Turks, Arabs and Jews: The Middle East in Crisis

The nominally secular Turkish state has distanced itself from its erstwhile alliance with Israel. The region is now on the brink

Emanuele Ottolenghi

Standing outside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on a Friday morning as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, curious tourists furtively peek through the windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of the beautiful ceramics that decorate the majestic shrine a stone’s throw from the Topkapi palace. An hour before noon, the mosque closes its doors to non-Muslims.

A devout few are washing their feet outside or rushing in through the doors but the tourists vastly outnumber the faithful. Istanbul, on the Friday morning when Hamas and Israel are squaring off once again, is a reminder that larger forces are still clashing in this region, in a conflict longer than our short memories. Religion is on the rise but Friday, the Muslim day of rest, is a working day in a Turkey that is formally still secular. 

Everywhere, though, one sees evidence that Kemal Atatürk’s secularism is under pressure—the extraordinary number of veiled women on the street is but a superficial sign of this country’s deep undercurrents, which show that the past is never really a foreign country. Eighty years of secularism, like 70 years of Communism in nearby Russia, did not obliterate the past. A millennium of Islam in Anatolia has not withered.

What may not meet the eye but leaves a more enduring mark is the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey who dared criticise the ruling party. Beyond the increasing harassment of critics, the telltale signs of a retreating secularism are alarming:  a gradual but inexorable takeover by the ruling Islamic forces of schools and universities, the judiciary and the army is under way. 

Under Islamist control for more than a decade, Turkey is confident today under its assertive prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since September 11, 2001, every Western leader of note has touted Turkey as the model to follow for an Islam at odds with liberal Western values. But while Turkey  was paraded as the model road to freedom, the real Turkey was intent on becoming more Islamic and less liberal. Today, its leaders feel vindicated by history. The region is turning, and the tide of Islamic piety is sweeping to power. Everywhere, Islamist parties who emerge victorious from the Arab Spring look to Turkey with envy, for its combination of Western military prowess, economic success and gradual and bloodless return to the once-derided faith.

Rejected by Europe, Turkey no longer appears interested in joining it. Why else would Erdogan choose this moment to challenge the EU by reintroducing the death penalty? And why should Turkey woo Europe anyway? Istanbul appears again the cultural and commercial hub it once was. Turkey is booming while Europe is teetering on the brink of economic insolvency. Suddenly, its political horizon is the 360-  degree view seen from the Topkapi palace at the tip of the promontory, overlooking the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Anatolia beckons across the water and so, further afield, does the Black Sea, with its possibilities for both cooperation and competition with Russia, an old nemesis. The Caucasus is near, and so is Iran. To the West, beyond Marmara’s tranquil waters, lie Turkey’s old Ottoman dominions, both European and Mediterranean, where Turkey today can reassert its influence.

And Turkey is trying. Always regarded suspiciously by the Arab world they once dominated, the heirs of the Ottoman sultans and caliphs now attract envy and admiration as the crumbling dictatorships that  ruled the neighbourhood are giving way to the green flag of political Islam. It is an Islam that is comfortable with technology in the digital age yet anxious to keep Western cultural penetration at bay, filled with rage and grievance, yet unable fully to exact revenge due to its current weakness. Turkey can lead the region’s Islamic awakening by speaking to that long-lost pride.

This Turkey is trying to do assiduously and without paying any significant price to its erstwhile Western friends and allies. The Obama administration still thinks, much as its Republican predecessors did, that Turkey remains a precious Nato partner. And in a time of turmoil and political correctness, the US president seems determined to let Erdogan lead the way.

But Erdogan, though his Islamic revival harks back to the indelible legacy of the        Ottomans, cannot do away with the nationalism which ultimately brought the empire down and gave a new compelling alternative to secularists to build the modern Turkey he now presides over. Ottomanism was authoritarian but cosmopolitan—like all empires, it accommodated numerous ethnic communities, faiths and nationalities. Erdogan can’t yet be fully authoritarian but, more ominously, he has to contend with what nationalism left behind in the region, including unfinished business.

Behind the exuberant assertiveness of its rich and successful business sector,  Turkey is still anxious about the Kurdish question. A Turkish interlocutor presented it to me as evidence of an American conspiracy to carve the region up and check Turkey’s ascendancy. From a Washington perspective such a conspiracy sounds far-fetched—although the Middle East rarely fails to suspect CIA—or Mossad-inspired conspiracies, even when none exist. America is even more preoccupied than Europe with its economic failings, and seems more and more detached from the region. And President Obama is determined to turn his attention from the Middle East to the Far East. Asia Minor is indeed a minor concern compared to the vast Asian continent beyond. Gone is the almost messianic optimism that a presidential envoy and a few speeches could bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians. Nobody speaks of Obama’s failure to deliver anything on this track, still less of his apparent decision quietly to go on autopilot. But such a decision is in step with what he is doing elsewhere across the Middle East.

The growing chatter over bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran may be scuttled in the end by the Ayatollah Khamenei’s inveterate fear of America’s seductive cultural embrace. A grand bargain with Iran may remain elusive,  but Obama would seize it if there was one to have. Retreating from this messy place is not without appeal. Which, if it were to happen, would leave the locals to fend for themselves at a time when, a century after the Ottoman Empire’s carve-up at the hands of obtuse imperial powers, its legacy is unravelling.

Kurdish ambitions, conspiracies aside, are long overdue. A nation of more than 30 million, the Kurds have a stronger claim to independence than most others and have suffered under the boot of Arab and Turkish nationalist regimes more than most. Yet other, lesser claims could more easily emerge, as the current convulsions caused by the Arab Spring bring Syria’s last outpost of “progressive” governance to an end. Whereas the Ottomans ruled over a complex but generally harmonious mosaic of subjects, Turkish and Arab nationalism painted over those colours that did not match their own. Under the former, minorities sometimes even thrived. With the latter, they lost even the meagre freedoms they enjoyed as imperial subjects, and barely survived.

Turkey weathered the storm of Saddam Hussein’s fall and the rise of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. For nearly a decade now this stable Kurdish enclave has already been de facto, if not de jure, a state. But this legal fiction has kept the lid on the pressure cooker, thanks to the wisdom of Kurdish leaders who understood the need to work with Turkey and shy away from maximalist tendencies. Turkey too accepted that it could live with an autonomous Kurdistan, as long as the latter did not stoke the fires of Kurdish separatism on the Turkish side of the border. Kurdish aspirations and Turkish anxieties were put off for another day. But now, with Syria’s Kurds suddenly able to join their Iraqi brethren by extricating themselves from the disintegrating Assad regime, that day may be about to dawn. If the millions of Kurds who live in eastern Turkey and do not particularly love the Atatürk legacy were to stir, this fragile truce would go up in flames.

And here is the irony. The day that Erdogan left Turkey to go to Egypt in an effort to assert his role as regional leader, alongside Egypt’s new Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, in a high-profile bid to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, he proved how incapable the region’s new forces are of confronting reality. 

Referring to Hamas’s barrage of rockets, which hit Israel hundreds of times over years before provoking its reaction, Erdogan announced that Israel’s response stood on “fabricated grounds”. Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, also decried Israel’s efforts to defend its civilian population as mere electioneering. While these words may echo a genuine and popular sentiment in Turkey and across the Muslim world, they betray a double standard that Turkey refuses to acknowledge.

Turkey’s hand with its Kurdish insurgency has hardly been lighter than Israel’s with Hamas. Turkey has routinely used overwhelming military force in a decades-long conflict that has left more victims than all the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations since 1948 combined. And its recognition of the Kurdish problem is light years behind Israel’s basic recognition of Palestinian national aspirations.

Toying with Palestinian nationalism has been the favoured pastime of spoiled Western intellectuals and third world pied pipers of all kinds. But standing for the downtrodden abroad while engaging in oppression at home is not going to make things better for Turkey.

That Palestine still mobilises the masses in a way that Kurdish suffering or Syrian fratricide fail to do is beside the point. The opposing national claims of Israelis and Palestinians have largely been managed for the better part of the last 65 years. The combustible mix of national grievances, civil war, regional turmoil, regime collapse all around and refugees at the gates could plunge Turkey and the entire area into an inferno that no amount of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed has ever precipitated.

Yet, ever the opportunist, Erdogan has learned fast that stoking anti-Israel sentiment is a sure way to gain popularity, both at home and abroad. For Erdogan this is a great opportunity, since Turkey’s Islamic credentials make Ankara an appealing alternative for political patronage to both Washington and Tehran. No doubt, there will be rivalries—Egypt is not keen to let Turkey lead the newly-formed Sunni Muslim Brotherhood pack—but Turkey feels it can find a new place in the sun with its new Ottomanism and its careful distancing from its Western alliances. And so the brief but intense love affair between Israel and Turkey is consigned to history, even as Israeli-Turkish bilateral trade continues to grow.

With Israel and Hamas locked again in a deadly struggle, the initial results for the Arab Spring are in and they are not what they promised to be 18 months ago. 

A weak army and a weak economy make it more difficult for Egypt’s President Morsi to embrace his base’s hatred for Israel and join the fight, depite his natural Islamist instincts. In Turkey, Erdogan has to contend with a border on fire, grumblings at home from increasingly restive minorities and booming business relations with Iran that he will find increasingly hard to control, let alone explain to his Western admirers. There is the distinct possibility that  King Abdullah of Jordan  will be observing his dominion from exile before very long. Syria has to grapple with its regime’s primeval cruelty and everyone must deal with the continuing fallout from the Syrian civil war.

Meanwhile, Europe is in for a cold winter of economic discontent, while America is rapidly disengaging. With the most volatile region of the world on the brink of chaos, the only remaining superpower is absorbed in a petty sexual scandal and negotiations over taxes. It is the worst moment in modern history for such an eclipse of Western power. Nothing in the Middle East is solid or permanent. Even Constantinople’s walls eventually gave way.

Seen from Jerusalem, this landscape is both alarming and reassuring. Under missile attack, Israel has not lost its composure. There have not been widespread scenes of panic. Life is continuing. Like a sturdy ship weathering a mighty storm, Israel appears undaunted. The ship will not stay dry in such a storm, but it will not sink either. 

This is not the last round, pace the peacemakers, whose optimism can sometimes be dangerously naive. But it is the round that will set the tone for future dynamics. Gone are the days when Palestinian-Israeli tensions were negotiated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Jordan and Egypt, under American tutelage. American leverage is diminished. Jordan is almost gone and has been left out entirely from negotiations. The PA is sidelined, because of its leaders’ obtuseness and the rise of Islamic forces that are more comfortable working with Hamas.

Istanbul’s walls, which the Romans built and the Ottomans took over, suddenly look more fragile in the face of the coming storm than Jerusalem’s walls, which the Romans destroyed and the Ottomans rebuilt.

It took General Allenby and a Western army to take Jerusalem. It will take a full restoration of American power to shield the region from its worst instincts. And at this point, it looks unlikely that America will volunteer for the task.

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