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…