3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Turkey in Arab eyes
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' fa├žade 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. 

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