By Arab News
By Abdulateef Al-Mulhim*
The Republic of Turkey has one of the richest cultures in the world. Its strategic location gave it such importance that it could influence the course of many a historic event. For hundreds of years, the Ottoman Empire controlled vast tracts of land in Asia and Europe. The empire even stretched into modern-day Europe and its forces reached the gates of Vienna. Today, Turkey plays a very vital role in the region’s politics and the Turkish people nowadays enjoy good standards of living and the country has modern and advanced infrastructure.
Turkey, however, is fast losing its credibility among its Arab neighbors nowadays. Turkey tried for many years not to associate itself with the Arab world, but it could never fulfill its dreams to be part of the so-called Western world. For very long periods of time, Turkey was frustrated with its Western allies and nowadays, there is clear political friction with many countries in the Arab world.
From the day Turkey was declared a Republic in 1923, it saw itself as European country. Turks tried to speak, act and behave like Europeans and even had their policies tuned with American strategy.
Simultaneously, the country, which has a Muslim majority population like its neighboring Arab world, tried to distance itself from them. The founding father of modern Turkey established a secular state with restrictions on many Islamic and Eastern ways, including the dress code. Turkey went as far as being a very strategic member in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. Their foreign policy was in line with European traditional orientation. And one year after the creation of the state of Israel, bilateral ties between Israel and Turkey were formalized and it became the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel in March 1949.
In line with its traditional Western orientation, relations with Europe have always been a central part of Turkish foreign policy and social life. It was very ironic for many observers to see Western European countries at that time allowing Muslims to wear Niqab or Hijab, but it was illegal for Turkish women to wear the traditional head scarves in many places in Turkey.
The ultimate ambition of various Turkish governments was to be part of the European Union, many years before the Schengen Agreement, which would allow citizens of member states to travel with no restrictions. But while Turkey was drifting away from its Arab allies, the Arabs had always stood by Turkey when it was in any conflict with any other nation, including its 1974 conflict with Greece over Cyprus.
But, Turkey had, on many occasions, taken a stand, which was not in Arab interest, such as its statements during the 1967 War between the Arabs and the Israelis. Turkey abstained from voting in favor of a clause that would have called the Israelis as the aggressor. About 10 years before this war, a secret meeting between the Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and David Ben-Gurion discussed a pact that included intelligence information exchange and other national security issues.
With all the strategic, military and economic cooperation between Turkey and Europe, Israel and the United States, the Turks failed to convince Europeans that they should be part of the European Union. And the Turkish frustration increased when former enemies from the erstwhile Soviet Bloc countries became part of the European Union and Turkey’s requests were put on hold time after time. And the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the Republic of Cyprus was given more privileges than Turkey even though Cyprus is geographically considered an Asian country rather than European.
With the end of the Cold War a few years ago, when the world economy was in recession, Turkey looked eastward toward the Arab world, mainly the Arab Gulf states. At that stage, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the prime minister. It is true that there were many Turkish economic successes, but the Gulf States investments and the establishments of Turkish companies in the Gulf states came at a time when there was a huge economic boom which helped the Turkish economy in many ways.
And the Turkish-Arab relations had a big impact even in Arab social life. Turkish TV serials became major hits in Arab television stations and tourism boomed in Turkey and many Gulf states residents bought properties in Turkey. At the end of the day, Turkey transited from a country being audited in Europe for every major decision to a country which was looked at as a model of moderate Islamic country.
At the time of the expanded Arab-Turkish relations, Erdogan became one of the most popular figures in the region, and given his background, he played on the most emotional issue in the Arab world, ironically, the Arab- Israeli conflict. There was the Gaza flotilla to break the blockade which resulted in many casualties. Turkey was hailed as the country that faced Israel. And Israel later on apologized and Erdogan became an instant hero, and he added flavor to his image when he left the World Economic Forum in Davos after a talkback with Israel’s Peres.
This action, and many subsequent statements against Gaza, pushed his popularity chart with the Arab masses. But, this was ironic. Israeli F-16 planes that attacked Gaza were trained in Turkish soil. Also, we saw Turkish politicians shed tears over the death of many Palestinians, but their forces had killed many of their own Kurdish citizens, including countless sorties against Iraqi territories.
At this stage, the Turkish prime minister saw himself as some sort of savior of innocents in some Arab countries at a time when he used maximum force against Turkish demonstrators. This was also the time when we heard his statements about the Egyptian Army’s intervention to disperse Rabia Aladawyah sit-down by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkish prime minister went as far as giving negative hints in his many statements about the Gulf states which were backing the new Egyptian government.
Modern day analysts believe that Erdogan crossed many red lines and his statements were inciting violence in some Arab countries. And lately, the world saw his most pathetic gesture toward the stability of many Arab countries when he raised four fingers, the new sign of the Muslim Brotherhood. This caused uneasy feelings among many in the Arab world, including the Gulf states.
Erdogan’s actions had many people wonder if his intention was to be the region’s leader, but instead, he brought upon many unpleasant political consequences on Turkey and the relations between Turkey and many Arab countries were affected. Turkey could have avoided many setbacks. If Erdogan continues his irresponsible behavior, then Turkey will face more frustrations than it had endured from the Europeans. Raising his four fingers is an insult to the Turkish people rather a sign of support to the Muslim Brotherhood.