Friday, 13 March 2009

Turkey's Ambiguous Role as a Bridge Between the West and the Muslim World

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By M. K. Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 5 of the Turkey Analyst)

According to conventional wisdom in Europe and the United States, Turkey is a “bridge” between the Muslim world and the West, and has been a reliable Western ally for half a century. However, from a Western point of view, recent developments create concerns about Turkey’s direction. It remains to be seen whether President Barack Obama’s administration will be able to rejuvenate the Turkish-American alliance, hurting since 2003, or whether developments in Turkey lead to a fundamentally new situation.

BACKGROUND: The recent visit of U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and the announcement that President Barack Obama will be paying a visit to Turkey in April, highlights the importance accorded to Turkey by Washington within the new foreign policy framework which is being developed by the administration. President Obama is scheduled to attend the conference of the Inter-civilization dialogue initiative of Turkey and Spain, to be held in Istanbul in April 6-7. The venue, where Europe and Asia meet, is obviously symbolic. Indeed, Turkish commentators speculate that President Obama has chosen Istanbul from where to deliver his much anticipated message to the Muslim world. Although there is little to suggest that these Turkish hopes are going to be fulfilled, there is nevertheless no doubt that Turkey is perceived by the United States as a potentially useful intermediary, as Washington applies a new approach to Iran, the Taliban, Syria and to the Palestinian issue. In theory, the relations that Turkey has been nurturing with its Muslim neighborhood, it’s so called “strategic depth”, during the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would make such a perception seem credible.

Yet, the way the Turkish government has conducted itself during the past months has inevitably created uncertainty whether Turkey is indeed a Western asset, or rather a part of the problem – Islamic radicalism – that the United States is trying to counter with a new, multifaceted strategy of diplomatic engagement.  The infamous session at Davos, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Israeli president Shimon Peres and then left the stage, and the anti-Israeli rhetoric that was employed by Erdogan during and after the war in Gaza, has shaken the Turkish-Israeli relationship. However, in a recent joint statement, the Turkish and Israeli foreign ministers underlined that the relationship between Turkey and Israel remains firmly footed in shared interests. One interpretation is that whipping up anti-Israeli feelings was only meant to mobilize support for the AKP with an eye to the upcoming local elections. Hence, the strategic realities would supposedly remain unaltered beneath the surface of a political rhetoric destined principally for internal consumption. Yet, even such an explanation is disquieting in its implications, since it – correctly – assumes that there is an anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish potential in Turkey that can be mobilized for political purposes.

At the end of this process, Turkish public opinion has been dragged to an ever more anti-Western line, adding anti-Israeli flavor to the already existing anti-U.S. and anti-EU feelings. Several Israeli tourism agencies have canceled their Antalya tours, concerned by the conditions in Turkey. 

IMPLICATIONS: As the Turkish government seemingly seeks to tone down the most heated anti-Israeli rhetoric and rebuild relations with the Jewish state, a meeting gathering representatives of radical Islamic organizations from the Middle East was recently held in Istanbul, sending an altogether different kind of message. Although the meeting was closed to media, other than to the Turkish Islamist press that did not report from it, a representative of the BBC who managed to get accredited has reported that the conference ended with a call for jihad (Holy war) against Israel. While the meeting did not include any Turkish officials, the choice of Istanbul for the call of jihad is a troubling and telling sign. It is the clearest indication to date that the rhetoric of the Turkish government is encouraging Islamists from the Middle East to look upon Turkey as at least a tacit supporter of their cause. It is in any case difficult to imagine that such a gathering could have been held in the first place without the knowledge, and therefore tacit approval, of the Turkish authorities. The Istanbul jihadist meeting is a reminder that with globalization, the international Islamist movement has become more interconnected then before. Organic ties have developed between many of the organizations.

Both the jihadist meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan’s show in Davos, and his anti-Israeli posture send unequivocal messages to both Turkey’s domestic scene and to the Muslim world. The meetings and comments in favor of Erdogan and Turkey in the Arab countries and in Iran indicate that the message has been received. Erdogan’s attitude has nevertheless also created concerns in the Arab capitals. The declaration of the Arab League that the Palestine issue is an Arab issue and that the destructive involvement of non-Arabs was unacceptable is an indication of that concern. In fact, just as Western diplomats in Turkey have come to regard the secular Kemalists as non-representative of the Turkish population, Turkey’s Islamic conservatives see the rulers in the Muslim Middle East much the same way. Consequently, care is being taken by the AKP to issue messages directed to the suppressed populations, while ordinary bilateral state-to-state relations are maintained. It is noteworthy that the Arab countries top the list of countries most frequently visited by AKP deputies and high level bureaucrats.

It is not unreasonable for the U.S. administration to expect to be able to benefit from the ties that Turkey has developed in recent years in the Middle East. Yet, the basis of the relationship between Turkey and U.S. is uncertain. Will Turkey act as a partner of the U.S., basically sharing its ideological take on Islamic radicalism, or will it rather be an intermediary which is more inclined to be sympathetic toward those countries with which Washington seeks a new understanding in the hope of exerting a moderating influence over them? Even though the Iranian nuclear program poses a potential security threat to Turkey as well, and even though the geopolitical balance in the region would inevitably be altered to Turkey’s detriment if Iran goes nuclear, the AKP government has not lent support to the U.S. in its dealings so far with the issue. Indeed, Prime Minister Erdogan has gone so far as to defend Iran’s right to acquire the bomb. That could easily be interpreted as an expression of an ideological bias in favor of the Islamic republic. And to this, one may add that developments during the last decade have distanced the Turkish Armed Forces from the West as well, with a reportedly growing influence of Eurasianist views. (SeeTurkey Analyst, 27 February) In sum, it is not far-fetched to conclude that the support for Turkey’s Western alignment is slipping across the Turkish state establishment.

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s American and European partners will have to take into account the fragility of the western foot of the bridge that is supposed to connect the realm of Islam and the West. Indeed, there seems to be a growing awareness in the U.S. administration about the need to re-nurture the Westernizing component of the Turkish identity. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton did depart from the language of the Bush administration by underlining the secular and democratic characteristics of Turkey, instead of emphasizing, as used to be customary, Turkey’s moderate Muslim credentials. Clinton also departed from protocol when she paid homage to the memory of Kemal Atatürk by visiting his mausoleum. The symbolism of Clinton’s remarks and actions were not lost on the Turkish audience.

While secularist commentators in general rejoice at what they interpret as a reiteration of American ideological commitment to Turkish secularism, Islamic conservative, pro-government commentators have instead chosen to interpret the visit of Hillary Clinton and the scheduled visit of President Barack Obama as expressions of American deference to Turkey as a key player in Middle Eastern politics.

From the Islamic conservative perspective, the United States is seen as vindicating the recent standpoints of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pro-AKP commentators are in a victorious mood, noting that Turkey, contrary to the dire predictions of the secularist critics, is not being punished by the West for the stance that it has taken against Israel over the Gaza war and its acts in solidarity with Hamas. The perspectives of the secularists and the Islamic conservatives, respectively, are indeed revealing in their divergence: For the former, Hillary Clinton has held forth the promise of a renewal of the ideological bond between the United States and Turkey, with the U.S. administration potentially coming to the rescue of secularism. From the perspective of the latter, the relationship is reversed, with the United States being – supposedly – dependent on Turkey for the realization of its foreign policy aims in the Middle and Near East.

The “bridge” metaphor is inherently ambiguous. It does not in itself actually account for what is to be relayed using the bridge, although American and European thinking assumes it is an intermediary for moderation, if not Western values. For Turkey’s ruling Islamic conservatives, being interposed between the West and the Muslim world above all carries the implication of empowerment. The foreign policy of the AKP government does not suggest that that is a kind of power that Turkey’s Islamic conservative rulers will necessarily put the service of American and Western interests.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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