Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitious policy in the Middle East should not be construed as abandoning the pursuit of European Union membership or alliance with Washington.
There are ways of looking at the Justice and Democratic Party or AKP, which rules Turkey. Militant secularists and Kemalists allege that it is a Trojan horse of Salafists whose members masquerade as democrats. Others say the AKP is so moderate that it might get ostracised as infidel if it were transplanted in Iran or Afghanistan.
But it appears there could be a third way — looking at the AKP as a progeny of Iran’s 30-year-old Islamic revolution. At least, that is how Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri thinks. He is one of Iran’s senior cleric-politicians, was a Speaker of the Majlis, and is now advisor to the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. 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.”
As Mr. Nouri put it, “things have changed” in Turkey, which is what the avalanche of popular support for Hamas in its battle with Israel showed. 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 cut across the Shia-Sunni divide. All of a sudden, Mr. Erdogan takes the form of a latter-day Ottoman sultan with an empire that spreads across the fertile Mesopotamian planes, the Arabian desert, the Nile Valley, the Levant and the Maghreb, all the way into the heart of Africa.
Mr. Erdogan, a backstreet 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. 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 figure in the world of Shi’ism. Addressing theological students in the holy Iranian city of Qom on Sunday, Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi did precisely that. Mr. Erdogan’s protest, the ayatollah said, had had a profound effect on regional security.
Mr. Erdogan’s “claim” to a Nobel tenuously hangs on the 56 words he spoke at the Davos television show, in which he ticked off Mr. 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.”
That the resonance of a mere 56 words spoken in anguish should so stubbornly refuse to die down speaks something of the profound alienation gripping the Middle East today. Mr. 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, here is some food for thought for U.S. President Barack Obama.
Mr. Erdogan returned from Davos to Istanbul to hero’s welcome. Opinion polls show that over 80 per cent of Turks endorse his retort. In Gaza, Mr. Erdogan has overnight become an iconic figure, so much so that pro-West Arab rulers look embarrassed. 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 Mr. Erdogan saying, “Your epic stand has pleased Hamas and its supporters and humiliated the lackey leaders of several Arab states.”
In Turkey itself, the ricochet has ripped open the country’s split identity. The oligarchy of westernised elites based in Istanbul feels scandalised that Mr. Erdogan might have marred the cultivated image of the civilised Turk in Europe. On the other hand, the Anatolian Turk, with his seamless sense of history and culture, feels jubilant that Mr. Erdogan is reclaiming Turkey’s habitation in its ancestral home in the Muslim Middle East.Neo-Ottomanism
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 in the rediscovery of Turkey’s imperial legacy while the country continues its tortuous search for an elusive 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 multiethnic character of the Turkish state.
But in foreign policy, “neo-Ottomanism” has a grandiose agenda. As prominent columnist Omer Taspinar wrote recently: “Neo-Ottomanism sees Turkey as a regional superpower. Its strategic vision and culture reflect the geographic reach of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Turkey, as a pivotal state, should thus play a very active political and diplomatic role in a wide region, of which it is the ‘centre’.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Erdogan’s critics among the westernised 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.
However, “neo-Ottomanism” does not mean Turkey turning 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. Being open to the West and western influence was a constant feature of the Ottoman era. Mr. Erdogan’s ambitious regional policy in the Middle East, therefore, should not be construed as abandoning the pursuit of European Union membership or alliance with Washington.
No doubt, Israel’s Gaza offensive and Mr. Erdogan’s Davos episode have created fractures in Turkish-Israeli ties. But with the cooling of tempers, the relationship will resume. The Turkish military has let it be known that military cooperation with all countries, including Israel, is based on the national interest. 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 noted that Ankara was “drawing a distinction between bilateral ties and the censure they are levelling at us over the [Gaza] operation.” Jewish groups based in the U.S. are also trying to calm the agitation.
Mr. Erdogan 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 his visit to Ankara on December 23, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not only hid from Mr. Erdogan that Israel was planning to attack Gaza four days later but also 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 Mr. Olmert was in Ankara, Mr. Erdogan telephoned Hamas leader Ismail Haniye in Gaza and consulted him on the issues to be discussed with the visiting Prime Minister. Evidently, Mr. Erdogan felt let down. “This operation [in Gaza] also shows disrespect to Turkey,” he said. But then, Israel is used to acting solely in its self interest.Anti-Israeli demonstrations
Meanwhile, Turkey erupted into massive anti-Israeli public demonstrations over reports of Israeli atrocities in Gaza. But Israel was probably lackadaisical. It said Mr. Erdogan was being “emotional.” He 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 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 in the Middle East. With the expected U.S.-Iranian engagement and the ensuing realignment in the region, Israel (and the pro-West Arab states) needs Turkey as a “balancer” more than ever before. Iraq can no longer play that role. The effusive Iranian salute to Mr. Erdogan shows Tehran is conscious of the new imperatives too.
Beyond all that, however, an ageless spectre may come to haunt Israel. For the first time in the rolling Anatolian heartlands, a surge of anti-Semitism is visible. If the Ottoman era’s fabulous record of providing asylum to the wandering Jew is indeed becoming a relic of history, do not ask who is responsible. Israel’s leaders must take the blame for it.
(The writer is a former Ambassador to Turkey.)