Is turkey really a torn country? - against huntington's hypothesis
Politics | May 15, 2017 / by Saloni Rao
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The face of world politics today has seen a shift in the causality of conflict. In the 20th century, wars were fought on the basis of factors like political ideology, economic gain and expansionist policies. Political theorist Samuel Huntington (1993) says that in the near future, wars will be fought on the basis of civilizations. This means that the fault lines of the long-existing civilizational divide will develop cracks, the uneasy peace will crumble and civilisations will turn against one another in a world war.

What is a civilization?

A civilization, as defined by the Oxford dictionary is, “the society, culture and way of life of a particular area.” Huntington equates civilization with culture, and calls it a cultural entity, while also melding it with the concept of identity. He says that a civilization can be considered as the broadest level of distinction that can exist among humans, apart from that which separates us from other species. Civilizations are therefore not only characterised by certain common objective elements, such as language, culture, history, religion et cetera, but also by the subjective ‘self-identification’ of said member of a civilization. This means that beyond those certain elements that the members of a culture have in common; a person must feel the sense of belonging and membership of a civilization. They must be able to personally identify with that culture.

What are the “Eastern and Western Civilizations”?

Using Huntington’s definition of the East, he describes it as emerging in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century AD,and eventually spread across North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and South-East Asia. The Western Civilization, on the other hand, is defined by him as North America, Latin America and Europe. Therefore, Huntington uses a geographic distinction when it comes to civilizations, and he uses religion and area as a way to segregate these two civilizations.

What is a ‘Torn Country’?

Huntington speaks of a phenomenon of torn countries, where countries with a fair level of cultural homogeneity are divided over what civilization their society belongs to. This means that, most often, the political elites of a country are facing towards a certain ideology while the masses of the country face another. The leaders of these countries are those who try to follow a band-wagoning strategy and try to assimilate with a different civilization, usually the civilizations which are in power or politically superior. This may be attempted even if the people of the country have the culture, tradition and history that ties them to another civilization. In order to make this civilizational shift, Huntington enlists three requirements that must exist in the political scenario surrounding this country. The first requirement is that the political and economic leaders of the country must support this move towards the potential host civilization. Secondly, the general public of the country must at least acquiesce with this shift; without the backing of the masses it would be near impossible to move to a different civilization. Finally, the host civilization must be accepting and welcoming towards the new country in order to fully convert from one civilization to another. Huntington describes the process of civilizational redefinition and a change in cultural identity as “prolonged, interrupted, and painful, politically, socially, institutionally, and culturally.”


He says that Turkey has been vying for a spot in the civilization of the West, and is conflicted due to the long history and culture that ties it to its respective civilization. In this paper, I attempt to establish, by employing historical evidence, that Turkey is not really torn, as Huntington describes it to be, and that it has been and always will be an integral part of the Eastern (Islamic) Civilization, since its interests in the West are primarily economic.


Turkey: A Torn Country?

Ottoman Empire: Geographically, Turkey has always been on the border of the Middle-East and Eastern Europe, thus giving the impression that it might be politically on the fence as well, but it was and will be integral to the Eastern Civilization. For more than 600 years, Turkey was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, who fought to defend Islam in religious crusades in the name of ‘Jihad,’ and followed Sharia. The capital of the empire was Constantinople (now, Istanbul, a major city in Turkey). The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was also the Caliph, the supreme temporal leader of Islam, which is why Turkey stood not only as one of the largest Muslim empires but also as the heartland of Islam. The Ottomans also had the two major holy sites of the Muslims, Mecca and Medina, as a part of their territories, further emphasizing their integration in the civilization. The Ottomans often viewed Europeans with suspicion and considering them to be “uncivilized,” and the only time that Ottomans regarded Europe was during the crusades and when they wished to expand their territories.

Contrary to popular belief, the Ottomans were not opposed to other religions living within their territories. The Ottoman Sultan Mahomet II is rumoured to have once asked what he would do if he emerged victorious in capturing Christian territories, to which he responded, “By the side of every mosque, a church shall be erected where your people will be able to pray.” Therefore Turkey has always been an integral part of the Islamic civilization, even when Christian influence began to poke at the Middle East. The people of Turkey lived in the socio-religious environment where Islam was a key part of both public and private life.

Attaturk: When the Turkish War of Independence was won under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Attatürk, he rebranded Turkey as a democratic and modern country. A secular system of government was adopted and he undertook a number of measures in order to improve the social situation in the country. He gave men and women equal rights in all spheres of activity, ensuring that education for women was the focus. He also established secular courts and disbanded the Islamic courts. Though people were free to practise Islam in their private life, it was no longer a part of the public life of country. He knew that majority of Turkey followed Islam, and never made any attempt to change their personal beliefs, or denounce it in any way. The people still had a strong connection to Islam due to the very recent deposition of the Ottomans.

He adopted the Western model of government, making Turkey democratic and on 29th October 1923, it was officially proclaimed the Republic of Turkey. Therefore his pragmatism and realism ensured that he would not pick any particular sides, and he tried to benefit from good foreign relations with both the East and the West. Islam was still the primary religion of the people, and the social values and systems that were followed in the country were Islamic and characteristic of the East. Therefore, culturally Turkey neither redefined its identity, nor adopted the Western culture as its own. Huntington argues that Turkey is conflicted, but does not realise that Attaturk did not want or need to choose between one civilization or another. Civilizational identity is not black and white, and a country could be West facing with Eastern culture and society. Attaturk’s main concerns were with making Turkey a developed and modernized country with a stable economy where equal opportunities existed for all, and his motto was, “Peace at home, peace in the world.” During this time, even if Turkey could to separate from the rest of the Islamic countries, its deep ties to its cultural heritage would not allow it to do so.

Interwar Period: After the First World War, Attatürk realised that he would profit from the disharmony between the Allies, and he wanted to attract the friendship of the USA. On 9th February 1934, the Balkan Entente was signed between Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania, and on 8th July in the same year, the Saadabad Pact was signed between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. These acts represented Turkey’s policy to establish friendly relations with the Western countries and strengthen its already existing relations with the countries in the Middle East, at the tipping point of war. It was ensuring that in the impending war it was not targeted or found at a disadvantage by either side. The Turks viewed the Arabs siding with the British during World War I as a betrayal, and this shows the importance they afforded to cultural ties even after democratization and secularization. Their friendly policies gave the country an upper hand in the war, and was crucial in maintaining the strong neutrality throughout.


World War 2: During World War II, Turkey remained actively neutral, only declaring war on Germany and Japan when their defeat was inevitable, in order to qualify for membership of the United Nations. Along with Attatürk’s western model of government, the neutrality and cooperation of Turkey proved to be beneficial to the country since it became a bridge between the East and the West, and was often called an ideal balance of modernization and Islam. At this point, Turkey’s main aim was to be recognized by the West. This was not a display of desire to redefine their culture, but rather a way to actively be a part of world politics and have a strong economy.

After World War II, once the treaty of friendship between Turkey and the Soviet expired, the Soviets began making demands on Turkey, asking for land and demanding to be a permanent military presence in the area. In order to protect itself from Soviet aggression, Turkey went to America to seek assistance, and thus Turkey shifted its alliance and asked to join the NATO, not as a bid to be a part of the West, but rather as a means to prevent Soviet invasion in their country, or imposition of Soviet ideals of communism. To guarantee this membership, Turkey sent out its troops to the Korean War, therefore solidifying the bond with America and finally becoming an official member of NATO in 1952. Turkey was now benefitting economically from its friendship with the West, and still retaining its cultural heritage. This therefore showcases Turkey’s economic interests in the area, though it was still undeniably linked to the Islamic civilization, socio-culturally. Thus, their international activity was no sort of representation of Turkish culture or society. The people still remained Islamic and followed the customs and norms characteristic of the Middle East.


Cold War: During this period, Turkey was known to cooperate with other Middle-Eastern allies in the area in order to contain the influence of countries that were regarded as Soviet agents at the time. Turkey has also regularly defended its interests in areas that it considers strategically or culturally important, much to the chagrin of the USA and the United Nations. For example, a lot of friction was caused between Turkey and USA during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Therefore, Turkey has not held back from going against the Western powers as and when it serves their own interests, which could prove that Turkey’s alliance with the West is purely economic and ideological rather than cultural.

At a point in time, the Turkish economy became dependent on the aid received from the Western powers. Turkey bid for EEC membership in 1959, but lost the bid to Greece in 1981. This bid was in order to increase Turkey’s participation in the global economy, since the current financial status was well below-par due to the unstable government and military coups. This implies the interest of Turkey in Western markets as they were far more developed than those of the Eastern markets and Islamic countries at the time. Establishing that Turkey’s desperation to join the European Union was biased by the economic aid it would receive if it was a member state, rather than any desire to culturally redefine itself proves that Huntington unnecessarily clumped together eco-political and cultural identity of a country, and by this we see that Turkey’s interest so far in the Western civilization has been primarily economic in nature.


Post Cold War: A number of human rights issues and economic problems in Turkey made it unfit to be a part of the European Union, and its new bid to be a member state was rejected in 1999. Since the Communist Bloc was now destroyed, and the imminent looming threat over Turkey and its territories no longer existed, the relations of Turkey with the West changed.  All this while, relations with the Middle-East for Turkey were peaceful, and Turkey attempted to be a mediator in the Arab-Israel conflict. At this time, a lot of Turkey’s concerns were economic in nature, and this was reflected by its interest in the United States. It continued its policy of peace and cooperation with both the East and the West. Pressure for the rest of the Middle East to democratize rendered Turkey as a stable region in the area, while other Middle-Eastern countries faced potential civil uprisings. These countries could no longer play the superpowers against one another, which led to the necessity of financial independence. Turkey, being an economically and politically stable country, in relativity to the surrounding countries, made its role in maintaining regional stability crucial. Other Middle-Eastern countries received flak from the West due to their irresponsible economic policies, and therefore Turkey acted as an example to follow. This displays the integral role of Turkey in the Middle-East as a sort of leader among these nations. With Attaturk gone, the Refah (Welfare) Party in Turkey declared as its aim in the March 1994 Turkish municipal elections the “instituting of Ottoman tradition in municipal affairs,” which was an example of the numerous attempts that Turkish political parties made to embrace the past of Turkey and its Ottoman culture, emphasizing that the importance given to it was in no way dead or gone.


21st Century:  Turkey was riddled with military coups and unstable governments after Attaturk’s death and finally in 2003, the AKP came to power: Justice and Development Party (TurkishAdalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) which was a relatively stable party. The foreign policy of Turkey took a U-turn under their government and the relations with countries in the East were given more importance. The AKP has often been accused of being Islamist and often their decisions have been seen to have an Islamic colour. The party has even been supported by exiled Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gülen.  With the re-emergence of an allegedly pro-Islamic government which is democratically elected, it may be a representation of the Turkish desire to go back to its roots and embrace its Islamic heritage. Now that Turkey is seemingly turning toward the oil-rich Middle-East, it may no longer have an interest in the West. Most opposition to the AKP has been quelled by its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is the current president of the country. In a historic referendum, as of 16th April 2017, Erdogan was given the powers of executive president and all the power is concentrated in his hands. The Turkish people willingly gave up their democratic government in order to give almost dictatorial powers to Erdogan, benevolent or not. Erdogan has often been accused of being neo-Ottoman in nature. Turkey’s alliances after the AKP came into power have often been towards the Islamic countries. This was proven by Turkey’s opposition to support America during the second Gulf War and the increasing friction with the NATO in recent times, which has antagonised the NATO countries.  



In conclusion, we see that culturally, Turkey has always been an important part of the East, and its concentration on the West has simply been out of economic and developmental interest. With its change in policy and its recent support of the Eastern states, it has time and again proven its integrity to the Middle-East. Turkish citizens live in a developed country, but its socio-religious environment remains highly Middle-Eastern and Islamic in nature. Erdogan has also stated that Turkey will not turn its back on or turn against the Middle-East. The people of Turkey have maintained their culture and there has been no attempt to redefine the culture or social environment in the country. Though steps have been taken to modernize Turkey, there have been few actual attempts to westernize Turkey. All leaders of Turkey have accepted the importance of the Middle-Eastern countries to Turkey, and vice-versa. Turkey once held the seat of the Caliphate, and Mecca and Medina fell under its territories. This is not something easily forgotten by either Turks or Muslims all over the world. Therefore Turkey is in no way a torn country, as Huntington describes these to be culturally torn, while Turkey’s primary interest in the West is not that of culture, but of economic advantage and development in the nation. Since Turkey has adopted the Western model of government, as well as tried to nurture values that are held important in the west, such as equality and democracy, it may be wrongly conceived as a torn country. Turkey is a West-facing country, but in no way a country that emulates the West culturally. Contrary to Huntington’s arguments, it is possible for a country to be West-facing and yet be an integral part of the East, culturally. It is not an “either-or” situation, and Turkey has managed to get the best of both worlds, so far. It was one of the first Islamic states to adopt democracy and smoothly accept such a system of government, especially after the autocratic Ottoman rule. With the increasing xenophobia and Islamophobia in the world, especially propagated by the West, Turkey is unlikely to ever make any bids to join the West culturally, reflected by its change in policies and its increasing interest in Middle-Eastern matters. This being said, it still remains in a grey area due to its official status of a secular and democratic country which follows general law rather than Sharia. Huntington therefore seems to be flawed in his belief that a country must be “either-or” in terms of their civilization, as Turkey has remained in a grey area in terms of this since the time of Attaturk in the early and mid 20th century.


  1. Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, 72(3), 22.
  2. Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster. p.139, p.144 – p.149
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  6. Taylor, A. (2016, July 19). Analysis | Turkey’s increasingly complicated relationship with NATO. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

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Written By Saloni Rao

If I knew myself better, I would tell you.

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