Turkey’s present cannot be understood without reference to its quite recent origins. Russian czar Nicholas I is generally credited with coining the expression “the sick man of Europe,” which he used to describe the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1853. During this period, Greece, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt, and other nations within the empire were emerging from a long slumber—an awakening keenly encouraged by the Russian, British, and French armed forces. These world powers may have feigned concern at the Ottoman decline, but they actively worked to ensure that it happened. This antecedent goes some way to explaining Turkey’s current situation. In my view, the modern country is reproducing the same fragmentation and uncertainty as the Ottoman Empire—albeit on a smaller scale. Furthermore, the questions asked of the Ottomans remain relevant when put to the Turks. For example, are they European or not? They appear to think that they are, given their request to join the European Union in 1987. Their application remains under review; the Europeans themselves are unsure of how to answer the question. It’s also worth mentioning that, after conquering Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans saw themselves as the rightful heirs to the Western Roman Empire and upheld its customs and splendor until the twentieth century.
The Ottoman sultans never doubted their status as successors, and their subjects were just as cosmopolitan as Roman citizens. Even today, the elites of Istanbul are European and Western. If we look east to Anatolia, however, the people are not entirely Ottoman or European; they are genuinely Turkish or Kurdish. General Mustafa Kemal (originally from Thessaloniki in Greece) founded the modern Republic of Türkiye in 1923 amid the smoldering remains of the empire. Yet instead of creating a unified nation, he reproduced an Ottoman State and decreed that his new subjects—Greeks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Jews, and Kurds—were now Turkish. In reality, one-third of Turkey’s population is Kurdish. Successive governments in Ankara since Mustafa Kemal’s death in 1938 have seen assimilation by force as a viable solution. Military dictators have led the country more often than elected civilian governments, and when leaders are elected—such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—they become dictators, anyway.
This brings us to Europe’s second unanswered question: Is Turkey democratic? People vote, but Erdoğan’s regime is an illiberal democracy, and anything without the state’s stamp of approval is forbidden and even punishable by imprisonment. So, the Turks are not Turkish—at least, not all of them—and their “democracy” is decidedly undemocratic.
A third question adds to the confusion: Is Turkey a secular country, as Mustafa Kemal once declared, or a Muslim nation? History makes this another hard question to answer. Under the Ottoman Empire, everyone could practice the religion of his choosing and the sultan was simultaneously the head of state, the caliph of all Sunni Muslims, and heir to Muhammad himself. Kemal later stripped all rights from the mosques and the Alevi brotherhoods (associated with Iranian Shia Islam); Erdoğan has since restored them and pursued the cultural Islamization of society. Along with Turkishness and democracy, secularism also seems to exist in name only.
And this is how Turkey has become, again, the sick man of Europe. Its relations with the rest of the world are in similarly ill health. The country is a NATO member, yet Greece (another member) is its sworn enemy. It buys weapons in Russia and seems to support Vladimir Putin in Russia’s war with Ukraine. It alternates between support for and criticism of Israel in the name of Muslim solidarity. Yet this solidarity does not extend to the Uighurs, who, though Chinese, are Muslim and rooted in Turkish culture. This disease has also afflicted the economy, which has hesitated between statist and free-market models since the time of Kemal.
These behavioral maladies are compounded by the legacy of the Armenian massacres of 1915–1916. Most Western governments have recognized these events as a genocide, yet the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge them for a century. This official denial has not prevented Turkish intellectuals (including Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate in literature) from acknowledging the Armenian genocide, though they run the risk of imprisonment for violating the national honor.
By recognizing the Kurdish language, encouraging a free-market economy, and instating civilian control over the military, Erdoğan’s government had inspired hope when it took office in 2002. It was struck down by a common affliction among heads of state who stay too long in office: the accumulation of power and a ban on all criticism. This condition has combined with a specific local pathology—Erdoğan’s half-hidden desire to be a sultan and to rebuild the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps things would have been better if the Ottoman Empire had remained intact after World War I. At least it had ensured peace across the region. Since the Ottoman collapse—influenced in part by an ill-advised alliance with Germany—the Middle East has been plagued by conflict and will remain so for years. History is irreversible, though Erdoğan has failed to realize it. Turkey will remain the sick man of Europe.
Photo by Yavuz Ozden/ dia images via Getty Images