Relations between the Arab World and Turkey

Turkey as Model for the Middle East?

The Arab world's long years of disinterest and mistrust in Turkish politics are coming to an end, especially since AK party chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister. Rainer Hermann explains why

Turkey's prime minster Erdogan (photo: AP)
Ever since Erdogan's AK party took the reins, Arab Islamists and intellectuals are increasingly interested in learning something from Turkey's experiences with reconciling Islam and democracy, writes Rainer Hermann

​​The Arabs aren't quite used to seeing Turks in uniform yet. Almost a month ago, troops from Ankara returned to Lebanon as part of a UN contingent. Near Tyrus, a port city in Lebanon's Shiite-dominated south, not far from the Israeli border, 680 soldiers and civilians have been stationed as a peacekeeping force, charged in addition with the task of restoring the city's destroyed infrastructure.

Turkish Blue Helmets served in Bosnia and Kosovo, and led missions in Somalia and Afghanistan. And now Turkey is for the first time dispatching its NATO soldiers to an Arab country, for two reasons: First, the Arabs need the Turks as a counter-balance to the growing influence of Iran, and second, the relationship between the Arab world and the erstwhile colonial power on the Bosporus has changed radically in the past few years.

Ever since the moderate Islamist AK party took the reins, the Arabs are finally turning their attention again to current developments in Turkey. Arab Islamists and intellectuals are increasingly interested in learning something from Turkey's experiences with reconciling Islam and democracy.

Historical break in relations

It's been 90 years now since Turkish soldiers withdrew from the Levant. Back then, the Ottoman Empire, fighting alongside Germany, was roundly defeated. The Arabs established their first nation-states and the Turks their secular republic.

The Turkish republic banned Islam from public life and changed over from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. This only served to increase the Arabs' ancient contempt for the Turks. After all, Ottoman dynasties had reigned over portions of the Arab world for millennia. The Arabs blamed Turkish rule for the decline of their own culture. Atatürk, for his part, equated under-development with Islam and the Arabs.

After the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, the deep disdain between the two regions gradually evolved into mutual disinterest. When the Tunisian scholar Abduljelil Temimi catalogued all of the dissertations on modern Turkey written at Arab universities, he could count them on one hand.

By the same token, he ascertained among the Turkish Kemalists an "utter disinterest" in the Arab world. Egyptian intellectual Chaled Muhammad Chaled reflected the prevailing Arab attitude when he wrote half a century ago that the words "tyrant" and "Turan," the original homeland of the Turks, had virtually the same etymological and semantic roots.

Growing interest in Turkey

It was not until the end of the 20th century that the two peoples were able to view each other with more open minds. When the chairman of Turkey's AK party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was elected Turkish prime minister, the Arabs suddenly became curious about what was happening on the Bosporus.

On the occasion of Turkey's national holiday on October 29th, a Lebanese newspaper commented that the experiences of Turkey could be a lesson to all Arab countries that had embarked on the road to democracy. And the author of the editorial acknowledged that Turkey had risen to the status of an important actor in the region and on the world stage.

Up until the 1990s, the commentator alleged, the Turks had behaved like renters who have quibbles with all of their neighbors. Today, by contrast, Turkey can boast good relations with almost all of the countries in the region – with the sole exception of Armenia. Erdogan treats Middle East relations as a top priority. He phones up the Israeli prime minister directly, while, on the other hand, representatives of his party receive leaders of the most radical faction of Hamas, Chaled Meschal.

It's hard not to presume that Erdogan has greater sympathy for the Muslim Palestinians than for the Israelis. But he is clever enough to know that Turkey can only take on the role of leader if it acts successfully as mediator.

Leadership role in the Arab world

This requires the trust of all those involved – and Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has managed not to alienate Israel while at the same time regaining the confidence of the Arab world in his country. Turkey has taken on a leadership role in the Arab world that is just as useful for the West as it is for the Muslims, as pointed out by a recent editorial in the Dubai newspaper "Khaleej Times."

The secular Egyptian intellectual Abdal Munim Said attributes the success of the "Turkish march" to the fact that it is not being conducted – like that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – under the slogan "Islam is the way."

Erdogan's AK Party is not drawing its sword against its political enemies, and its members do not hold the Koran high, adds the chairman of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies in an article published in the Arab newspaper "Al Sharq al Awsat." Instead, Turkish Islam has developed a new "creative formula" which Said hopes will inspire the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in the Arab world.

And that is exactly what is happening. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, along with the pragmatic middle generation there, are watching very closely to find out how Erdogan is reconciling his Islamic faith with his political practice as a conservative democrat, how he is standing up to a powerful army that smells danger for the secular republic in every expression of religious belief, and how he is stabilizing an economy plagued with periodic fevers, having now managed to double per capita income within the space of only five years.

The Turkish economic miracle

The first indications of a new relationship between Turkey and the Arabs came from the economic front. Inexpensive upscale consumer products "Made in Turkey" had conquered the Arab markets: jeans and cookies, televisions sets and refrigerators. They helped refute the image of the "ugly Turk." Nevertheless, up until 2002, the Arab news stations hardly reported at all on Turkey, and when they did so, it was only to cast aspersions on Ankara's relations with Israel.

But all that has changed. Almost daily, Arab stations give their viewers updates on the latest political reforms in Ankara and the economic upswing in Istanbul.

The ideological message conveyed is that in Turkey Muslims are democratizing a rigid state doctrine from the inside out – for example, in their fight for greater freedom of speech. The citizens of autocratic Arab nations found themselves rubbing their eyes in disbelief when on March 1, 2003 their governments said "yes" to the American push for a war in Iraq, while the parliament of democratic Turkey passed a resolution rejecting the invasion.

Because of the burden of history, Turkey can never provide a model that the Arab world can simply copy one-to-one on a larger scale. What it can do, however, is to show the Muslims what is fundamentally possible.

This is why even secular intellectuals in the Arab world are looking to Turkey and are increasingly anxious that the EU might refuse Ankara's candidacy. "If that happens," one of Kuwait's leading left-wing intellectuals fears, "the radical Islamists will gain the upper hand in our countries, gloating that moderation and change don't pay off after all, and they will once again place all of their faith in the Sharia."

Rainer Hermann

© FAZ/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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