For decades, middle easterners have seen Turkey as a western stooge. Now, with cooler US-Turkish relations and a more Islamic government in Ankara, the middle east is warming to its northern neighbourby Hugh Pope / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
The idea of a “Turkish model” that might calm and give a sense of direction to the middle east has often been conjured up in recent decades by hopeful policymakers, mostly in Washington and London. Few people in the middle east took much notice. Arabs and Iranians have long been distrustful towards the Turks, and the compliment was returned. The more easterly Muslims felt that the Turks’ relegation of Islam to the private sphere was too westernised, practically infidel.
So when I turned a corner in the stone-vaulted bazaar of the Palestinian town of Nablus recently, I was astonished to see a forest of Turkish star-and-crescent flags decking out an archway into one of the ancient shops. Never before had I seen spontaneous enthusiasm for modern Turkey in the Arab world: the image of Turkey in Arab nationalist propaganda since the 1950s is that of an American pawn that betrayed its Muslim heritage by befriending the Jewish state.
Perhaps, I thought, the shopkeeper was a traditionalist, hankering after the four centuries in which the Ottomans ran the middle east. But when I asked him to explain the flags, he just pointed around the shop.
“It’s the jeans,” he replied. “I’ve had a new shipment from Istanbul. I wanted to let everyone know.”
I soon began to notice the growing soft power of Turkey elsewhere in the middle east. In Kurdish Iraq, billboards advertise Turkish air-conditioners even in high mountain passes, despite the tension with Turkey over Kurdish hopes for independence. In Iran, once so scornful of the “Turkish donkey,” beach-and-sun advertisements seduce hundreds of thousands to visit the Turkish riviera. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has openly declared his interest in Turkey’s achievements and this summer made the first visit of a Saudi monarch to the country in decades. In October, as Turkish troops began arriving in Lebanon for the new peacekeeping force, there was none of the old chorus of Arab protest at any Turkish involvement in the middle east.
Turkey has changed too. While the country was once determinedly secular and westward-looking, its dominant political group since 2002, the Justice and Development (AK) party, has its roots in Islamist politics. Turkey now shows a measured readiness to embrace middle eastern partners. At the same time, the west seems further away. Despite Turkish membership of Nato and US advocacy of its application to join the EU, most ordinary Turks express almost middle eastern levels of anti-Americanism, especially since the invasion of Iraq. Turkey’s former enthusiasm to pursue its hard-won candidacy for full EU membership has been deflated by the Europeans’ undisguised fatigue over further expansion. Turkey is not, however, moving “east” instead of “west.” Rather it is feeling more confident in being part of both. Relations with Russia and the former Soviet bloc are also blossoming. In some ways, Turkey is reassuming the regional influence traditionally bestowed by the mastery of the Turkish straits and Anatolia, a geographical position that anchored the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
Arab opinion about Turks once focused on the final, weak Ottoman decades, with its memories of hangings of Arab nationalists, unjust taxation and grandfathers pressed into military service. Now middle easterners’ disillusionment with the failures of Arab nationalism and the extremism of fundamental Islam is making them reassess the Turkish route. Middle easterners are starting to think about why it is that Turkey boasts the biggest economy, the strongest military and the deepest-rooted democracy in the Muslim world. Per capita income in Turkey’s $570bn economy still lags behind the small oil-rich Gulf states, but it has tripled in the past decade to over $5,000. Foreign investment is soaring and Turkish companies are making inroads into European markets—one Turkish company, the Koç Group, controls over 15 per cent of the British market in fridges, freezers and cookers. More and more opinion leaders see hope in what appears to be Turkey’s successful synthesis of Islam and modernity—even if arguments continue, in the middle east as in Turkey, over whether it is a victory for modernity or for Islam.
“Turkish progress did not just happen by chance; it was the result of a long and systematic process,” wrote Wael Mirza in the Saudi Arabian newspaper al-Watan just after the AK party’s arrival in power in November 2002. “Arab Islamists have stalled at the stage of saying ‘Islam is the solution’… while Turkey’s Islamists have succeeded in catching up with the modern age.” The Egyptian thinker Abdel Monem Said Aly went so far as to claim that the rise of the Turkish Euro-Islamists “may have brought within reach a solution to the problem of religion and the state in the Arab and Islamic world.”
Meanwhile, Turkey is exploiting its new authority in the Muslim middle east. In the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the broad assembly of 57 Muslim states, Turkey in 2004 mobilised a majority against the conservative Arab nationalists who had long dominated the group. In the OIC’s first secret vote, a Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, was elected secretary-general against the wishes of Saudi Arabia (see Ehsan Masood’s interview with Ihsanoglu, Prospect October 2004). A theologian with an academic past spanning east and west, Ihsanoglu showed the organisation’s new character in a 2005 speech before the Council of Europe, setting out a course for the building of a common future for the west and moderate Islam.
In the old days, when Turkey offered itself as a go-between in middle east disputes, the Arab states scorned it. Now Turkish diplomats are everywhere. Turkey played a small role in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. Last September, the Turkish foreign minister arranged a meeting in Istanbul between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, the first ever public high-level contact between the two countries. Turkish reassurances helped persuade mainstream Sunni Muslim groups to participate in the 2005 Iraqi elections.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel, in 1949, building on a long history that saw Turks welcome Jews fleeing inquisition-era Spain and Nazi Germany. The relationship became even warmer in the 1990s and Turkey allowed Israeli warplanes to train over the vast Anatolian plateau. But things have cooled since the collapse of the Oslo peace process, and middle easterners now note the angry tone that slips into the voice of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he criticises Israel. Still, more than half his cabinet has visited Israel in the past few years.
The Turkish-middle eastern relationship was an unhappy one in the first part of the 20th century. Under the modernising hand of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey turned its back on its eastern co-religionists. It dissolved the Islamic caliphate in 1924, changed from Arabic to the Latin alphabet in 1928 and adopted a raft of new laws based on European templates. The eyes of the Turkish elite fixed on Paris, London, New York and Washington. Turkish politicians, intellectuals and business leaders rarely travelled east of their capital, Ankara, let alone to the middle east. The Turkish language remains laced with anti-Arab epithets: “a mess as tangled as an Arab’s hair”; “damn me for an Arab.”
In the 1930s, the monarchs of Iran and Afghanistan explicitly tried to copy Turkey’s modernising ways but failed to win over their populations. Meanwhile, the new Arab states that had been part of the Ottoman empire for nearly 500 years, until its dissolution at the end of the first world war, began to build their national identities on a repudiation of their Ottoman heritage. In the 1960s and 1970s, oil money buttressed a new sense of superiority in Iran and the Arab world.
The tables began to turn again in Turkey’s favour in the 1980s. Iran and Iraq impoverished each other through an eight-year war. The oil price swooned. Turkey, meanwhile, rode a surge in exports to Iran and Iraq and began to dictate its own terms for debts and trade. In 1983, Ankara felt strong enough to start building the vast Atatürk dam on the Euphrates river, staking a claim to the strategic flow of water into the middle east. The dispute over water was a major reason for Syria’s support of the long Turkish Kurd rebellion from 1984 to 1999.
At the same time, a new style of prime minister came to power in Turkey. Turgut Özal had a background in the conservative-Islamic political current that later gave birth to the AK party. After taking office in 1983, one of his first acts was to allow Arab purchases of land in Istanbul. He later formally apologised for the Turkish cold shoulder to Algerian independence in the 1950s. The real breakthrough came, however, after an open threat by Turkey to wage war on Syria in 1998, which forced Damascus to expel the Turkish Kurd rebel leader, Abdullah Öcalan. This paved the way for an extraordinary sequel. From being Turkey’s most aggressive critic in Arab summits, Syria became Turkey’s most lively supporter. Damascus was in turn overwhelmed by the warmth that suddenly radiated from Ankara.
Just 5,000 Turks visited Syria in the first half of 2000; the figure had multiplied nearly 20 times by the first half of 2005. The number of Damascus-Istanbul flights more than doubled. Rateb al-Shalah, the head of Syria’s chamber of commerce, told me with a weary sigh that his government could hardly keep up with Turkish enthusiasm. Turkey had sent 26 ministerial delegations in just four years. “The Turks are keen. They have an excess capacity for production, and they feel the Arab market is very important to them. From Turkey, the only transport route goes through Syria. We are their window on most Gulf countries. We have a lot in common. You’d be surprised how quickly taboos can die.”
Hashem Akkad, a Syrian businessman and politician who knows Turkey well, put it more emotionally. He thought that Turkey’s combination of pious Islam and democracy was a model he could now accept. “I tell my Turkish friends that their future is with Syria and the Arab world… that it is we Muslims and Arabs who are more like them, the same colour as them. I tell them it is absurd to think they will get into the EU.”
Such talk raises the hackles of easy-going Istanbul Turks and leaders of the country’s secular establishment, who are still determined to anchor Turkey in the west. And it is true that most of Turkey’s exports go to the EU and more distant customers. But Kürsad Tüzmen, Turkey’s energetic minister of state for foreign trade, believes that the next phase of growth will be with the middle east.
Turkey’s trade volume with its neighbours rose from 3 per cent of the Turkish total in 2000 to 28 per cent by 2005. When I met Tüzmen at a party in Damascus for a Turkish trade delegation, he said, only half-jokingly, that his “greater Ottoman project” aimed to rival the US greater middle east initiative.
The greater middle east provided more than half of the total value of Turkey’s contracts for work abroad in 2006, sharply higher than previous years. Turkish companies are now playing big roles in building the metro and the offshore Palm city in Dubai, a new terminal at Cairo airport and the national library in Qatar. In Tehran boutiques, middle-class Iranians snap up Turkish clothes, and in 2005 nearly 1m Iranians flew to Turkey’s Mediterranean riviera. Between 2001 and 2005, the European share of the total number of visitors to Turkey declined slightly, while the absolute number of visitors from Iran and Arab states tripled.
The Turkish model may have increasingly wide appeal, but it is seen through different lenses by middle eastern liberals on one hand and Islamists on the other. In the Egyptian media, the efforts of former Muslim Brotherhood members to found a new centre-right party with Christian Copts and liberals are compared to the AK party’s endeavours. On the other hand, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual guide of Hizbullah, makes clear in Turkish television interviews that he is carefully following the progress of Turkey’s democracy.
The US has long hoped that middle easterners would follow Turkey’s path. Ironically, this is now happening in part because of Turkey’s distance from US policy and the arrival of a more Islamic government that has softened the hard edges of Turkish secularism. The Turkish-US relationship looks set to deteriorate further so long as America appears to acquiesce in the break-up of Iraq, especially if that gives birth to an independent Kurdistan. As attacks by Iraq-based Turkish Kurd rebels have risen this year, Turkish fears that outsiders are plotting to break up its territory are likely to drive Turkey further away from the west and into the arms of other middle eastern parties that do not want an independent Kurdistan, such as Iran, Syria and both the Shia and Sunnis of Iraq.
Still, the fact that Turkey is becoming more influential is partly a tribute to the simple pull of its success. And that success is being communicated back to the middle east by an important group of Arabs who studied in Turkey and stayed on to become sympathetic interpreters of Turkish affairs for the pan-Arab media. One such figure is a student of Palestinian origin brought up in Saudi Arabia, 29-year-old Hazem Abu-Seifan. He explained the changing mentality: “When I arrived in Turkey in 1990, I believed in back-to-fundamentals Islam, anti-Americanism and hatred of the west. I looked at the Turks as backward provincials. My attitude was: we are the Arabs of great tradition, you are the apostates. I think it was also their relative poverty. I couldn’t find Kellogg’s cornflakes. Air-conditioning was virtually unheard of,” Abu-Seifan told me. “Now things have changed completely. With the rise of Dubai, Turks don’t see us as just camel drivers any more. Speaking Arabic, coming from Saudi Arabia, being of Palestinian origin, all are now viewed with favour here—I get discounts in shops. I have changed too. Turkey has an openness Arabs can only dream of. Turkey being a Muslim country helped win me over.”