Sabre-rattling in its foreign affairs and power struggles in its domestic politics are prompting many observers to wonder where exactly Turkey is heading. The cultural historian Gerhard Schweizer, an authority on Turkish society, rejects fears of Islamification in Turkish politics as "out of touch with reality". Christian Horbach spoke to him about how Turkey is developing
Since the events surrounding the Gaza aid flotilla, if not before, the dialogue between Turkey and Israel has taken on a harsher tone. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has said that nothing will ever be the same again. Do you think there will be a real, deep rupture in relations between the two countries?
Gerhard Schweizer: Turkey is the only Muslim country that maintains close contact with both the Arab world and Israel. The Erdogan government is continuing this Turkish political tradition. However, most Turkish governments placed the emphasis on economic and political ties to the West, and accordingly gave unqualified backing to the West's Israel-friendly policies.
Erdogan, on the other hand, has intensified contacts with Turkey's Muslim neighbours, who until recently did not receive the same degree of attention. At the same time, however, he has declared that relations with Israel remain absolutely indispensible. In accordance with this strategy, Turkey has continued to supply Israel with drinking water in exchange for technical expertise, both for military initiatives and for development projects.
However, Erdogan has always stressed that "good relations with Israel" did not prevent him from taking a critical position with regard to Israeli policy in Palestine. This policy has found expression in his forceful criticism of Israel's war in Gaza in 2009, and now in his support for the Gaza aid flotilla. Erdogan is attempting a delicate balancing act: he is using vehement criticism of Israel to extend Turkish influence in the Islamic world, but he still wants to continue to cultivate relations with both the West and Israel, because Turkey is dependent on its economic relations with them.
In your book "Die Türkei – Zerreißprobe zwischen Islam und Nationalismus" ["Turkey – Torn between Islam and Nationalism"] you quote the Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, as saying: "Better a leading nation in the Islamic world than bringing up the rear in the West!" Do these words indicate a paradigm shift in Turkish foreign policy, a turning away from the West, from the EU, towards Turkey's eastern neighbours?
Schweizer: President Abdullah Gül is seen as a staunch advocate of Turkish entry into the EU. He proved this convincingly during his time as Foreign Minister. His words indicate a certain disappointment that many European countries are delaying entry talks; some are even blocking it altogether. Germany under Angela Merkel and France under Nicolas Sarkozy play a more ambivalent role.
But the stagnation of the entry talks is not the real reason why Turkey is currently keen to gain more influence in the Islamic world. And this is certainly not a complete turning away from the West.
Erdogan is trying – as no other Turkish Prime Minister before him – to make use of the strategic value of being the only Muslim country to maintain close relations with Western states and Israel on the one hand, and Arab states and Iran on the other. This gives Turkey the opportunity to act as a mediator, both between Syria and Israel and between Iran and the United States.
The fact that these attempts have had little lasting success up till now is only partly the result of Turkey's undiplomatic, indeed clumsy behaviour; it is also the result of political mistakes by other countries involved in the conflict. One can however also conclude from the failure of its mediation attempts so far that Turkey is overestimating the strength of its potential influence.
The Turkish government under Erdogan recently made very clear its interest in increasing its political influence in the Middle East. What is the reaction of the Arab states and Iran to Turkey's aspirations towards dominance?
Schweizer: Both the Arab states and Iran are observing Turkey's growing involvement in the Islamic realm with mixed feelings. On the one hand they welcome the fact that Turkey, which until now has maintained ties strictly with the West, is now also seeking to establish contacts with its Eastern neighbours whom the West regards with mistrust, and in doing so it is raising their international standing. On the other hand, though, its relations with these countries are burdened by the weight of history.
The Arabs remember only too well the ultimately oppressive foreign rule of the Ottoman Empire, while the Iranians think of the bitter wars with the Ottomans over supremacy in Iraq and Azerbaijan. There is therefore a great deal of mistrust among Arabs and Iranians regarding Turkey's aspirations to be a regional power. The tensions beneath the surface could degenerate into open conflicts if other powers in the Middle East and Central Asia were to feel their influence jeopardized by an increase in Turkey's power.
Two years ago, in your book, you ascribed to Erdogan a politics of pragmatism. Is this still an accurate assessment?
Schweizer: My assessment is still accurate. It would be completely mistaken to believe that Turkey's greater political opening towards to its Muslim neighbours is motivated by religion. It is not their common religion that leads to rapprochement among the Muslim states but their common strategic interests.
This political opening has resulted in a rise in Turkish economic exports to the Middle East between the years 2000 and 2008 from around 2.8 billion dollars to almost 26 billion dollars – almost ten times as much. With the Nabucco pipeline Turkey aims to become the economic hub for oil and gas exports between the Gulf States, Iran and Central Asia, and the consumers in Europe. In order to achieve this Turkey has to maintain equally good relations with its Muslim neighbours and with the West.
However, in this instance it is not only Turkey that is being pragmatic, but also Iran. It would be impossible for Iran to form a close alliance with the Turks for purely religious reasons. In this context, may I remind you that Iran, a fundamentalist theocracy, did form a close alliance with secular Syria in the early 1980s, purely based on strategic considerations – an alliance that has lasted to this day.
The AKP has been in power for almost eight years, and it still has a lot of support among the people. Nonetheless, there are many critical voices, both in Turkey and abroad, who accuse the AKP of wanting to turn Turkey into an Islamist state. Are these fears justified?
Schweizer: The accusation that the AKP is trying to establish an Islamist state in Turkey is out of touch with reality. Erdogan does have Islamist roots; his political mentor Necmettin Erbakan was an Islamist. But Erdogan's great success in the polls and subsequent popularity were precisely because he came to power promising to reconcile Islam and the modern secular state, and to overcome intolerant nationalism through the systematic cultivation of democracy.
It is one of the paradoxes of Turkish politics that it is no longer the strictly secular parties, those who orientate themselves towards Atatürk, who are the most emphatic advocates of extending democratic rights. These days it is rather the "Islamic-secular" AKP that is the biggest champion of reforms aimed at paving Turkey's way into joining the EU.
The fact that Erdogan also, on the other hand, has a tendency to behave in an authoritarian manner and deviate from his publicized goals is something he has in common with most of his secular opponents.
Where does Turkey still fall short in consolidating itself as a democracy that would also meet the standards of the EU?
Schweizer: Turkey is already fairly democratic, compared to its Muslim neighbours. It has a parliamentary democracy; parties can be voted out of power. But it doesn't have a consistent separation of powers.
The National Security Council, which is strongly controlled by the military, has almost dictatorial powers in deciding whether or not a party is acting "in accordance with the constitution". The constitutional court is closely bound up with this Security Council. There have already been three military coups resulting in the overthrow of the government that were legitimized by the Security Council: in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1997 the threat alone was enough to force the prime minister at the time, Erbakan, to resign.
This authority is particularly disastrous because it subscribes strictly to an intolerant nationalism, and could thus also adopt a dictatorial stance in blocking liberal reform policies concerning ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Armenians or Greeks. Erdogan has initiated efforts to break the power of this authority, but so far there has not been any real structural reform.
The Kurdish problem is one of the most protracted domestic political conflicts in Turkey. In spite of the attempts at reform instigated by the AKP, the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK has recently flared up again. What do you think are the chances of a true reconciliation between the Kurds and the Turkish government led by Erdogan?
Schweizer: This brings me back to my previous example: the fact that the ideologies of the National Security Council and the constitutional court are characterized by intolerant nationalism. In December 2009 the constitutional court pronounced a ban on the Kurdish DTP, with the official justification that the party sympathized with the PKK. This deprived the Kurds of the only democratically-elected representative of their interests, a party which does include political hawks, but also political doves who are ready to engage in dialogue and compromise.
The decisive issue is that the ban also obstructs the AKP's attempts to instigate reform. No other Turkish prime minister to date has been as decisive as Erdogan in attempting to establish at least cultural autonomy for the Kurds. Now his only political partner with any authority in this regard has been removed. We have to see the PKK's revival of military activities in this context. The hardliners feel confirmed in their belief that a peaceful democratic process of evolution seems to be impossible.
The ongoing conflict with regard to the Kurdish problem is precisely an example of the urgent need for Turkey's democracy to continue to develop into a democracy along Western lines.
Interview: Christian Horbach
© Qantara.de 2010
Gerhard Schweizer has a doctorate in Empirical Cultural Science and has worked for many years as a freelance writer. He is the author of numerous books on the Islamic world, including portraits of Syria and Iran.
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
Edited by Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de