Religion as a Determinant of Foreign Policy in Secularist States: Comparing the Cases of Turkey and Syria

By Ioannis N. Grigoriadis
Submitted to Session P2419 (Explaining Turkey's New Activism in the Middle East: Between Identity and Realpolitik, 2010 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Syria; Turkey;
Arab Studies; Comparative; Foreign Relations; Turkish Studies;
This paper aims to explore the extent to which religion has affected foreign policy decision-making in two countries which have officially professed secularism, namely Turkey and Syria. Militant secularism has been one of the foundational elements of the republic of Turkey, as Islam has been considered as one of the main reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire. This had an influence on foreign policy, as Turkey favoured relations with Western countries and neglected its Middle East neighbourhood despite century-old political and cultural links. This trend has been questioned since the rise of the post-Islamist Justice and Development Party to power in 2002. Under the AKP Turkish foreign policy regarding the Palestinian question has become progressively more balanced and even tilted towards the Palestinian side. Similarly relations with Islamic countries, such as Malaysia, Iran and the Gulf states notably improved. Syria has been a country ruled by a secular military regime which had its roots in the country's Alawite minority and professed strict Baath-style secularism. Yet this did not prevent Syria from developing close diplomatic relations with Iran, the region's theocratic republic. Its involvement in Lebanon through the Shiite group Hezbollah or in the Palestinian question through Hamas has also manifested that Syria could use religion as a tool in its foreign policy. In both countries, secularism has historically one of the most important political control levers to keep the large Sunni majority under control. Nonetheless, one can observe that established versions of secularism have come under increasing pressure. Reference to religious social values has increased in domestic and foreign policy discourses.
The proposed paper aims to explore the role of religion in past and present foreign policy planning and making of Turkey and Syria. The shift from more secular to more religious views of foreign policy will be examined. It will also investigate the possible interaction between secular and religious groups in the formation of national interest and foreign policy in Turkey and Syria. This paper will explore to what extent the observed increased role of religion in foreign policy making can be linked to the global resurgence of religion as an ideational factor or changes specific to the countries under examination. The paper will conclude with an evaluation of whether religion is in fact instrumentalized by secularly-thinking foreign policy makers or there is a genuine shift towards a religious understanding of foreign policy.