The EU could be considered a “pseudo-empire”. It does indeed exercise a certain kind of central control over a collection of nations. But that control is limited to certain areas and is ratified by referenda and national governmental assemblies. The EU was not created through conquest (although it was in part a response to the conquest of Europe by the Nazis).
It was hoped that this kind of peaceful “pseudo-empire” or “pseudo-federation” would serve as a model for political “progress” in the Middle East. Turkish “democracy” was to serve as the shining example of a meeting between East and West, between Islam and the post-Enlightenment liberal political tradition. In time, economic and political development would lead to a real peace between the nations of the Middle East that transcended ethnic and religious lines, a peace built on co-operation and tolerance. No such hope materialized, of course – at least not in the way that Western liberals had hoped.
Closer co-operation between Turkey and Iran (e.g. Turkey’s desire to be a mediator between Iran and the West over her nuclear aspirations), has proved a source of fear – fear that Turkey is embracing a neo-Ottoman narrative as outlined by Ahmet Davutoglu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A vexing question regarding this co-operation is both countries’ imperial aspirations in the Middle East. The presence of Iranian soldiers acting as military advisors in Iraq has led to speculations regarding a possible Iranian attempt to annexe Iraq or to control Iraq through a puppet-government. Turkish troops sent to Syria to protect the (empty) tomb of Suleyman Shah was widely regarded as a thinly veiled attempt to establish Turkish sovereignty over Syrian territory (or to provoke a reaction from Syria that would serve as a pretext for invasion).
This question of political boundaries in the Middle East will not go away. For the present ISIS holds its territory while the Kurds, Syrians, and Iraqis chip away at it. But the regime cannot last forever; while many disaffected Muslims are still flocking to their banner, they lack legitimacy in the eyes of leading Islamic authorities – and these authorities still have influence in the Islamic world. At some point they will be defeated or collapse, and that will provoke the question of what should be done with northern Iraq.
The narrative of the Western political elite tends towards nationalism rather than empire for this question. “Create an independent Kurdish state!” is a common enough cry. But will the Kurds and the West be in a position to obtain this “solution”? Neither Turkey nor Iran would support this move – they fear that the Kurds within their own political borders would move to secede and join the new Kurdish state in Iraq. Under the current political climate we have no stomach to upset Iran, and Turkey’s place in NATO limits the ability of the West to restrain the aspirations of Erdogan. Indeed, as Turkey’s democratically-elected leader, the West cannot oppose Erdogan without appearing as hypocrites.
Russia, as Turkey’s long-standing enemy, is the only one in a position to oppose Turkey. But the West has chosen a path of antipathy towards Russia and neither side possesses the humility to admit to this foolishness. We might accuse the East of intransigence over “honour”, but actually our own governments and diplomats have shown the same tendency.
The result of these policy failures of recent years is a set of misalignments. Part of Trump’s popularity springs from the supposition that he and Putin would be able to work together, that they would have a better relationship than Putin and the current administration have experienced. It is not that Putin appears to be a good man to such people – rather, they value a positive relationship with Russia more than other considerations.
The future of our relations with the Middle East is impossible to predict. It is important that governments and electorates in the West consider hard what their real values and principles are, and where they should be flexible. As Christians we need to remember that political constitutions are not the primary consideration for our political theology. Peace, security, justice – these things are more important. S. Paul advised the churches to pray for the well-being of their political leaders, and to respect their authority and power. He told the Romans that leaders were provided by God to administer justice and to protect people.
When asked to give an account of my antipathy towards the current regime in Turkey, I am not concerned if my opponents label me as “undemocratic” – I am concerned about the intentions of the government towards minorities, towards Christians, towards their neighbours in the Middle East.