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Turkey in Arab eyes 15 décembre 2008

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)  3 – 9 December 2008, Issue No. 925

Mustafa El-Labbad *

As Turkey becomes increasingly engaged in Middle East issues, Arabs would do well to review their preconceptions of it, writes Mustafa El-Labbad.

After an absence of many decades, Turkey has returned as a major player in the Middle East. Clearly motivated by national interests, its reengagement in the affairs of the region will have significant repercussions on Middle Eastern balances of powers. It will also impact on the way Arab elites regard Turkey and their judgements on that country’s historical experience since the declaration of the republic in 1923.

Despite its relatively long absence, the ideological prism through which Arab politicians and intellectuals of all shades of the political spectrum view Turkey has hampered an objective view of that great and ancient country that had such a profound historical impact on the region. For decades, Arab leftists and Arab nationalists branded Turkey as subordinate to the West on the basis of the Cold War experience and Ankara’s membership in the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and then NATO. This static, one dimensional and essentially facile judgement naturally hampered the ability to monitor and appreciate the major developments and changes that Turkey has undergone. Arab Islamists, meanwhile, have long faulted the founders of the Turkish Republic for having ended — and establishing itself on the ruins of — the Islamic caliphate. Yet, so intent are they in condemning the republic for its « historical crime » that they missed the fact that the founders of the republic actually scored a historical achievement, which was to salvage what they could of an empire that had already disintegrated and that the West had virtually pronounced dead. Indeed, even Istanbul, the capital of the country and the seat of the caliphate, was under foreign occupation at the time of the founding of the republic, along with other chunks of present day Turkey, and it fell to Turkish soldiers in the ranks of Mustafa Kemal to recapture their land from British, Italian and even Greek forces.

Secularism — A fateful choice : Turkish society paid a heavy price for that critical decision to turn westward and adopt secular values. However, an objective assessment of that society today, 85 years after the founding of the republic, suggests that the decision was largely right. True, the government often took secularism to an extreme. However, those who deplore that choice cannot help but to observe that, in spite of its flaws, the secularist values inherent in the multi-party parliamentary system and the peaceful rotation of civil authority have permitted for the rise to power of a party with an Islamist frame of reference. Equally, if not more telling is the enormous political and economic progress Turkey has achieved, especially when one compares that to the general decline in the Arab world. Although the Arab-Israeli conflict was instrumental in delaying the processes of social and economic development in Arab countries, that alone is insufficient to explain the huge gap between them and Turkey, and the albeit smaller gap between Iran and Turkey. Perhaps the primary reason resides in the enormous sacrifices undertaken by the Turkish people in their places of work elsewhere in Europe and in the factories in western Turkey that export their products to the industrial West at nominal prices in order to assimilate their economy into the Western capitalist cycle. It was through blood, sweat and tears that Turkey carved itself a place among nations and elevated its economy to the 17th strongest in the world, ahead of all the Middle Eastern oil exporting countries and Israel, the West’s most forward point in the region. Turkey is no angel. But it is certainly no devil either. Nor is it some alien implant. It is no longer the great powers’ façade in the region, as it may have been in the past. It is a regional power that is gaining in strength and that has national interests that it hopes to further through regional and international alliances. Turkey is currently striving to strengthen its regional influence by a means of a new foreign policy strategy intended to take Turkey from a partisan position as a member of one camp or pact against another to a more independent or neutral position from which it can maintain contact with diverse parties simultaneously.

Some Turkish intellectuals who visited Cairo recently observed that their Arab neighbours failed to understand their country sufficiently. They were particularly disturbed by the tendency to see their country through a single lens, as a counterweight to Iranian influence, for example. My friends explained that their country was not advancing itself as a model to be emulated by others in the region and that it did not regard Iran as a rival. Rather, Turkish actions, whether with regard to the situation in Iraq and the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, or to Syria and the negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv, were guided by Turkish national interests above all.

Turkish monopoly : In addition to the general tendency of Arab intellectuals to pass sweeping judgements on modern Turkey based on certain chapters of  Turkish history and the tendency on the part of some politicians and analysts to see Turkey solely from their vantage point with respect to Iran, we find others in the grips of a bias of a different order. These are those who exulted at arrival of the Justice and Development Party to power as though this were a victory against Turkish secularists, cast, in this case, as the enemy. This excessive jubilation, as though Arab-Turkish relations have only just begun — in spite of the fact that they extend back through the Ottoman era to Byzantine and Roman times — is the product of an ideological prism that regards the revival of Turkey’s interest in Middle East affairs as identical with Turkey’s support for Arab/Islamic issues. While it may have been the case that Turkish secularists have been more or less aloof to the concerns and issues of the Middle East, the tendency here, now, is to see Turkey as no more than the Justice and Development Party, as though this were not one among several other political parties in Turkey. The Arabs would be better equipped to avail themselves of Ankara’s closer interest in the region if they attempted to appreciate the diverse aspects of Turkey, instead of reducing that multi-faceted country to its « secular » or « oriental » face. They should attempt to see Turkey as it is: a country that borders their region by virtue of geographical happenstance, and a neighbour with which are shared strong historical and cultural links, but one which may variously see eye-to-eye with or differ from us, depending on its perception of its national interests.

Perhaps Turkey, for its part, could do more to explain its outlook and positions to us in the Arab world as it engages more closely with the issues that concern us. At the very least, this would free the Arab mind of the preconceptions that have monopolised its perspective on the Turkish Republic since its establishment in 1923.

* The writer is director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.


1. arab turk - 1 janvier 2009

you forgot the FRENCH occupation during ottoman period

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