Turkey between Europe and the Islamic World

Reciprocal Influences, Convoluted Relations

The rapprochement of Turkey with the EU could have positive repercussions on European relations with the Arab-Islamic world, says Lebanese expert on Turkish Studies Muhammad Noureddine

Ahmet Neecdet Sezer of Turkey, left, and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad in Ankara (photo: AP)
Freezing of Syrian-Turkish relations? Syrian president Assad began the first-ever visit to Turkey by a Syrian head of state in January 2004

​​For four hundred years the Arab world was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and Arabs were the last ethnic group to demand independence from the Ottoman center. But after the First World War ended with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, a dark chapter of tense relations began between Turkey and the Arab world.

The separation policy pursued by Atatürk under the motto "peace at home, peace in the world" also served to widen this chasm, even though relations were never characterized by hatred or animosity.
Turkey kept as much of a distance from the Arabs as they did from the rest of the world - Atatürk never once traveled abroad.

Four Middle East Premiers pose with Harold MacMillan, British Foreign Secretary, at the inaugural meeting of the Baghdad Pact (photo: AP)
Turkish-Arab estrangement began after WW II and the Baghdad Pact - from left to right: Mohammed Ali, Pakistan; Adnan Menderes, Turkey; Nuri Es-Said, Iraq; MacMillan, Britain; Hussein Ala, Iran

​​Turkish-Arab estrangement began systematically – apart from the Iskenderun problem with Syria at the end of the 1930s – after the end of the Second World War when Turkey joined the Western camp and took a stand against the Communist eastern bloc. This included recognizing Israel and joining NATO, as well as other pro-Western alliances, such as the Baghdad Pact, in particular.

Turkey's Middle East foreign policy developed along the lines of its contractual commitments with Western states and Israel. This gave rise to mistrust and tensions, and at times even led to armed conflicts between Arabs and Turks. At the end of 1998 war almost broke out between Syria and Israel.

New political orientation

In 2002 dramatic change came when the Islamic "Justice and Development Party" assumed the head of government. This party developed and pursued a new policy toward the Islamic world and distanced itself more from Israel, which gave it more opportunities than ever before to assert its presence and influence in Arab countries.

The Islamic orientation of Turkey's new ruling party became apparent with its pursuit of greater rapprochement with Iran, its strengthening of economic relations with the Arab Gulf states, its contacts with Islamic forces in Palestine, as well as with the restructuring of its relations with Syria, which surpassed even the most optimistic expectations.

Yet this change in Turkey's foreign policy did not negatively affect its relationships with the West and the EU, in particular. Today, for the first time in modern history Turkey maintains good relations with every state in the region and in the world.

This can be attributed not only to the will of the "Justice and Development Party" leaders. The current international situation after the party's decisive win at the polls, which enabled it to govern alone, and its accurate interpretation of the ensuing changes played a significant role in reorienting Turkey's foreign policy.

Arab mistrust of secularism

No one will dispute that Islamic Turkey's secularism was also a divisive factor, which provided even more fuel to the mistrust of the Islamic and Arab world.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's visit to Turkey in August 2006 was thus the first one by a Saudi king for over 50 years – an unusual state of affairs for two Islamic states that lie in such close geographical proximity.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
The new image of Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, AKP

​​The secular form of government in Turkey continues unchanged, and the Islamists of the "Party for Justice and Development" affirm day after day that they intend to adhere to it. Yet the result of the new image of Turkey in the era of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his fellow party members is that Muslims view the interests of Turkey in obtaining membership in the EU more positively than ever.

Some even say that it is also in the interests of the Arab states.

Complex relations

The influence of Turkish-European relations on the EU and its presence in the Middle East cannot be viewed solely from a single standpoint, for this relationship is extremely complex.

It will also be determined by the extent to which the Turkish-European relationship will develop, and whether Turkey will be accepted into the EU as a member state, or if it will remain an ordinary relationship.

But relations could suffer a setback overall if Turkey is permanently excluded from the EU. In any case, it is undeniable that Turkey's rapprochement with the EU will have a positive effect on European relations with the Arab and Islamic world.

Alone the willingness of Christian Europe to admit Muslim Turkey would be a signal that Europe does not want to encounter the Islamic world on a religious basis. It could open a new chapter of good relations between Muslims and Christians worldwide and create a real chance for dialogue and interaction between cultures and religions.

Breaking a historical taboo

Turkey is offering Europe and the world an opportunity to establish stability and peace. If Turkey fulfills the conditions for EU membership, then Europe, on its part, should be aware of the strategic significance that accepting an Islamic country into its ranks would have with regard to its relations with the Islamic world at large.

Turkey's Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Gül in Brussels (photo: AP)
The Turkish government has made a full membership in the EU a main foreign policy goal - foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Gül in Brussels

​​Turkey is breaking a historical taboo with its request for admission into a Christian community. Europe should respond with the guarantee of full membership if Turkey fulfills all the conditions that go with it.

This is the only way Europe can prove that it has freed itself from its history. Moreover, this step would help promote greater social stability between European societies and its Muslim immigrants.

Positive effects of membership

Turkey as a full member state of the EU and more European support of Turkey in the area of democracy as well as in civil and human rights would have a very positive effect on the future of the Islamic world.

They would observe a vital process, which could also offer solutions for many of the problems in the Islamic world, whether it be in dealing with religious, confessional, or ethnic minorities, fighting corruption, or minimizing class differences.

The existence of a "finished" Turkish model that shares similar circumstances with other Islamic and Arab countries represents a chance for them to profit from this experience without having to entirely imitate it. Seen this way, the EU has the most to gain, especially with regard to the linkage of "terror" and Islam and the call for democratization in the Middle East.

But the possible role model function of a Turkish model under a European umbrella also depends on the extent to which Turkey is able to preserve its Islamic identity and its unique cultural characteristics.

Turkey as a Muslim member of the EU would also be an additional key to strengthening economic relations between Europe and the Arab and Islamic world.

Arab-Israeli conflict as a factor

Nevertheless, one of the most decisive factors of whether Turkish-European relations will have a positive or negative effect on the Arab-Islamic world is the question of how the Arab-Israeli conflict further develops.

Palestinian children throw stones at an Israeli tank in the West Bank town of Jenin (photo: AP)
Good relations between Turkey and Europe will remain a utopia as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues

​​Good relations between Turkey and Europe will remain a utopia as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict, with European support for Israel's settlement policy, continues, and the West – with Europe as an integral part – becomes an accomplice as a result of its inability to protect the Palestinian people.

Non-uniform EU foreign policy

In view of the current situation within the EU one cannot talk about the possible effects of Turkey's entry into the Union without taking into account the EU's foreign and defense policy. At present the EU does not pursue a homogeneous foreign policy. Instead, the policies of the individual member states conflict.

Muhammad Noureddine (photo: Mona Naggar)
Muhammad Noureddine

​​The divergent views with regard to Turkey and the American occupation of Iraq is clear proof. Up to now Arabs and Muslims have seen the EU act as a number of states in terms of foreign policy, not as a bloc, and this logically reduces the chances of a European rapprochement with Turkey.

Among the prerequisites for a positive interaction between Europe and Turkey as a member state on the one hand, and the Arab-Islamic world on the other, is an accepted uniform foreign and defense policy that is not directed against the interests of Arabs and Muslims. Otherwise Turkey's membership would be even more harmful than non-membership.

Convoluted relations

Relations between Turkey and the Arab world, and Turkey and the EU are complex and cannot be predicted for the future as long as the situation between Turkey and the EU remains so convoluted.

Another major factor cannot be ignored, namely the policy of the United States with regard to international relations, the Middle East, Turkey, and Europe.

The turbulence in Turkish-European relations since 1963 also reflect the fact that this relationship is not only bilaterally determined.

Relations between Turkey, Europe, the Arab and Islamic world are convoluted and at times fragile, making it impossible to predict with much accuracy what the final picture might look like.

Muhammad Noureddine

© Qantara.de 2007

Muhammad Noureddine is editor-in-chief of the Lebanese journal Schu'un al-Auswat (Middle East Affairs) and scientific advisor to the "Center for Strategic Studies, Research and Documentation" in Beirut.

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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