Part of the West or leader of the Islamic world? The Arab nations see their neighbour Turkey in various ways. The Jordanian journalist Yousef Alsharif, head of TV station Al Jazeera's Turkey office in Ankara analyses how the perception of Turkey in the neighbouring Arab states has changed
One of the most important results of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Baghdad in July this year was the signing of an agreement establishing a high-level council for strategic co-operation between the two countries. Erdoğans's foreign policy advisor, Ahmed Davudoğlu, emphasized the particular significance of the agreement, comparing it with the agreement which founded the European common market.
Iraq has become Turkey's most important economic partner in the region, also allowing Turkey access the Arabic Gulf states. The desire to form a partnership with the Arabs, Davudoğlu says, extends to Turkish dreams of an EU-like organization uniting the Middle East countries. But to what extent do Turkey's visions fit with the way Arabs see the Turks?
One answer was provided by a taxi driver in Jordan. When he heard that I lived in Turkey he asked, "Are there any Muslims in Turkey? And how long are they going to carry on allying themselves with Israel against the Arabs?" He was genuinely astonished when I told him that ninety percent of the Turkish population is Muslim, that the relationship between Turkey and Israel had fundamentally altered and that Turkey now saw the Arabs as important partners in the region.
Arabs equate secularism with atheism
The image of Turkey firmly entrenched among many Arabs is twofold: western secularism and the alliance with Israel. Many Arabs misunderstand the meaning of secularism, conflating it with atheism, with the suppression of religion and the banning of its symbols.
With the head-scarf ban in universities for instance, Turkey's strict system of laicism has contributed to the reinforcement of these misunderstandings. Many Arabs therefore see Turkey as part of the West. Some position it between East and West; under no circumstances is it seen as part of the oriental, Islamic world.
The 1996 military agreement between Ankara and Tel Aviv and the fact that Turkey was the first Islamic country to recognize the state of Israel remain vivid to the average Arab citizen. The sympathies of most Arabs therefore lie with the Islamic parties in Turkey, which evoke nostalgic memories of a common cultural and religious past. The Turks who profess to the Islamic faith are the ones most Arabs wish to see in power. They associate them with a country which matches their vision; an Islamic, oriental Turkey, with which they can pursue shared political goals, firmly on the side of the Arabs and distancing itself from Israel and the USA.
The refusal to support the USA's Iraq invasion was a turning point
The Turkish parliament's May 2003 decision not to support the US armed forces' invasion of Iraq represented a historic turning point in Arabs' perception of Turkey. A NATO member, Turkey suddenly broke out of the West Atlantic, American consensus.
This new approach met with approval from the great majority of Arabs, particularly when they compared Turkey's stance to that of their own governments; most Arab leaders were tacitly co-operating with the USA, making military bases available and providing logistical assistance. There were many articles in Arabic press at the time praising the Turkish position and demanding that their countries learn from Turkey how to say no to the USA.
It comes as no surprise that this decision, by a parliament where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has the majority, aroused hopes that Turkey might align itself more towards Arab interests. This change in perception was further boosted by Prime Minister Erdoğan's strong criticism of the US military operations in Iraq and of Israel's murder of Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Hamas movement. While Erdoğan described the assassination as "state terrorism", none of the Arabic leaders spoke out against the attack on Yassin, confined to a wheelchair. Turkey insisted that, having won the election, Hamas should be given the chance to rule in the Palestinian territories. The Turkish government received Khalid Mash'al, head of the movement's political office, in Ankara despite diplomatic pressure from the US and Israel.
Turkey as mediator
This has all strengthened the trust many Arabs have gained in Turkey over the past six years. Turkey now works hard as a mediator in countless conflicts throughout the region. The most important example is the secret, indirect round of negotiations between Syria and Israel, which came about as a result of diplomatic efforts on Turkey's part. If Syria was once the fiercest critic of the Turkish-Israeli relationship of all states in the region, now it is benefiting from the fruits of this relationship.
From a purely political point of view, Turkish-Syrian relationships improved since, following enormous pressure from Turkey in 1998, Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), was forced to leave his hiding place in Damascus. Till then Öcalan had directed his party's attacks on the Turkish military and security forces from Syria. As a result of the normalization of the relationship between the two countries Turkey also gained respect within the Arab League. Syria had previously vetoed all projects or proposals leading to a strengthening of Arab-Turkish relationships, pointing to an ongoing dispute between the two countries over the allocation of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Following the 11th September 2001 attacks and the occupation of Iraq a further strengthening of Arab-Turkish relations was brought about surprisingly by the USA. Due to the spread of so-called Islamist terrorism Washington sought a moderate Islamic organization which would serve as a role model for Muslims and deter them from terrorism.
The AKP was exactly what the US government was looking for. The party has succeeded in expressing itself politically in a way which avoids it being perceived as Islamist. It presents itself as a centre-right party within Turkey's political landscape of secularism. To Muslims it is still however seen as an Islamic party. The AKP government receives support as part of the so-called "Wider Middle East" project, with which Washington seeks to entice its allies among the rich Gulf States to commit to large-scale investments.
The Gulf states supported the Turkish economy, which in turn promoted links between Turkey and these countries, which had previously viewed the secularist system with suspicion, Saudi-Arabia in particular. On the other hand the US occupation of Iraq caused an inversion of the military and political relations of power: Iraq, previously an important factor in the region's balance of power, collapsed. Iran's influence on Iraq and the entire Middle East increased. The Arab triangle consisting of Saudi-Arabia, Syria and Egypt, fell apart. Syria moved closer to Iran.
Turkey does not wish to lead the Sunni-Islam world
Other Arab countries looked to Turkey as their new ally against Iran. In particular Saudi Arabia, which saw the disagreements between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states more in terms of religious confession than politics, believed that largely Sunni-Islamic Turkey, with its powerful army was capable of playing the role Iraq had previously played in holding the Iranian, Shiite influence in the region at bay.
The Arabs' public courting of Turkey went so far that King Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia visited Turkey three times in fourteen months. No Saudi king had ever visited Turkey before.
However Turkey politely refused the Saudi offer of leadership of the Sunni Islam world. It was emphasized that the Turkish state was based on a secular system, that Turkey rejected polarization according to religious confession and supported dialogue with Teheran. At the same time however Turkey exploited these public courtship attempts to sign several trade and economic agreements throughout the Arab world. The AKP's strategy of taking a neutral position won Turkey the role as mediator in the region's conflicts, from the conflict in the Sudanese province of Darfur, to events in Lebanon and the atomic dispute with Iran. This made a decisive contribution to the stereotypical image of Turkey in the Arab world.
The majority of Arabs however still believe that the changes to Turkey's approach are entirely thanks to the AKP and that if another party or the military were in control Turkey would not continue down the same path. They have grave doubts as to whether the current course of Turkish foreign policy will last forever. It is well known in the Arab countries that Erdoğan and his supporters in Turkey have many powerful adversaries who would like to remove them from power.
The desire for freedom in the Arab world
In the area of culture, Turkish television series dubbed into Arabic have been very successful in dismantling stereotypes. With the romantic series "Noor" and "The lost years", which the Saudi-financed satellite station MBC transmitted in 2007, Turkey reached almost every Arab home. Arabs were able to "experience" Turkish customs and habits.
The secret of the series' success in the Arab world is undoubtedly down to viewers' longing for more freedom, and it is laicism which guarantees Turkish Muslims this freedom, particularly in terms of relations between men and women. It is hardly surprising that the only protests against the programmes came from Islamist extremists; in their opinion the series continually promote the idea that women have the same right to love and desire as men.
The extremists fear that such influences could cause the Arab masses to run out of control and demand more freedom. It is no wonder either that three times as many Arab tourists visited Turkey this summer compared to the previous year. Turkey has almost become the Hollywood of the Middle East, used for pop videos by Arab singers; anyone seeking to stand out from their colleagues who shoot in Arab countries chooses Turkey as their backdrop.
Turkish nationalism as a dividing line
People in the Arab world are still full of admiration for the way the five-hundred-year Ottoman Empire began. They still hold respect for Sultan Mehmed Fatih who conquered Constantinople, later Istanbul, and drove out the Byzantines in 1453. However the last century, which climaxed in the rule of the nationalist Young Turks movement, has left deep scars in the memories of the Arab peoples. Handed down by their grandparents, gruesome stories evoke the Young Turks' racist policies, the slaughter of non-Turkish population groups, the many men conscripted during the "Seferberlik" period when the Young Turks attempted to occupy Russia, drawing the Ottoman Empire unto the First World War, in which the Arab population had no interest whatsoever. This was the time in which Turkish nationalism grew.
The Young Turks adhered to the ideology of Turanism, which promoted the supremacy of Turks and related peoples. This doctrine of superiority led among other things to the segregation of races. This dark chapter in Turkey's history was dealt with in the Syrian television series "Brothers of the Dust" which provoked strong criticism from the Turkish government when it was broadcast throughout the Arab world in 2001. At the time Syrian-Turkish relations had not yet recovered from the Öcalan crisis.
It is certain at any rate that the stereotypical image of a ferocious Turkish ruling elite still lurks in the corners of the Arab imagination. It returns to the surface every time the Turkish military executes a putsch, or an Islamist party is banned in Turkey. However this image is very gradually softening and loosing its terror. Turkey's economic development has also provoked admiration and respect from Arab businesses who are increasingly investing there.
Turkey's political and economic
The astonishing result of all these factors, along with the less active role of the Arabs in the region, is the feeling spreading throughout the Arab population, that the Arab world needs Turkey's support again; it needs to close ranks with Turkey to protect its own interests. Turkey's experience with the European Union provoked sarcastic responses from many Arabs; the EU will never open membership to a state such as Turkey, they warned when Turkey initiated efforts to join. But even on this point their attitude changed after Turkey's political and economic reforms of the past ten years on the European model were shown to reap positive results.
Instead many Arabs now support a union or partnership of the Arab and European countries bordering the Mediterranean, believing they might profit in a similar way. The Arab countries are genuinely grateful for the Turkish efforts to rediscover the Arab world. There is no indication that they would object to the idea of a Turkish-Arab reunification. The prototype is the old connection maintained during the Ottoman Empire, but under the condition that the new Ottomans govern, embodied by the AKP, and not the secularist descendents of the Young Turks.
The aim of this ideal union must be to draw the Arab world out of its political backwardness, to support moves towards democracy and overcome political crises to create a more stable, modern Middle East.
Translated from the Germany by Steph Morris
© Yousef Alsharif / Qantara.de 2008
This article was previously published in German in Kulturaustausch – Zeitschrift für internationale Perspektiven.
The Jordanian journalist Yousef Alsharif was born in Damascus in 1973. He has lived in Turkey for over fifteen years. Alsharif works for the Turkey office of the television station Al Jazeera in Ankara and writes for the Arabic daily newspaper Al Hayat, published in London. His specialist area is Turkey and its relationship to its Middle-Eastern neighbours.