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Political Analysis

Islam as a Public Diplomacy Tool: The Turkish case

By definition, Public Diplomacy (PD) is carried out by official bodies, wherein the target audience is the population of a foreign country.[i] However, the domestic audience may also be considered when analyzing a given PD strategy.[ii] On this basis, this article argues that, in order to study the Turkish case, it is worth exploring at how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – the ruling political party that has not only transformed the domestic political structure in Turkey, but has also altered its foreign policy – may be promoting a neo-Ottoman tendency to organize a foreign policy that is nostalgic of Ottoman imperial times.

The term neo-Ottomanism denotes Turkey’s aspirations to become a regional power, and may be interpreted as Turkey’s foreign policy strategy under the AKP, which has been focused on expanding Turkey’s relations with the former Ottoman territories.[iii] According to Yilmaz Çolak (2006, 588), cited in Senem Çevik (2019), neo-Ottomanism is the rewriting of Turkish history on the basis of a shared Ottoman past in a globalizing context. Since its ascendance to power, Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions under the AKP have been labelled as neo-Ottoman because of multiple factors that stretch from their Islamist heritage to their present-day policies in former Ottoman territories,[iv] such as providing humanitarian aid to Muslim communities or helping diasporic communities campaign for religious rights and identity.

The preaching of Islam has been used as a vehicle of soft power that increases the positive awareness of a moderate Islamic Turkey.


The following are some arguments that are developed in order to expand the current debate regarding Turkey’s foreign policy and how religion may be understood as a PD strategy; specifically, how the preaching of Islam has been used as a vehicle of soft power that increases the positive awareness of a moderate Islamic Turkey.

Talk of Turkish foreign policy as strongly inclined towards the idea of a return to the Ottoman past may be seen as biased according to Hüsrev Tabak (2014), who points out that framing Turkey’s humanitarian and cultural diplomacy as Islamic is nothing more than the result of an ideological state of mind.[v] However, as George Chaya (2019) argues, the activities of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) abroad, with some 2,000 mosques and funding for religious education in European, Latin American, and African countries, thus promoting Turkish culture, may be a deliberate strategy that contributes to the positioning of Turkey as an example of less radical Islam and justifies the foundations of a neo-Ottoman foreign policy.[vi]

The Ottoman Dream was a goal to create a common identity among the Empire’s subjects, making it easier to face domestic and international challenges posed by nationalism and colonization.


From this controversy stems the proposal that, in the Turkish case, Islam plays a fundamental role when it comes to thinking about PD strategies. One can perceive a foreign policy strategy that is gradually turning towards the Ottoman Dream, for Turkey is diversifying its geopolitical options by creating Turkish zones of influence in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East[vii] with the hopes of attaining regional leadership, patronage of the Muslim world, and a strong presence in many of the major conflicts in its neighbourhood.[viii] It is important to highlight that, in the Ottoman context, the Ottoman Dream was a goal to create a common identity among the Empire’s subjects, making it easier to face domestic and international challenges posed by nationalism and colonization.[ix]

The AKP, for its part, left a mark regarding Turkish foreign policy during the first decade of the 21st century. Transitioning from zero problems with neighbours to a more nationalist policy has been one of the areas in which successive governments of the AKP have been most energetic.[x] 

Soft Power and the Construction of a Neo-Ottoman Turkey

Joseph Nye (2008) & Nicholas Cull (2009) agree that PD is a tool that originates from the state itself and is used to mobilize the state’s communication and relationship resources to engage the publics of other countries, rather than simply their governments. This also involves building long-term relationships that create an enabling environment for the government’s policies.[xi]

PD uses the soft power framework defined by Joseph Nye (2008) as the ability of a state to achieve its goals through attraction and persuasion to a country’s policies, culture or values, to go beyond traditional diplomacy and reach out to the general public.[xii] In other words, the attempt by an actor to manage the international environment by engaging with a foreign audience can be a state or any other actor on the world stage.[xiii] Under this approach, religion and Islam represent strategies that Turkey has adopted in its attempt to manage its engagement with foreign publics for the purpose of promoting the Ottoman past and what Erdoğan’s AKP considers the traditional Turkish way of life.

In Turkey, the concept of soft power was introduced in the mid-2000s following a more assertive foreign policy agenda under the AKP. However, a series of domestic conflicts, such as rising nationalistic sentiments and security-approach priorities, the stalling of the Kurdish settlement process between 2013-15 and reforms toward other minority groups, the AKP’s fallout with the Gülenist network, among others[xiv] have impacted Turkey’s current soft power.

Currently in Turkey, television series have become instruments to legitimize the existing nationalism and the growing Islamist discourse.


Like religion, television seems to be operating as a soft power strategy in today’s Turkey. It is worth asking whether these soft power tools may represent a form of propaganda for the AKP.[xv] It is certain that TV series like Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Resurrection Ertuğrul, and Payitaht were not originally produced with the intention of being marketed to foreign audiences. However, multiple reasons facilitated the emergence of Turkish television as a platform for content export.[xvi] There is a close connection between Turkish television businesses and politics, which inevitably shapes the television content. The concentration of television media ownership in the hands of those who also sit in parliament for the AKP prevents the expression and representation of dissenting voices. Currently in Turkey, television series have become instruments to legitimize the existing nationalism and the growing Islamist discourse.[xvii]

An emblematic example of this is Resurrection Ertuğrul, a program about the establishment of the Ottoman Empire. Produced by Tekden Film, a company founded by Kemal Tekden, an AKP member of the Turkish parliament, the series seeks to strike a chord with the national audience by appealing to the founding myth of the Ottoman Empire. Despite having underlying political messages for the domestic audience with the aim of enhancing a new Turkish nationalism, Resurrection Ertuğrul has gained popularity around the world, with fans ranging from South Africa to Chile to Pakistan.[xviii] Turkish historical television series have become vehicles for promoting a specific understanding of Ottoman history and are directly intended to influence domestic voters. How state-sanctioned historical series translate into Turkish foreign policy and whether they influence public opinion has yet to be studied. However, pertinent scholars, such as Senem Çevik (2019), Kerem Öktem (2012), and Omar Al-Ghazzi and Marwan Kraidy (2013) point out that this new trend should open up interesting conversations about cultural proximity and neo-Ottomanism.[xix]

At this point, it makes sense to return to the idea that Islam plays a fundamental role as a PD strategy in Turkey. There seems to be a shift in foreign policy from a secular and Kemalist society to a neo-Ottoman Turkey, where Islam plays a predominant cultural and political role.

Turkish Diyanet as a Public Diplomacy strategy

In Turkey, under the leadership of Erdoğan and the AKP, Islam has become the tool to promote Turkish culture and traditions and the idea that Turkey is a less radical example of an Islamic country like Iran and Saudi Arabia.[xx]

With the rise to power of the AKP, the Diyanet has undergone a major change, for one of its main objectives is to promote a conservative, Islamic lifestyle within and outside Turkish borders.


This is striking given that since the 1930s, Turkey has been characterized as a secular state. However, looking at this issue from a historical perspective, it is interesting to note that when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate, he founded the Diyanet, whose mission was to control the religious sectors in order to direct efforts towards the achievement of a new secular Republic. The founding mentality of the Diyanet reflects the nationalist-positivist perspective of the early republican elite on religion in the public sphere. With the rise to power of the AKP, the Diyanet has undergone a major change, for one of its main objectives is to promote a conservative, Islamic lifestyle within and outside Turkish borders. Thus, it has been transformed into a foreign policy tool used to enhance Turkish identity, state connectedness, and religious unity even outside Turkey’s borders.[xxi]

The Diyanet has had political undertones that seeks to control everything related to religious affairs given its origins and structure. Social engineering is then characteristic of this institution, which adapts according to the socio-political imaginary of the ruling party. It has been a key apparatus for the policies carried out through political and legal organizations in the country. Law 633, which allows structural changes – i.e., linking the institution to the President of the Republic – was rescinded and repealed by the Constitutional Court in 1979. Yet, in 2010, Law 633 was reinstated. This makes it possible for the AKP to control the Diyanet.[xxii]

To speak of the Diyanet as a DP tool is to refer to its transnationalization stage initiated in the last years of the AKP.[xxiii] The praxis of foreign policy change was formulated and implemented by Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, who argued that Turkey may become a world power in the post-Cold War context, providing that it pursued an expansionist foreign policy based on an Islamist ideology. Davutoğlu focused on the ontological differences between Islam and other civilizations, particularly the West, and argued that these differences caused an obstacle to the study of contemporary Islam as a social science subject, especially in international politics. By this means, encourages the use of Islam as a power element of foreign policy.[xxiv]

Today, imams representing the Diyanet are compared to diplomatic officials as Ankara offers them similar benefits, treatment, and consideration. They also act as representatives of the state. For nearly a century of history, the Diyanet has walked a fine line dividing a country that is both secular and Muslim.[xxv]

All indications are that the Diyanet, as an important but subordinate state institution, has been strongly influenced by every major political change in Turkey. From the secular and western era to the present day, Turkey is inclined towards moderate Islam. The Diyanet, with its established and strong institutional capacity, has nurtured political ends such as the transformation of Turkish understanding of laiklik and particularly the rise of AKP succeeded in integrating a religious discourse into various fields of policymaking, those within the country’s borders and beyond.[xxvi] It is clear that speaking of Islam and religion as PD tools would not be far-fetched upon trying to explain the Turkish case.

“Winning wars but losing at the tables”

According to Efe Sevin (2016), there is a Turkish saying that sums up Turkish history as winning wars but losing at the tables. It is believed that although Turkish armies have won their battles, their lack of diplomatic skills have caused them to lose in negotiations involving, for example, international treaties. [xxvii] While it is true that the Turkish PD is rich in actors, it does not seem to be rich in co-ordination: there is no co-operation between academia and practice, firstly because of the domestic component attributed to the PD and secondly, because of the lack of incentives to develop research in this field of study.[xxviii]

It has been worthwhile to review this case study to understand that Turkey’s foreign policy is strongly influenced by national interest and domestic issues and that certain Turkish institutions have been exercising PD functions for almost a century of history, something that generates concern, especially in the West, who perceive that Turkey is heading more and more towards the return of an Islamic state.

This article is relevant given Turkey’s geopolitical position: it is important to remain on the alert regarding this case-study and to assess whether, through its PD, Turkey may manage to convince the foreign and mainly European public about the idea of a neo-Ottoman Turkey in the sphere of diplomacy.

[i]Szondi, Gyorgy. Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding: conceptual similarities and differences. Leeds Beckett University. 2008.
[ii]Melissen, Jan. The new Public Diplomacy. Soft Power in International Relations. Clingendael diplomatic studies programme. Netherlands institute of international relations, clingendael. 2005.
[iii]Çevik, Senem B. Turkish historical television series: public broadcasting of neo-Ottoman illusions. Department of Global and International Studies, University of California. 2019.
[iv]IDEM
[v] Hüsrev Tabak, Religiously Framing Turkey’s Humanitarian and Cultural Diplomacy. Daily Sabah, 29 October, 2014. https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/2014/10/29/religiously-framing-turkeys-humanitarian-and-cultural-diplomacy
[vi]George, Chaya, Turquía hace diplomacia desde las mezquitas a través del Diyanet. Disponible en: https://www.infobae.com/america/mundo/2019/02/16/turquia-hace-diplomacia-desde-las-mezquitas-a-traves-del-diyanet/
[vii]Trifkovic, Srdja. Turkey as a Regional Power: Neo-ottomanism in Action. 2011.
[viii]Benhaïm, Yohanan & Öktem, Kerem. The rise and fall of Turkey’s soft power discourse. Discourse in foreign policy under Davutoğlu and Erdoğan. European Journal of Turkish Studies. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.5275. 2015.
[ix] Albayrak, Didem Özdemir & Turan, Kürşad. Neo-Ottomanism in Turkish Foreign Policy Through the Lenses of the Principal-Agent Theory. SSPS, Vol., 1, Issue 1. 2016.
[x]Meliha Benli Altunisik, La política exterior de Turquía en el siglo XXI. CIBOD, December 2010, https://www.cidob.org/articulos/anuario_internacional_cidob/2011/la_politica_exterior_de_turquia_en_el_siglo_xxi accessed 10 April 2021.
[xi](Nye, 2008: 95). Cited in Merino, Carolina. Gastrodiplomacia: la nueva estrategia de Diplomacia Pública. Cuadernos de Estudios Internacionales, nº 4 – 2016, Diplomacia Pública. (2016).
[xii]Merino, Carolina. Gastrodiplomacia: la nueva estrategia de Diplomacia Pública. Cuadernos de Estudios Internacionales, nº 4 – 2016, Diplomacia Pública. (2016).
[xiii](Cull, 2009: 56). Cited in Merino, Carolina. Gastrodiplomacia: la nueva estrategia de Diplomacia Pública. Cuadernos de Estudios Internacionales, nº 4 – 2016, Diplomacia Pública. (2016).
[xiv]Çevik, Senem B. Reassessing Turkey’s Soft Power: The Rules of Attraction. First Published June 24, 2019 Review Article. https://doi.org/10.1177/0304375419853751. Volume: 44 issue: 1, page(s): 50-71. 2019.
[xv]IDEM.
[xvi]Salamandra, (2012) Cited in Çevik, Senem. Turkish historical television series: public broadcasting of neo-ottoman illusions. Southeast European and black sea studies, 19:2, 227-242, doi: 10.1080/14683857.2019.1622288 to link to this article: https://doi.org/ 2019.
[xvii]Çevik, Senem. Turkish historical television series: public broadcasting of neo-ottoman illusions. Southeast European and black sea studies, 19:2, 227-242, doi: 10.1080/14683857.2019.1622288 to link to this article: https://doi.org/ 2019.
[xviii]Çevik, Senem, The ottomans on TV: a new Turkish genre, USC Center Of Public Diplomacy, 16 September 2019, https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/blog/ottomans-tv-new-turkish-genre accessed 10 April 2021.
[xix]IDEM.
[xx]George Chaya, Turquía hace diplomacia desde las mezquitas a través del Diyanet. Infobae, 16 February 2019, https://www.infobae.com/america/mundo/2019/02/16/turquia-hace-diplomacia-desde-las-mezquitas-a-traves-del-diyanet/ accessed 10 April 2021.
[xxi]Maritato (2015: 434) Cited in Öztürk, Ahmet. Religion as a Foreign Policy tool. Transformation of the Turkish Diyanet both at home and abroad: three stages. European journal of Turkish studies social sciences on contemporary turkey. 2008.
[xxii]Öztürk, Ahmet. Religion as a Foreign Policy tool. Transformation of the Turkish Diyanet both at home and abroad: three stages. European journal of Turkish studies social sciences on contemporary turkey. 2008.
[xxiii]IDEM.
[xxiv]IDEM.
[xxv]IDEM.
[xxvi]IDEM.
[xxvii]Sevin, Efe, Turkish Public Diplomacy: Study and Practice, 12 January 2016, https://efesevin.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/turkish-public-diplomacy-study-and-practice/ accessed 26 April 2021.
[xxviii]IDEM.