- A visit at a critical time
The visit of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan to Pakistan was by no means his first. His address to the joint sitting of Parliament was his fourth, and he had been around often enough for an opposition leader on a previous visit, one who had led a walkout during his speech, to now be the Prime Minister who listened in rapt attention.
President Erdogan has one major reason to value Pakistan: the old relationship between the two countries, that is not solely because both are large Muslim countries. One important commonality is the Turkish connection. Turkey was originally Byzantine, Greek, Thracian and Illyrian. However, Turks from Central Asia moved into it, and conquered it. The entire population was Turcised, and when a new country emerged after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, it was as Turkey.
Turks provided the rulers for the Delhi Sultanate, though there were a number of other dynasties coming from Afghanistan. It could be said that even Afghanistan is basically a borderland for essentially Turkic peoples, the Afghans are a kind of ‘mountain Turk’ (a term used more commonly for Kurds). Be that as it may, the apotheosis of the Delhi Sultanate came in the shape of the Mughal dynasty. Though called Mongols because of their descent from Tamerlane, the founder of the dynasty, was an Uzbek, his birthplace in modern Uzbekistan. It is one of the Central Asian Republics, but it is part of what was known as ‘Soviet Turkestan’. Turkey has always had a particular interest in the CARs because of their being Turkic.
The Mughals had always remained proud of their Turkic heritage, making sure that their scions learnt the language. Even as late as 1739, the Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila was able to chat in Turkish with the Persian Emperor Nader Shah, when he sacked Delhi. It was thus in 1912 when the Ottoman was about to fight its last war in the Balkans, after which it had to concede territory to Greece, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia, that a medical mission from India went to Turkey, consisting of Muslim doctors. It was led by Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, and organised by Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, later the one who led the Khilafat Movement along with his brother Maulana Shaukat Ali.
The Ali Brothers ended up in the Congress, after the Khilafat Movement was taken over by Gandhi. However, not only was that supposed to be one of the preliminary phases of the Pakistan Movement, but it also created an attitude towards the Muslims of India among the Turkish people, a debt which remains to this day. It is important to note that this was not a Pan-Islamist movement, because the Ottoman Sultan who had appealed most strongly to Pan-Islamism, Abdul Hamid II, had been deposed, and the Ansari Mission had gone to the help of a Young Turk government, which wanted the non-Arab Ottoman lands to form their own countries, as they ultimately did Turkey.
Pakistan was never an Ottoman land, and Indian Muslims only accepted the Ottoman Caliphate after the fall of the Mughal dynasty. Yet after it came into being, it grew closer to a secular Turkey. The two countries needed to industrialise, particularly build fence industries. That cooperation has now begun. The ties that bind the two nations are rooted in history, and are more than those to newer friends, for both
Another bond was the admiration among the Muslims of India, then among Pakistanis, for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His secularising mission was generally welcomed, and the backlash against him, even among Turks (of which Erdogan is a representative), was far in an unimaginable future.
Yet at the same time, Erdogan mentioned Gallipoli, using it as a metaphor for Turkey’s support for the Kashmiri people. Gallipoli is one of the great battles of World War I, where the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) landed on Gallipoli, an island just off Istanbul, and where both sides lost a quarter of a million troops each before the invasion was called off. Gallipoli also played a crucial role in building the legend of Ataturk, for that is the site of the story familiar to every Pakistani schoolboy, of how he remained unruffled under fire even though his wristwatch was hit.
At the moment, one of the more important aspects of the Turkish relationship is its unswerving support to Kashmiris ever since the August 5 lockdown began. Like Pakistan’s support of Palestinians being fervent because of the Kashmir cause, Turkey’s support of Kashmir is because it sees the resemblance between that and the Cyprus issue. Pakistan too supports the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which also is one of the problems created because of British decolonisation.
Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan are the three giants of the Islamic world’s heartland. Indonesia, while more populous than all three, is peripheral. All three have a history of being bitten by British decolonisation. Pakistan was actually part of a British colony, and was left to deal with the Kashmir problem. Egypt had actually been an Anglo-French condominium, but was nominally independent when it had to deal with the creation of Israel in the British mandate of Palestine. Turkey first found itself occupied by Britain and France after World War I, and then found itself opposing Greece, which had broken off from it in 1822. However, British messiness was best illustrated by the independence it gave to Cyprus in 1960, followed by the 1974 partition of the island between Turks and Greeks, after Turkey had to invade to prevent enosis, which was the merger of Cyprus into Greece. The three binaries were thus set up: Pakistan-India, Egypt-Israel and Turkey-Greece.
One result has been over-powerful militaries. Egypt has the longest experience of military rule in modern times, which was first imposed in 1952, and continued until the Arab Spring led to an Ikhwanul Muslimeen president, who was replaced by the current ruler, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi. Turkey was founded by a military man (Ataturk had risen to brigadier-general under the Ottomans, becoming a marshal under the Republic), and was subject to frequent military coups. Pakistan too is a democracy, but with a military that looms large in its affairs. Egypt has made peace with Israel through the Camp David Accords, and Turkey with Greece as the former wants to join the European Union, of which the latter is already a member. Pakistan has not yet made peace with India. Pakistan and Turkey were part of CENTO, along with Iran.
In Ottoman times, Iran (or rather Persia) was the main opponent of Turkey to the East. Culturally, though, was another matter. Pakistan too, as the heir of the Mughals, was also influenced by Persia. It was therefore something of an inevitability that Turkey and Iran were at the Kuala Lumpur Summit, which Pakistan was supposed to attend, but didn’t, because of Saudi pressure. Turkey and Malaysia are at the centre of a push for non-Arab countries to take the vanguard role, so far conceded to Saudi Arabia, in the Islamic world.
Erdogan’s visit again made Pakistanis aware that the Arab world had tilted in favour of India over Kashmir. However, there are problems ahead. Pakistan wants to keep on the right side of China, but Erdogan does not. He has put himself at the head of the Islamic world, and has tried to highlight the issues of the Rohingya and the Uighurs. Both bring him up against China, which supports Myanmar in its handling of the Rohingya issue, and is itself accused of mistreating the Uighurs. The Uighurs’ Xinjiang Region is also East Turkestan, which gives Erdogan a nationalist reason to intervene, as well as an Islamic one. Pakistan has a relationship with China, which puts it at odds with Turkey on this count.
Pakistan was never an Ottoman land, and Indian Muslims only accepted the Ottoman Caliphate after the fall of the Mughal dynasty. Yet after it came into being, it grew closer to a secular Turkey. The two countries needed to industrialise, particularly build fence industries. That cooperation has now begun. The ties that bind the two nations are rooted in history, and are more than those to newer friends, for both.