cannot overcome this irreconcilability."

Davutoglu doesn’t make any specific reference to Turkey throughout his dissection of Western institutions and Muslim societies. However, the recent history of his country — where a Westernized political and military elite imposed Western institutions by force, going so far as to launch multiple successive coups when it perceived a threat to the secular order — could not be far from his mind.

Of course, like any foreign minister, Davutoglu is now driven more by his country’s strategic concerns than by philosophy. Turkey’s foreign policy makes sense from the standpoint of its national interest without having to resort to ideological explanations, and a non-AKP government would likely continue many of the same policies — from seeking to expand Turkish influence in its near abroad to increasing economic ties with oil-rich Iran.

Nevertheless, Davutoglu, while primarily aiming for the realist goal of turning Turkey into a regional hegemon, is clearly pessimistic on the ability to bring Muslim societies in harmony with Western institutions — and there is every reason to expect that this belief influences his views on Turkey’s stalled accession bid to the European Union and its relationships with Iran, Israel, and Syria. As long as Davutoglu is still directing things in Ankara, there are likely to be many more distressed cables from U.S. diplomats in our future.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum and is on Twitter at @mkoplow.

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