In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Turkish snub changes Middle East game

Posted by alfied on February 4, 2009

By M K Bhadrakumar – Asia Times

There are different ways of looking at the Justice and Democratic Party, or AKP, which rules Turkey. Militant secularists and Kemalists allege it is a Trojan horse of Salafists whose members masquerade as democrats. Others say the AKP is so extremely moderate that it might get ostracized as infidel if it were transplanted to Iran or Afghanistan.

But it appears there could be a third way – looking at the AKP as a progeny of the 30-year-old Iranian revolution. At least, that is how Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri thinks. He is one of Iran’s senior clerics, used to be a speaker of the Majlis (parliament) and now holds the exalted position of advisor to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Nouri explained last Sunday, “When Iranians talked of ‘exporting’ their revolution, they did not mean manufacturing something and then exporting it to other countries by trucks or ships; rather, they meant transmitting the message of their revolution and conveying its doctrine.” Nouri said he felt inspired to claim the AKP as a fine legacy of the Iranian revolution by the fact it is in Turkey that the “most beautiful demonstrations on the Gaza issue” were held in recent weeks.

A mighty snub
He may have gone slightly overboard by claiming that even the Turkish army “which had certain records, has changed now”. All the same, the point is well taken that “things have changed” in Turkey, as Nouri put it, which is what the avalanche of popular support for Hamas in its battle with Israel showed.

In particular, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public snub of Israeli President Shimon Peres last Thursday in a television chat show on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meet in the Swiss resort of Davos has caught the imagination of the Islamic world and cuts across the Shi’ite-Sunni divide. All of a sudden, Erdogan takes the form of a latter-day Ottoman sultan with an empire that spreads all across the fertile Mesopotamian planes, the Arabian desserts, the Nile Valley, the Levant and the Maghreb, all the way into the heart of Africa.

Erdogan, a back-street boy from the working-class district of Kasimpasa in Istanbul, has come a long way in his tumultuous political career. He is undoubtedly one of Turkey’s most charismatic and gifted politicians. His place in Turkey’s pantheon of leaders is secure. All the same, he couldn’t have fancied that one day he would be proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize – or that his sponsor would be a revered religious figure in the world of Shi’ism.

Addressing a gathering of theological students on Sunday in the holy Iranian city of Qom, Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi did precisely that. Erdogan’s protest, the ayatollah said, has had a profound effect on regional security, and it has strengthened the Palestinian resistance and humiliated and further isolated the “Zionist regime”.

Erdogan’s “claim” to a Nobel Prize tenuously hangs on the 56 words he spoke at the Davos television show, when he told off Peres, “You are older than me and your voice is very loud. The reason for your raising your voice is the psychology of guilt. I will not raise my voice that much. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on the beaches.”

Muslim alienation
It certainly speaks something of the profound alienation gripping the Middle East today that the resonance of a mere cluster of 56 words spoken in anguish about justice, honor and equity should so stubbornly refuse to die down. Erdogan overnight joins Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrullah of Hezbollah and Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who criss-cross with enviable abandon the historic sectarian divides in the Muslim world. Surely, some food for thought for US President Barack Obama.

Erdogan returned from Davos to Istanbul to a hero’s welcome. Opinion polls show that over 80% of Turks endorse his sharp retort and his “walkout” from the TV show. The AKP’s popularity is soaring above 50%, so much so that the opposition parties, which had hoped to cash in on Turkey’s economic problems in local elections in end-March, feel crestfallen.

In Gaza itself, Erdogan has overnight become an iconic figure, so much so that the pro-West Arab rulers look embarrassed – as indeed is “Abu Mazen” (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), who nonchalantly heads the Palestinian Authority. Of course, there is no way Saudi Arabia or Egypt will surrender the mantle of leadership to Turkey. But from now, they will need to seriously factor that Turkey’s shadows are deepening on the Middle Eastern Sunni Muslim landscape.

Iran is plainly delighted. The powerful head of Iran’s Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, shot off a message to Erdogan, saying, “Your epic stand has pleased Hamas and its supporters and humiliated the lackey leaders of several Arab states.”

‘Neo-Ottomanism’ gathers pace
In Turkey itself, the ricochet has ripped open the country’s split identity. The oligarchy of Westernized Turkish elites based in Istanbul feels scandalized that Erdogan might have marred the cultivated image of the civilized Turk in Europe. With his sense of history and culture, the Anatolian Turk, on the other hand, feels jubilant that Erdogan is reclaiming Turkey’s long-lost habitation in its ancestral home in the Muslim Middle East.

To be sure, the AKP’s agenda of “neo-Ottomanism” took a quantum leap last week. An engrossing phase is about to commence where the primacy may incrementally come to lie on the rediscovery of Turkey’s imperial legacy while the country continues its search for a new national consensus that can reconcile the Turk’s many identities.

Under the seven-year AKP rule, Turkey began the painful process of coming to terms with its Muslim and Ottoman heritage. Contrary to general impressions, neo-Ottomanism is neither Islamist nor imperialistic. Arguably, it uses the common denominator of Islam to derive a less ethnic idea of “Turkishness” that is much more in harmony than militant secularism ever could be with the multi-ethnic character of the Turkish state.

But in foreign policy, “neo-Ottomanism” has a more grandiose agenda. As prominent columnist Omer Taspinar of Turkey’s Zaman newspaper wrote, “Neo-Ottomanism sees Turkey as a regional superpower. Its strategic vision and culture reflects the geographic reach of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Turkey, as a pivotal state, should thus play a very active diplomatic, political and diplomatic role in a wide region of which it is the ‘center’.” Unsurprisingly, Erdogan’s critics among the Westernized elites in Istanbul and Ankara view any such pan-Turkic or Islamic openings in foreign policy as adventurous and ultimately harmful to Turkey’s interests.

To quote a top Turkish commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand, of CNN Turk, Erdogan has “disturbed” a delicate balance in Ankara’s foreign policy and “put himself and his country in a risky position … It will be interpreted as a slow drift away from the Israel-United States-European Union-Egypt-Saudi Arabia camp … Even if relations with Israel are not ceased, the color will start to change from now on and turn toward dislike. If not balanced immediately, relations between Israel and Turkey will not recover easily. The reflections will be seen in Washington and on the money markets.”

However, Birand’s panicky prognosis seems presumptuous. There is no basis to the argument that “neo-Ottomanism” means Turkey turns its back on the West. As Taspinar pointed out, after all, the Ottoman Empire was known as the “sick man of Europe” and not of Asia or Arabia. The European legacy of being open to the West and Western influence was a constant feature of the Ottoman era. Erdogan’s ambitious regional policy in the Middle East, therefore, should not be construed as sidestepping an active pursuit of European Union membership or good relations with Washington.

Turkish-Israeli ties under cloud
No doubt, Israel’s Gaza offensive and Erdogan’s Davos episode have created fractures in Turkish-Israeli strategic ties. But the question is whether the damage is serious enough to start a major realignment in the region. The high probability is that with the cooling of tempers, the Turkish-Israeli relationship as such will recover.

The Turkish military has let it be known that there is no rollback in cooperation with Israel. It said Turkey’s military cooperation with all countries, including Israel, was based on national interests and no difficulties were foreseen in the scheduled delivery by Israel of high-tech Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “There is a rift in our relations. This cannot be hidden. But these relations are very important for both countries.” She took note that Ankara was “drawing a distinction between bilateral ties and the censure they are leveling at us over the Gaza operation”. Jewish groups based in the US are also trying to calm the agitation in Turkish-Israeli relations.

Conceivably, Erdogan harbors a sense of betrayal. He told the Washington Post that Turkish mediation had brought Israel and Syria “very close” to direct peace talks on the future of the Golan Heights. During the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ankara on December 23, not only did he hide from Erdogan that Israel was planning to attack Gaza four days later, but he assured the Turkish leader that as soon as he got back, he would consult his colleagues and come back on the talks with Syria.

While Olmert was in Ankara, Erdogan telephoned Hamas leader Ismail Haniye in Gaza and consulted him on the issues to be discussed with the visiting Israeli prime minister. Quite understandably, Erdogan felt let down. “This operation in Gaza also shows disrespect to Turkey,” he said. Israel is used to acting solely in its self-interest. But Erdogan is a proud Turk for whom loss of face is simply unacceptable.

Israel’s need of Turkey
Meanwhile, Turkey erupted into massive anti-Israeli public demonstrations over reports of Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Turkey’s highest policy-making body, the National Security Council, which is chaired by the president and comprises the prime minister and the military chiefs, said in a statement on December 30 that Israel should cease military operations immediately, give diplomacy a chance and allow humanitarian aid to reach the people of Gaza.

But Israel took the Turkish criticism in its stride. Israel said Erdogan was being “emotional”. Erdogan shot back: “I am not emotional. I am speaking as a grandson of the Ottoman Empire, which welcomed your forefathers when they were exiled … History will accuse them Olmert and Livni of putting a stain on humanity … It is unforgivable that a people who in their history suffered so profoundly could do such a thing.”

On balance, it hurts Israel more than Turkey that a trust deficit has developed. Turkey has many friends in the region, whereas Israel has hardly any. Turkey is an irreplaceable ally for Israel not only in the Middle East but in the entire Muslim world. With the expected US-Iranian engagement and the ensuing realignment in the region, Israel (and the pro-West Arab states) needs Turkey as a “balancer” more than any time before. Iraq cannot play that role anymore. As the effusive Iranian salute to Erdogan shows, Tehran is acutely conscious of the new imperatives, too.

Beyond all that, an ageless concern that Israel ought to sit up and take note is that for the first time in the Anatolian heartland, a surge of anti-Semitism is visible. If the Ottoman era’s fabulous record of providing asylum for any wandering Jew is indeed becoming a relic of history, don’t ask who is responsible. Israel’s leaders must take the blame for it.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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