360° Analysis

Is Turkey Turning East?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

© Shutterstock

March 22, 2011 00:09 EDT

The demise of the Ottoman Empire came painfully. Ottoman Arabs betrayed their loyalty to Istanbul by siding with the British. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, decided to distance the new republic from the Arab peninsula to heal the wounds of a severe defeat. Ataturk changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin and the Calendar to the Georgian, abolished the Caliphate, and granted Turkish women the right to run for public office and to vote much earlier than most of their European counterparts. He wanted to make a clean break from the past. He thought some Ottoman Arabs were using religion to deny the need for any change to modernize society. Despite this grandiose visionary beginning, however, things started to slowly get out of control. What was expected to build a secular democratic system slowly turned into a denial of the people’s cultural history and of their Ottoman legacy.

The ruling AKP government decided to invest in Turkey’s relationship with the Arab world to close this historic gap with Turkey’s natural links to its eastern and southern neighbors. For too long, previous governments failed to address this issue. This change, however, coincided with a time when Turkey’s membership to the European Union seemed absolutely impossible. The new engagement with the region bore fruit quickly, opening up the region for Turkish companies and attracting considerable investment and tourism to Turkey. In less than 5 years, Turkish businessmen and diplomats became more visible and active in the Arab world, and Turkey quickly became the talk of the Arab street.

Because of the Turkish leadership’s vitriolic rhetoric toward Israel and a fast growing relationship with the Arab world, some started to worry about the direction Turkey was taking. The recurring question has become whether Turkey is becoming the Muslim Middle East. The short answer is, “Yes, it is.” This does not mean, however, that Turkey is turning its back on the West.

There is no need to worry about a people who are basically re-discovering their own culture. Turkey’s new momentum is certainly attracting investment and tourism from the Arab countries but this is a positive trend. It is the source of a progressive vision for the region with increased trade and cooperation while at the same time opening doors to Turkish companies for lucrative contracts in the region. It also gives Turkey a chance to make up for the $180 billion lost in trade due to various forms of sanctions imposed on its neighbors – such as Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The argument that Turkey’s growing economic, social and political ties with the Middle East make it distant to the West is akin to the argument that the U.S. agreement with NAFTA resulted in the U.S. turning its back on Europe. The U.S. simply saw a mutual benefit in expanding relations with its Northern and Southern neighbors. Can you imagine a U.S. policy that ignores Hispanic culture and politics?

The majority of Turkish trade is still with the West and it will stay that way.  Its best students still choose the U.S. and Europe for higher education.  There is not a single Middle Eastern movie or series running on Turkish television.  Turks prefer Western series such as Lost, Stargate, House or local programs to Middle Eastern fare.  In fact Turkish soap operas, with more progressive social themes than those of the region, have in recent years become hits all over the Middle East. This new engagement is allowing Turkey to slowly establish its soft power, impacting the region’s populations and influencing its rulers.

Zakho, one of the Turkish border points with Iraq, has a 26-lane border checkpoint serving 1500 trucks a day. The road from Erbil, a city in Northern Iraq, to Baghdad is littered with Turkish pop culture artifacts.  While, the US and Iran slug it out over Iraqi lives for elusive control of the country, Turkey has been acquiring influence by permeating Iraqi culture.  In the long run, Turkey is the best hope that the West has for transforming Iraq into a democracy.  Furthermore, the more Machiavellian readers should note that the only energy corridor from the region that is not under Russian control, a critical issue for European energy security, is Turkey.

Not only in Iraq, but also throughout the region, Turkish companies are some of the most active in everything from construction to candy bars. The trade is not one-way either.  While Turkey is so close to some of the world’s largest oil reserves, it has no major fields of its own. It is heavily dependent on imports.  One needs to re-consider what the West is willing to do to secure its own oil supplies.  Viewed in this light, Turkey has no option but to reach out to the Middle East.  So why is there a double standard when it does so?  With its expanding manufacturing, construction and service industries, Turkey is simply safeguarding its economic vitality and furthering business opportunities throughout the region.

Some are also worried about Turkey’s relations with China.  They try to argue that Turkey is wedging away from the U.S. and warming up to China. This is a preposterous argument and is not at all objective.  What nation with a right mind could ignore China, a rising global economic and political power?  Apart from the economic and political interests, it is important to note that Uighur-Turks who reside predominantly in the northwestern part of the country are the largest minority in China. In the past there has been violence in the Uighur regions because of Chinese mismanagement of the situation and, to a degree, due to ultra-nationalistic sects from within Turkey promoting Uighur independence. Therefore, China is reaching out to Turkey and it is in the interest of both nations to have coordinated and well-mannered relations.

A key worry is, of course, the deteriorating relations with Israel. The Ottoman Turks welcomed Jews escaping the Inquisition in Europe more than 500 years ago and then again during the Second World War. Turkey was, in fact, the first predominantly Muslim country that recognized Israel in 1949. Therefore, no one should question Turkey’s support for the Jewish state of Israel.  However, no one else seems to be doing anything about the Palestinian question and Turkey has felt impelled to raise the question.  Israel needs an old friend to tell it that its current approach to the Palestinian question has failed.  Turkey is one of the few countries that can actually help facilitate peace between Israel and its neighbors. Turkish diplomats are trying to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians while Turkish peacekeeper troops under UN mandate are on the ground in Lebanon.

Turkey’s closer relations with Eastern nations are driven by its economy, culture and politics.  They are aimed at increasing its economic market space and political influence, giving it a strategic depth, and a more dominant international role.  They do not mean that it is giving up its Western orientation or forsaking its current allies.  Looking East is simply aimed at stabilizing the region.  In fact, the West can greatly benefit from Turkey’s new engagement.  Unlike efforts by the West, Turkey’s relations are not only about government-to-government dialogues but also but social and cultural engagement.

Turkey is simultaneously modern and traditional, secular and Islamic, and a dynamic democracy.  It belongs to both the East and the West.  It can be a bridge of understanding; a real one that is not only physically connecting Asia to Europe over the Bosporus in Istanbul but also one that brings together the West and Islam culturally and politically. Turkey is also the best country that can demonstrate the flawed premise of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”.

While Turkey, with its history and geography, can bring an understanding and, create a middle ground for the two cultures, this will need effort.  Friendships are a two-way street and if Europe continues to ignore and/or treat Turkey with double standards then it does risk the bridge turning into a moat.  Just as there are religious zealots and racists in Europe who do not want to see a predominantly Muslim country within the EU regardless of whether it fulfills its membership criteria, there are those in Turkey who find European societies as decadent and unjust.  The question here is whether we want to support integration on common goals? Or do we want isolation based on racist or religious discrimination?   To achieve the former then both Europe and Turkey need to engage with and understand each other.

“Europe, look outward again” an opinion piece published in the New York Times on December 10th, 2010, and authored by the Foreign Ministers of Britain, Italy, Sweden and Finland, disseminates great advice, which more E.U. policy makers should listen to and implement.  Independent of whether Turkey makes friends elsewhere, its citizens will understandably begin to question the logic of trying to join a Union, which only seems to erect roadblocks in Turkey’s way.  That feeling is one which will play into the hands of the nationalist and ultra-conservatives.  It may then yield a Turkey committed to strategic re-alignment in the region and a new focus for its conservative Islamist movement. Then Turkey can become the decisive separator between the East and the West.

The fact that Turkey is reactivating its historical ties and growing its influence in the East does not in any way mean that it is turning its back on the West.  Going after new economic markets and attracting new investments are prerequisites for the prosperity of an industrial nation.  Re-connecting to a region with centuries of shared history is its natural destiny and is only likely to increase mutual understanding and trust.  Turkey is not changing teams; it is simply getting off the bench and coming into the game.

If you are still not convinced, then perhaps a quote from an old American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard might well prove apt for Turkey’s changing situation: “Never explain – your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe you anyway.”

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