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Theology Thursdays: Turkey - Buffer, Butler Or Balance? (12/11/02)

Editor's Note: In light of the recent events in Turkey, is re-running an editorial that might provide context and insight into the critical position that Turkey occupies as a nexus of danger and opportunity in the historic and present relationship between the West and the Islamic World


Turkey - Buffer, Butler Or Balance?
December 12, 2002

This is an interesting week for those who have been watching the balance of power between the Islamic world and the West. Yesterday's meeting between United States President, George W. Bush, and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the country's moderate Muslim political party - The Development Party, known as AKP - two days before the European Union (EU) meets to decide when it will take up the issue of Turkey's membership in the 15-nation body, provides a snapshot of the growing geopolitical stakes that surround Turkey.

With the world on the brink of witnessing a war between the leading Western nation and a Muslim nation with more unexplored oil underneath its soil than any country other than Sudan, a case can easily be made that the manner in which the United States and the EU handle Turkey - a unique Muslim nation of 66 million people, which borders Iraq - could determine the long-term prospects of war and peace throughout the entire world.

The last time Mr. Erdogan was here, earlier this year, he was essentially ignored by the Western establishment. Not this time.

"We join you side-by-side in your desire to become a member of the European Union," Bush said as he sat next to Mr. Erdogan, yesterday, in the Roosevelt Room. President Bush knows what he is doing. Second only to his handling of the Middle East Peace Process, in a way that satisfies the Muslim and Arab world, the American leader understands that his cajoling and support of Turkey is the key ingredient in the successful prosecution of a war with Iraq in a manner that does not alienate an entire civilization. If the United States were to lose even Turkey's lukewarm support for its post-September 11th efforts, it would send a signal to the Muslim world that not even the most secular and moderate of Islamic expressions can find a welcome reception in the Western world. It is the type of negative PR against the West that no Muslim extremist or radical could pay for or concoct.

Actions do speak louder than words.

But the words coming out of the West and against Turkey have already done their fair share of damage.

Mr. Erdogan has accused the 15-nation European Union of being hypocritical in insisting that Turkey improve human rights and democracy before it can open talks on EU membership. Turks argue that the political criteria that it must meet are amorphous and incapable of objective and fair evaluation, unlike the economic criteria that comprised the Maastricht Treaty that served as the basis of entry into the European Union by its founding member-states, 10 years ago. Turkish leaders say they are being treated with a double-standard. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, head of the EU's constitutional convention, said last month that at its core, Turkey was not European, and that its entry into the member-nation body would spell the end of the European Union. Other European leaders have outright stated that no Muslim nation has a place in the EU.

The stinging words have opened old wounds among the Turkish electorate who have long felt that they are unwanted, simultaneously by both the West and the Muslim world. Not White or Christian enough for Europe and not dark and Muslim enough for the Islamic world. Others claim that Turkey has an unhealthy fascination with the West, and, an inferiority complex due to its Islamic heritage. Due to its unique secular-militarist leadership, Turkey has been able to manage the dual rejection but clearly the unwelcome attitude that Turkey has received from the West has hurt its political establishment and cultural psyche the most.

But despite the repeated back-turning, Turkish leaders hope to prevail on Europe to accept it, once and for all. The Turks make impressive arguments, several of which allow an inference to the utility that Turkey can play in helping the EU manage the disequilibrium between Islam and the continent.

Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, prior to his departure to the Copehagen EU summit this week told the Turkish Daily News:

"The entry of Muslim Turkey into the EU would add to EU's richness. Then the EU can take important roles not only in its continent but also in the entire world. Image of a pluralist and universal-thinking Europe would be strengthened. There is a lot of contribution that a Muslim, democratic, transparent and modern people could make to the EU. Europe could make very positive contributions to the world peace if it acts together with Turkey. If Turkey is excluded, that would mean the EU has a very narrow perception of today and the future. In such a case, Europe would take an introvert stance in regard to the world politics, occupied solely with its internal problems. A Europe which does not take assertive steps and does not think big will inevitably become a Europe discussing only its own problems and losing its ambition to compete in economic field with the rest of the world. Attractiveness of such a Europe will gradually decrease in the long term."

It could be argued that the most important nation in the world, on the margin, right now is Turkey. The position that Turkey finds itself in today is one that few nations have ever been in and one that most nations would both covet and dread. Turkey finds itself near the intersection of two civilizations - Western and Islamic - and as a result is in one of the most dangerous and opportunistic of positions, able to immediately obtain long-sought financial resources and political status while simultaneously running the risk of offending its most deeply-held beliefs and traditions, even an entire religion and its international believing community.

What makes Turkey's position particularly dangerous is that the country is not being pulled equally on both sides. Due to the condition, lack of unity and skepticism in the Muslim world, few countries in the Islamic world community - the ummah - are desirous of promoting the country that sits between Europe and Asia. In fact, many nations in the Islamic world, due to the dramatic manner in which Mustafa Kemal Attaturk modernized and westernized Turkey over 70 years ago, don't even recognize Turkey as an Islamic country. At the same time, as the West - particularly the U.S., England and Israel - wages "war on terrorism," increased overtures, pressures and incentives have been placed relative to Turkey, all at a time when the country has been ravaged by an inefficient political process and economic woes exacerbated by the meddling of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). If one were to sum up the competing interests; in the West one finds a offer to give Turkey the world; and from the ummah, an offer to save her soul and return Islam to its glory days. One offer is overtly political and economic, appealing to Turkey's need for acceptance by the West. The other appeals to Turkey's insecurity about its faithfulness to Islam, an embrace of its unique identity, and its desire for an unquestioned sphere of influence. In strictly geopolitical terms here is an analogy: the West offers a Turkey a couch in a nicely furnished house, while the Islamic option could mean Turkey's stewardship of an entire floor in a house in dire need of refurbishment. Turkey, for now, appears to favor the former.

But Turkey is not na´ve about the nature of her newly received attention from the West. She is fresh off of a decade of rebuke and rejection delivered at the hands of the European Union (EU), the collective of nations that have never forgotten Turkey's genesis out of the Ottoman Empire. To them Turkey is culturally "non-European" and with her population full of Muslims and her almost equally decent relations with African, Asian and Balkan nations, she presents the unwelcome possibility of internal social disorder as the EU's open-door policy among its members makes the spread of ideologies, religions and cultures easier than ever before. The worst-case scenario, in the minds of the political and cultural establishment in England, France and Germany is embodied in one statistic: two-thirds of the migrants into Europe, in the 1990s, were Muslim.

Turkish efforts at Westernization have smacked head-first into anti-Islamic bias and growing concerns in Europe about immigration and terrorism. In his 1996 classic, Clash Of Civilization Samuel Huntington describes the scenario:

Beginning in the 1980s a primary, perhaps the primary, foreign policy goal of Turkey's Western-oriented elite has been to secure membership in the European Union. Turkey formally applied for membership in April 1987. In December 1989 Turkey was told that its application could not be considered before 1993. In 1994 the Union approved the applications of Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, and it was widely anticipated that in the coming years favorable action would be taken on Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Baltic republics. The Turks were particularly disappointed that again Germany, the most influential member of the European Community, did not actively support their membership and instead gave priority to promoting membership for the Central European states. Pressured by the United States, the Union did negotiate a customs union with Turkey; full membership, however, remains a distant and dubious possibility.

Why was Turkey passed over and why does it always seem to be at the end of the queue? In public, European officials referred to Turkey's low level of economic development and its less than Scandinavian respect for human rights. In private, both Europeans and Turks agreed that the real reasons were the intense opposition of the Greeks and, more importantly, the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country. European countries did not want to face the possibility of opening their borders to immigration from a country of 60 million Muslims and much unemployment. Even more significantly, they felt that culturally the Turks did not belong in Europe. Turkey's human rights record, as President Ozal said in 1992, is a "made-up reason why Turkey should not join the EC. The real reason is that we are Muslim, and they are Christian," but he added, "they don't say that." European officials, in turn, agree that the Union is "a Christian club" and that "Turkey is too poor, too populous, too Muslim, too harsh, too culturally different, too everything." The "private night-mare" of Europeans, one observer commented, is the historical memory of "Saracen raiders in Western Europe and the Turks at the gates of Vienna." These attitudes, in turn, generated the "common perception among Turks" that "the West sees no place for a Muslim Turkey within Europe."

Now, Turkey is being told it must wait again, now until 2005 to discuss EU membership. It wants to be considered for membership next year. This week the meetings in Denmark are advertised as dedicated to arriving at a timeline.

It is natural that Turkey would be as willing as it has to supply its troops to Operation Enduring Freedom. Turkey does see itself, first and foremost as a military power. And although the West is comforted by they fact that the country has secular leadership, it cannot be said that that secular government is run by civilians. Turkey's generals have run the government like Iran's mullahs. The only difference is that one set of leaders takes its lead from war strategy while the other interprets the Holy Qur'an for guidance in government. So, in the context of its NATO membership and militarist bent, the much talked about initial committment of over 3,000 Turkish ground troops to the war effort in Afghanistan was a logical contribution for Turkey to make, and one that did earn her considerable public relations points with the U.S., England, Israel and the rest of Europe. Appreciated but not a total stretch for Turkey. After all Turkey is second in NATO, only to the U.S. in terms of the size of its ground troops. But the siding of Turkey with the U.S. against Afghanistan came not without its risks due to the chain reaction some felt it set in motion. Generally Turks were not vehemently opposed to the bombing, as long as it remained focused on Afghanistan, that is. But not if the conflict widens as is expected and Iraq is included on the list of candidates for new military attention, in a war on terrorism. Turkey has already forewarned Washington D.C. of its inability to enthusiastically support the effort, fearing the ramifications of a further destabilized Iraq. The Gulf War and Iraq's fall have absolutely devastated Turkey's economy. Iraq is one example where Turks realize the limitations of their service to the U.S. The reservations that some Turks in government and civil society have toward entering into a full Western embrace, grow from the belief, held by many, that the West will never allow Turkey to have its own sphere of influence and regional authority by which it would take the lead in efforts to bring peace to the region or to determine the extent of any Western opposition toward a regional neighbor like Iraq; or American and European diplomacy and grace extended to a country in its neighborhood - even Greece, another country with whom Turkey has serious problems.

But that is what Turkey desires and possibly would require if it were to agree to facilitate the West's bidding in that part of the world - the Middle East, the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe. Turkey can't accept the role of silent partner. Her problems with Iraq, Greece, Syria as well as problems with Kurds and Armenians - domestically and throughout the region don't allow Turkey, NATO membership or not, to abdicate responsibility for its own regional security as is the case with a nation like Japan, which has allowed the U.S. to carry the burden for defending the resourceful nation from any threats in its own neck of the woods. Turkey will not accept the same.

While Turkey in a great many ways is almost perfectly suited to fit the bill as intermediary between the West and the Islamic world there remain significant problems, largely stemming from the perception of Turkey held among Muslim nations. Turkey's reputation among Muslim nations was so bad that its membership in the Organization Of The Islamic Conference (OIC) has been, at times, virtually ignored or worse, mocked. In addition there are a litany of disputes between Turkey and Muslim countries: Turkey and Iraq have a dispute over the Kurdish population (in fact Turkey's Kurd problem is regional in nature - of the 30 million Kurds half are in Turkey, one fourth are in Iraq, fifteen percent are in Iran and five percent are in Syria); and Turkey and Syria have a dispute over water and Turkey and practically the entire Muslim world are in disagreement over Turkey's relationship with Israel, which has, at times, included joint military exercises. While Muslim nations respect Turkey's power, individuality and potential, they do not adequately trust her yet. That could change if Europe persists in its disrespect of Turkey, while the Islamic electorate continues to produce articulate and charismatic leadership that is allowed to organize in the country free of sanctions and draconian laws that have outlawed and hindered the growth of Muslim political parties.

If Turkey goes too far in cooperating with the West's interest in accomplishing its deeper geopolitical aims in the Balkans, the close association will disqualify the nation as a legitimate conduit by which the Muslim world could communicate and eventually temper its grievances toward the Western world. In addition it runs the risk of alienating a wary Russia that constantly measures the balance of power in its backyard and the influence of an often meddling and ambitious US and EU foreign policy toward it.

In this sense the reign of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbarkan was an instructive example. While most observers dismiss the 1-year reign of the Muslim leader, in 1996, on grounds that he was too radical and mismanaged domestic politics, they miss the point that it was Erbarkan and even his harsh-sounding critique of the U.S., and his backing off of Turkey's close relationship with Israel that immediately endeared him and Turkey to the rest of the Muslim world. Yet and still, Erbarkan still sought good relations with the United States and the West. The Muslim world can eventually accept Turkey as its diplomatic voice but not if it is going to compromise the arguments of the Muslim world in regards to U.S. foreign policy and certainly not if it is going to prefer military and economic partnerships with Israel over those with its Muslim brothers. The Muslim world wants a core state that can mediate disputes and be a truth-teller to the West not simply a country that the West feels comfortable with and can use as a pawn to gain oil and pipeline concessions in and near the Black and Caspian Seas.

If the Western outreach to Turkey is to be effective it will have to adequately address the problems that numerous Turks believe is the product of foreign intervention into its affairs or a continued historic effort at Western imperialism. This will be particularly true in the case of the economic problems the country is currently experiencing, which are largely the result of damaging IMF policies that the country has implemented. The country is in excruciating pain due to an economic contraction of 8.5% annually, almost 2.5 million people unemployed, a currency that has lost 60% of its value to the U.S. dollar, in just one year (actually losing 40% in a single day), and a debt, which includes $5 billion, owed to the U.S. and a $30 billion debt owed to the International Monetary Fund. Turkey is the IMF's largest borrower.

If the Turkish electorate and domestic politicians are able to connect their problems with institutions like the IMF and to a departure from the Islamic tradition of country, and make a political platform out of such a critique, before the U.S. and EU offers Western-alternative solutions to Turkish problems that embrace Turkey, there is no amount of money or transferred prestige from the West that could overcome the growing anti-imperialist thesis that is spreading among Turkey's Islamic and labor political interest groups. If such arguments take firm root in the country and are advanced by politicians and segments of the electorate, who unlike Mr. Erodogan, have no interest in diplomacy with America and parts of Europe, the result could be that the West's loss is the Islamic world's gain.

Then, we all will have to recalibrate the balance of power between the West and Islam.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

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