A review of Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, by Hugh Pope

Questions for the foreign policy-minded: During the Cold War, which NATO ally maintained the second-largest army? Which shared the longest frontier with the Soviet Union? If you guessed Britain and Norway, respectively, you are wrong; the answer in both cases is Turkey. Canadians of conservative bent may like to think of themselves as the forgotten ally of the United States, but the Turks surely have a stronger case—Turkey bore the burden of the Cold War to a greater extent than most of our other allies. Recall, for instance, that the denouement of the Cuban missile crisis included an agreement to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey (a decision about which the Turks were evidently not consulted).

If Americans think of Turkey at all today, it is probably in the context of its troubled history of accession negotiations with the European Union, or the country's refusal to permit transit to American troops prior to the Iraq War in 2003. Few recall Turkey's long history of ruling the Balkans, its contributions in the Korean War, or even the siege of Gallipoli in World War I (an event Australians will never forget). Still fewer are conscious of Turkey's current push for influence in Central Asia in competition with Russia, Iran, and China—a modern Great Game in which America, too, is keenly interested. We have to be reminded that the Turkic world stretches from the Adriatic to the western deserts of China, from northern Iraq and Iran to the vast steppes of Kazakhstan and southern Russia.

Hugh Pope's Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World is a significant effort to correct this gap in Americans' historical and geopolitical understanding. Pope is Istanbul correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and the book shows reportorial insight and occasional boldness. It is essentially a series of portraits of Turkish and Turkic communities (though he strangely omits northern Cyprus). Along the way in Pope's journey, we meet personalities such as Isa Alptekin, leader of the 1940s nationalist movement in Chinese Turkestan (modern Xinjiang); Islamist businessmen who have made fortunes since the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s; and young Azeris torn between Turkic identity and Russian culture. Not nomadic like the Mongols but sharing with them a love of military tradition and the hard life of the steppe, the Turks have fashioned a vibrant democracy in a relatively short time. Turkey's economic growth in recent years, based on privatization and freeing the economy, is equally impressive. (After meeting then-Prime Minister Turgut Özal, President Reagan remarked that Özal was a "real Reaganite.")

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It is hard to visit Istanbul and not be reminded of the dreams of faded empire. Or rather empires: Constantine, Justinian, Mehmet the Conqueror, among others, all ruled from the city straddling Europe and Asia. And this legacy looms large in modern Turkey. Pope introduces us to Mehmet Ali Bayar, the foreign-policy advisor to former President Demirel, whose family is from Pristina in Kosovo on his father's side and from the Caucasus and Bulgaria on his mother's side. "I haven't got a drop of Anatolian blood in my veins," he says. This phenomenon is at the center of the modern Turkish debate over identity. Chaos during and after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire changed not only Turkey's political status but with the expulsion of the Greeks and the mass murder of Armenians, its ethnic composition as well. Before WWI, explains Pope, Turkishness meant something more expansive than Turkish ethnicity and Muslim faith. Thus "[f]or 1920s Turkey, this sudden Turkish-Muslim monopoly was arguably more revolutionary than [the] new nation-state ideology." As Pope notes, "the Turkification of Anatolia [was] a triumph of national will, rather like the history of France, where few people originally spoke French. Assimilation, education, population growth and sometimes massacres mean that the proportion of those who now consider themselves ethnic Turks is more than seven in ten."

Yet if memory of lost empires alone were a sufficient bond among the nations of Europe, Turkey would have joined the E.U. long ago. The question of Turkey's relationship with Europe dominates the country's politics and reverberates in such countries as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the latter two, the question of Turkish accession influenced, perhaps decisively, the debate over the ratification of the proposed European constitution, even though it was nowhere mentioned in the document.

Europe, in Turkish lore, is the kizil elma, the "golden apple." And yet many Turks are as ambivalent about joining the E.U. as Europeans are about admitting them. Pope writes that "Turkey probably wouldn't want to join the E.U. unless it had evolved into a purely economic and trading organization." (This was Margaret Thatcher's vision of the Union, which has been strongly resisted by the French and Germans.) For Mustafa KoÇ, chairman of KoÇ Holdings, Turkey's largest company, "[t]he journey towards E.U. membership was more important than actually getting there." Pope observes that many leading Turks seemed to want "recognition of Turkish equality with Europe rather than a dilution of Turkish sovereignty in a new European partnership."

Can a large and relatively poor country like Turkey play a role in Europe? Yes—though for Turks part of the danger is that they could be seen merely as janissaries for countries to their west who choose not to support large standing armies. But the question circles round and round, admitting no clear answers. Always in the background is the Atatürkist vision of secularist integration into Europe; always in the foreground is the reality of Turkey as a nation of 80 million predominantly Muslim, relatively poor citizens. If Atatürk were alive, would his Francophilia lure him towards the E.U.—or would his nationalism rebel at the poor treatment of many Turks in western Europe, and his secularism scorn Europe for not taking a tougher line against Islamic militancy?

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The Turkic Central Asian nations are a different case. Unlike Turkey, which in the past 20 years rapidly left corporatism behind, the "stans" suffered under the Soviet yoke for 70 years. And the effects go well beyond the typical backwardness and corruption of most post-Communist countries. In the 1930s, Kazakhstan lost 1.5 million people, about 40% of its population, to a "Moscow-inflicted" famine–a percentage perhaps higher than the Ukraine suffered in its notorious famine. Stalin's nationality policy deliberately confused borders and divided ethnicities and populations. The effects of Soviet-era mismanagement of the environment are particularly tragic in Central Asia. The Aral Sea, once the world's fourth-largest lake, has shrunk by 80%.

But despite this terrible heritage, the Central Asian states still reflect to a remarkable degree their Turkish heritage. Although the Turkic world's physical boundaries have been fluid, its cultural and linguistic boundaries remain surprisingly intact even after decades, sometimes centuries, of separation from the modern Turkish heartland. Hence despite misrule and tyranny, which are thought by some to prepare the ground for radicalism's appeal, militant Islam has made few inroads into Central Asia—though these countries share borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Pope concludes, probably correctly, that the threat from Islamism in the region is remote given the "politically secular proclivity of the Turkic peoples."

Three Central Asian states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—possess vast reserves of oil and gas that are the source of prosperity for a privileged few and hold the potential for genuine national development. Oil is a mixed blessing. With oil, the author explains, "[g]overnments can fund budgets and distribute patronage without any need to consult the people, a situation that corrodes legitimacy, breeds corruption, discourages free enterprise and undermines the national sense of purpose." He rightly quotes an Azeri cleric's view that "[w]hen money comes in the door, faith leaves through the window." For "faith," one may also substitute "democratization," "civil society," and "honest government."

Some Central Asian countries have done better than others. Kazakhstan, awash in oil, features serious corruption but also the absence of terrorism. Relations with the substantial ethnic Russian minority are generally positive. Pope remarks on the "impressive bureaucrats of the Kazakh central bank and the increasingly international bankers of Almaty," whose work provides a foundation for a strong economic future, though it remains unclear how the spoils will be shared.

A less fortunate case is Turkmenistan. Pope is surprisingly lenient on its president, Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Niyazov, whose extravagant personality cult would be comic were it not for the real repression in the country. Among other lunacies, he renamed the month of April after his mother, placed his book the Rukhnama in mosques alongside the Koran, and constructed a golden statue of himself that rotates to face the sun.

But the worst comes after crossing the Chinese border. The Beijing government has sought to erase evidence of Uighur life in Xinjiang (Uighurs are a Turkic-Muslim and nomadic people), sometimes literally bulldozing old Uighur communities to make new streets for the Han Chinese population. The name of Rebiya Kadeer, the leading Uighur activist and businesswoman, deserves to be better known in the West, as do the struggles of her people. But no movie stars have converted to Uighur-inspired Islam, and so the persecution of the Uighur community is less familiar in the West than that of Tibet to the south. Still, Pope finds Turkish chocolate bars in the markets in Xinjiang and sees the faint flicker of the Turkic past in this former stop along the "Silk Road." In this remote spot, Istanbul is still closer than Shanghai.

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After September 11th, to the great annoyance of the Russians, the Turkic countries generally cooperated with the U.S. in the War on Terror. Now the situation is more complex. U.S. forces left Uzbekistan after the massacre of civilians in Andijan in May 2005, and four of the five Central Asian countries have since joined with Russia and China in forming the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, designed to counteract Western influence in the region.

Unlike the Central Asians, however, Turkey has been developing a bold foreign policy that the author describes as "self-protective, opportunistic and viscerally independent-minded." But this should not alarm the U.S., for such a foreign policy can easily align with American interests. Turks served as peacekeepers in the Balkans, reinforcing the NATO role there; and America quietly supports Turkey in the contest for influence in Central Asia. Turkey has influence with the Turkic nations in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The generally moderate face of Turkish Islam is a point of attraction to many reformers in the Iranian and Persian worlds. Although Turkey remains adamantly opposed to an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, relations with Turkey's own Kurds have improved dramatically since the capture of the terrorist Abdullah Ocalan in 1999—and as the result of Europe's pressure to improve human rights as a prelude to E.U. accession talks. More broadly, there is a meeting of the minds between Americans and Turks. As businessman Mustafa Barutçuoglu says, "It's easier to cooperate with the Americans. We're good at the small things; they're good at the big things." 

This is so even considering the most bitter disappointment in recent U.S.-Turkish relations: the Turkish Parliament's refusal to permit transit of U.S. troops before the Iraq war. As Pope recounts the story, 

politics were as strong a force as any Islamic sentiment. It was secular groups on the far left who gloated most over the discomfort of the American superpower, not the Islamists. [Prime Minister] Erdogan's pro-Islamic party sought to align itself to the United States and especially the European Union, while the 'pro-Western' army and republican establishment sought to keep Washington and Brussels at arm's length.

While the vote was distressing to the U.S., at least it was a vote in a freely elected parliament. And the resolution only failed by nine votes—surely vibrant democracy in action, even if America did not like the result.

G. H. L. LeMay, tutor of British history at Worcester College, Oxford, used to describe British diplomatic practice during the 19th century in this way: "Britain maintained ambassadors only at capitals which were of importance at any particular time." Then he would pause for dramatic effect, and say: "Always at the Porte." Pope is correct that "the Turkic world does not yet add up to the sum of its many parts." But Turkey and the Turkic world could be central to the 21st century, if they so desire.