Unifier for the Muslim

The new Turkey Unifier for the Muslim and Arab world?

Prashun Bhaumik |

By Ramzy Baroud

A confident Turkey is navigating past the traps of moderate and extremist camps and while not severing its old military and diplomatic ties with the West it has made successful overtures to Syria and Iran. And as Israel has learnt, to its recent discomfiture, Turkey is no longer willing to play second fiddle to anyone. Uri Avnery’s assessment of the recent diplomatic and political spat between Israel and Turkey – that “the relationship between Turkey and Israel will probably return to normal, if not to its former degree of warmth” seems sensible and daring. It is, however, inaccurate. Put simply, there is no going back.

In a recent article, “Israel Must Get Used to the New Turkey,” Suat Kiniklioglu, Deputy Chairman of External Affairs for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wrote: “Israel appears to be yearning for the golden 1990s, which were the product of a very specific situation in the region. Those days are over and are unlikely to come back even if the Justice and Deve-lopment Party (AKP) ends up no longer being in government.”

Avnery’s optimistic reading of events would be more credible if the recent row had been caused by a couple of isolated incidents, the gutsy public exchange over Gaza between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in late January 2009, for example, or the recent premeditated humiliation of Oguz Celikkol, Turkish Ambassador to Israel, by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. But these incidents are not isolated. They reflect a clear, and probably irreversible, shift in Turkish foreign policy towards Israel, the US and the Middle East as a whole. For decades Turkey was torn between its historic ties to Muslim and Arab countries and the unstoppable drive towards Westernization. While the latter seemed to be winning out Turkey grew in import as a political and economic player. It also grew into a nation with a decisive sense of sovereignty, a growing sense of pride and a daring capacity for asserting itself as a regional power.

In the 1970s, when ‘political Islam’ was on the rise throughout the region, Turkey underwent its own rethink as a number of politicians and groups began to grapple with ways of taking political Islam to a whole new level. It was Necmettin Erbakan, prime minister of Turkey between 1996 and 1997, who began pushing against the prevailing notion that Turkey was a second-class NATO member desperate to identify with everything Western. In the late 1980s Erbakan’s Rafah (Welfare) Party took Turkey by storm. The party was hardly apologetic about its Islamic roots and attitude. Its rise to power following the 1995 general elections sounded alarm bells as the securely pro-Western Turkey veered away from its rigidly scripted regional role as “lackey of NATO”. The phrase is Salama A Salama’s who, in a recent article in Al-Ahram Weekly, argues that Turkey was no longer content to do NATO’s bidding. According to Kiniklioglu this is something “Israel must  get used to”.

The days of Erbakan might be long gone but his legacy remains in the Turkish national consciousness. He pushed the boundaries, dared to champion pro-Palestinian policies, defied Western dictates and even pressed for the economic repositioning of his country with the creation of the Developing Eight (D-8) group which united the most politically significant Arab and Muslim countries. When Erbakan was forced to step down it was understood as the end of a short-lived political experiment which had ended up showing that political Islam, even in its most benign form, would not to be tolerated in Turkey. The army, it was argued, had emerged once again as all-powerful.

Things have changed drastically since then. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected to power in 2002. Its leadership was composed of savvy yet principled politicians who were seeking a geopolitical shift in their country’s regional political outlook.

The AKP began to lead a self-assertive Turkey which was pleading for neither European acceptance nor American validation. In rejecting the use of Turkish territories as a launch pad for a US strike against Iraq in 2003 Turkey acquired a voice, and a strong one at that, that commanded growing popular support.  The trend has continued. In recent years Turkey has dared translate its political power and prowess into action, without immediately severing political and military balances that took years to build. While it continued to honour past military deals with Israel it also made many successful overtures to Syria and Iran. In being willing to be seen as a unifier in an age of Muslim and Arab disunity it refused to be drawn into the game of moderate and extremist camps. Instead it maintained good ties with all its neighbours.

Washington began to recognise the emergence of this new Turkey in 2007. US President Barack Obama’s visit to the country soon after his inauguration was one of many signs that the West was taking notice. Turkey is not to be bullied, threatened or intimidated. Even Israel, which has for long defied the norms of diplomacy, is now becoming more aware of the shift, thanks to Turkish President Abdullah Gèl. Following Israel’s belligerent insult of the Turkish ambassador, he said: “Unless there is a formal apology from Israel we’re going to put Celikkol on the first plane back to Ankara.” Israel, of course, apologized, and humbly.

It took Turkey many years to reach this level of confidence and the country is far from eager to slide back into its lackey role. Turkey’s united and constant stance in support of Gaza and its outspokenness against threats to Lebanon, Iran and Syria show clearly that the old days are well behind us.