Turkish Pan-Islamism and World Politics

By Andreas Pacher | 5 January 2018

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “Turkish Pan-Islamism and World Politics”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Friday 5 January 2018, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/2007, displayed on 02 June 2023

Not only three actors were involved in the crisis over the status of Jerusalem – not only the U.S., Israel, and Palestine but instead, fifty-seven Muslim states quickly claimed their legitimate stakes after Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Erdogan’s Turkey was at the forefront in discursively constructing the umma (the Islamic community) as the crisis' major reference point. 

Not Nation-States, but Religions in International Relations

There were no ‘international relations’ in Europe before the Italian Renaissance; for as long as the ‘West’ thought of itself as one single society of Christendom, no one conceptualized how separate political entities manage relations among each other (Mattingly 1988, 15-22). It was only the evanescence of the res publica Christiana from Medieval consciousness, and thus the heightened awareness of living under political conditions of separateness, which led to the gradual foundation of world politics as we know it today (Der Derian 1987; Sharp 2009).

Never has been a united international society based on Christianity brought up in the recent decades of International Relations (IR) theory. IR’s most prominent version, on which popular perceptions about global politics is based, is best embodied in Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979). It posits a system consisting of individual units living in separation from each other – and as these units are equalized as nation-states, this leaves no room for Christendom to possess ‘actorness’ in international politics. 

One of the units of the international system is the U.S., another one is Turkey, another one Israel (but this is contested) – and there are roughly 190 other entities, if one leaves out the complex agency of international organizations, regional groupings or unrecognized breakaway territories.

Now, when U.S. President Donald Trump announced to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, what happened? Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that such a move resembled a ‘red line’ – not for Turkey, but for Muslims

How does this fit into classical IR system theory? This would have suggested that only Israel, Palestine and the U.S. were the referential actors within the crisis over Jerusalem’s status. But by invoking this ‘polity’, Erdoğan discursively rendered Islam with an international actorness.

And this evocation of political Islam has practical repercussions. Within days, the crisis grew into a global conflict involving 57 Muslim countries from four continents: The Turkish President hastily invited leaders of all Muslim countries to an ad hoc summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul in December 2017, reaffirming Muslim solidarity towards Palestine, and recognizing East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital city (see here for more details). Not to mention that the the crisis became the focus of the 193-member body UN General Assembly soon afterwards.

How did Erdogan and his Pan-Islamism, often (but wrongly) dubbed Neo-Ottomanism, achieve such a rapid political mobilization of a global scale? How could a territorially tiny conflict become ‘internationalized’ so quickly (Carment 2009)?

The Mental Maps of Pan-Islamism

The state-centric approach to global politics, to which we are so commonly used, is overly contradictory to political reality. Erdoğan’s discourse operated at a different level, creating and recreating international agency well beyond the unit of nation-states. In fact, the whole Middle East has never smoothly fit into the state-centric thinking of Western analysts – a look at the distribution of ethnic groups or languages across the artificially created countries such as Iraq, Jordan, or Syria demonstrates this blatantly. And Turkey has been one of the most vocal actors in re-configuring the international by repeatedly invoking a Pan-Islamist stance.

Particularly revealing is Ahmet Davutoğlu, the eminent thinker of Turkish Pan-Islamism and former Foreign Minister, who claimed that ‘the defence of Eastern Thrace and Istanbul now begins in the Adriatic Sea and Sarajevo, and the defence of Eastern Anatolia and Erzurum begins in the Northern Caucasus and Grozny’ (cited in Ozkan 2014, 124). Such a mental map completely defies the territorial boundaries set by sovereign states (Deudney 2000; Henrikson 1980).

This example highlights one problem with classical IR theory: In political reality, acting units constantly oscillate (Braun, Schindler & Wille, 2018), particularly in non-Western settings (Acharya 2014). Territories and events semiotically refer to polities, but semioticians know that a semiosis – a referentiality of, say, a piece of land called ‘Jerusalem’ (signifier) to the reference point called ‘Israel’ (signified) – is never fixed (Selg & Ventsel 2010; Drechsler 2009).

Transnational Pan-Islamism: Turkey’s political asset

This Pan-Islamism is Turkey’s asset, for it is a political resource with which Turkey is able to announce geopolitical doctrines shaping larger dimensions of world politics (cf. Pamment 2014). As a discourse, Pan-Islamism has great transformative power over our perceptions of who is legitimate to exercise control over an ‘issue’. It is not a discourse descriptive of facticity, but it makes facticity (Shapiro 1980, 13-14). This ‘politics of signification’ garishly exemplifies what philosopher Jean Baudrillard (2001, 179-180) called the “disconnection, deterritorialization, [… and the] unreality of the stakes” juxtaposed with the “omnipotence of manipulation”.

Classical IR theory, which takes nation-states as fixed entities, cannot grasp with Pan-Islamism. Political Islam has always been a transnational movement. Indeed, some even argue that the Prophet Muhammad established Islam as a political entity – thus rendering it impossible to distinguish its ‘religious’ from its ‘political’ side (Lewis 1976; Roy 1994): “Islam regards the community of believers (the umma) as the most important political community”. Not Palestine, not Israel, not Turkey, but ‘Islam’ is the reference point for the crisis over Jerusalem’s status, and this referentiality happens to mobilize 57 Muslim states.

The Ottoman roots of Turkish Pan-Islamism

This Pan-Islamism has deep roots in Turkish politics. After Atatürk’s rigorously secular beginnings of modern Turkey, religious oppositionist forces (including the predecessors of today’s ruling party AKP) soon criticized the secular Kemalists for their “striving to be part of the ‘Western club’” (Ozkan 2014, 120). They instead craved to establish an Islamic Common Market under Turkish hegemony.

Davutoğlu called the contemporary Middle East infested with “geopolitical errors”, for Pan-Islamists argue that the Western-imposed borders of modern nation-states have caused the partitioning of the umma.

This line of thought’s roots can be found in the Pan-Islamists’ constant reference to Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II. (1876-1909) who sought to instrumentalize Islam with the goal to garner Muslim solidarity and thus to prevent the empire’s disintegration. Davutoğlu has often evoked the imperial legacy of the Ottoman past, contending that a Turkish economic dominance in a pan-Islam market can only be promoted by an Islamist discourse which would obtain consent by subordinates across countries.

Despite these historical roots, however, the oft-used label ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ may not be the correct term for contemporary Pan-Islamism – for the evocation of Islam as an acting unit in our times mobilizes far more actors than the ones covered by the former Ottoman empire. – Countries such as Indonesia, Uganda or Kazakhstan are part of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Communities (OIC), but do not carry direct historical Ottoman legacies.

Pan-Islamism, particularly embodied in this episode about Donald Trump’s intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, demonstrates garishly that IR’s approach of taking the sovereign nation-state as basic entities is a mistake. The international ‘actorness’ of bodies such as the EU or UN has already been highlighted by constructivists, but the political agency of religious communities such as the Islam awaits a fundamental problematization. Taking seriously non-Western approaches to IR would pose an endeavour to understand how international actorness is made and unmade (Acharya 2014). Overlooking the oscillating dynamics of the political semiosis has large-scale consequences – for one will otherwise fail to apprehend correctly the repercussions of seemingly minor territorial issues.


The crisis over the status of Jerusalem is not a mere issue between three entities – not one exclusively carried out between the U.S., Israel and Palestine. Instead, it immediately sparked the convening of 57 Muslim states within a few days, and became then the focus of 193 states represented in the UN General Assembly.

This is largely due to a Pan-Islamist approach to the issue. Turkey claimed a stake by devising discursive “modes of reality-making [… opposing] prevailing representational practices with alternatives” (Shapiro 1989, 14). In Pan-Islamist discourse, Jerusalem ceases to represent the polities of Israel and Palestine, but it is instead transformed to ‘Al-Quds Ash-Sharif’ representing the totality of Islam. Thus, Turkey – and 56 other Muslim states – can immediately claim a legitimate stake in this crisis.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, the leading Pan-Islamist thinker and politician of Turkey, wrote that “the most advantageous option enabling Turkey to become influential […] is the rise of Islamic movements” (Ozkan 2014, 131). By co-opting these, Turkey can better mobilize the like-minded who want a transnational umma to be a core reference in world politics.

Agency in international politics need to be fundamentally rethought. It is not solid, but fluid and liquid (Sending 2017) – it is constructed, reproduced, contested, or violently made mute; and sometimes, it simply vanishes over a longer period of historical transformations – as Christendom did in the Italian Renaissance. One may now await whether political Islam’s assertiveness will provoke a discursive resurrection of political Christianity.


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