LINGUISTIC AND COMMUNAL LOYALTIES OF THE MIDEAST AND CENTRAL ASIA: A THREE PART SERIES ON THE ARABS, PERSIANS, AND TURKS
PART III: THE TURKIC PEOPLES
by A. Joseph Lynch
To many people, the word 'Turk' refers to the old Ottoman Turkic Empire and its ambitions to conquer eastern Europe and control the Mediterranean. Its more modern connotation places it with the NATO-member state of secular Turkey. While Turkey is of course a Turkic state, it stands at the far western edge of the broader Turkic steppe peoples that share a common language and generally share (with the exception of Shia Azerbaijan) a common Sunni Islamic faith. Despite their Sunni background, Sunni Arab states view them generally as outsiders due to their ethnic and linguistic differences.
Geography was also no help to the integration of Turks within the broader Islamic world as the Turks of central Asia are separated from the Sunni Arab states by the Caspian Sea and Shia Iran dominating the Iranian Plateau. Landlocked, these nations fell under the rule of Soviet communism, and are to this day drawn between Russian, Chinese, and the greater Islamic orbits. At its farthest east reaches, Turks find themselves directly under Chinese rule in Xinjang Province where Turks make up 45% of the population. China invests heavily in central Asia, in large part to keep Chinese Turks from finding an ally in its brother nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The most important Turkic player in the Mideast core is, of course, Turkey. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Turkey maintained a European orientation, joining NATO and hoping to join the EU. As the War on Terror intensified and EU membership slipped out of Turkey's grasp, Turkey's renewed Islamic faith reoriented the nation to the Mideast. At first an outsider, Turkey won renewed favor among its brethren by supporting the Palestinians and working to resolve tensions with Tehran. Having played a vital role in Islamic leadership since defeating the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071 through the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Turkey has returned from its roughly hundred-year European orientation to seek leadership in the broader Islamic world once more.
One cannot fully understand the events in the Islamic world without understanding the underlying communal loyalties of Arab, Persian, and Turkic Muslims in their Sunni and Shia faiths.
This third and final part of our series was preceded by posts on the Sunni Arab States and Persia-Shia Islam.
[This article first appeared on Anthropology of Accord on May 11, 2015]