Getting Turkey Right

June 21, 2010

Whether we like it or not, since the terrorist attacks of 2001 the world has been engulfed in a clash of civilizations. The amorphous concepts of the “West” and “Islam” came into much sharper relief that fateful and tragic day.

Ever since, it has become impossible to discuss anything related to international relations without referring to these grotesquely generalized civilizational identities. In case we forget, more than 3,000 innocent Americans were killed that day. I say we may forget because when you compare Sept. 11 with other tragedies, scale matters. When Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called the flotilla incident, where nine Turkish civilians were killed by Israeli forces, “Turkey’s own Sept. 11” many American journalists found the comparison not only distasteful but also symptomatic of Turkey’s shift to an “Islamist” mindset.

Ever since Turkey’s strong reaction to the flotilla incident and its “no” vote on Iran sanctions at the United Nations Security Council, there has been a sharp rise in the tone and frequency of American voices arguing that Turkey is no longer part of the West. An Islamized Turkey turning its back to the West is now conventional wisdom in American circles. Tom Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist, is the latest example. “It is quite shocking to come back today and find Turkey’s Islamist government seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel. … A series of vacuums that emerged in and around Turkey in the last few years have drawn Turkey’s Islamist government away from its balance point between East and West.”

Perception is reality. There is not much point in blaming the West for misunderstanding Turkey when so many influential Westerners come to the same conclusion that something is off-balance in Turkey. The easy way out is to agree to disagree and move on. The more daunting challenge is to ask, “What went wrong and why do they see us like that?” The sad part of what is being said about Turkey is that it could easily be avoided with a more balanced style and narrative coming from Turkey’s leadership. It only takes a few words to change perceptions. Yes, Turkey is right to be angry with Israel. But it would be in a much stronger position if the style of its criticism showed more balance. Words and rhetoric matter.

Sometimes something as simple as starting your speech with a different sentence can change perceptions. What if Prime Minister Erdoğan started with a sentence like this: “As a country that suffered from terrorism a lot, we understand the security concerns of Israel.” He could slam Israel after starting with such a sentence, but that very sentence at the beginning would make all the difference.

It important to take what Friedman has to say about Turkey seriously. But thankfully, there are other voices to balance some of his points. Philip Stephens from the Financial Times is one of them. Here is what he says about Turkey: “Turkey has not been lost to the West. Not yet, anyway. What has happened is that the terms of engagement have changed. Turkey is no longer the pliant supplicant that many in the US and Europe imagined it would forever remain. Economically vibrant and politically self-confident it has outgrown the role allotted to it by the West. … Membership of the West once meant doing whatever Washington said. Now it has interests, opinions and rights of its own. For many Americans, and for some Europeans, this is more than irritating. The Turkey of their imagination was one forever in their debt and forever grateful for any seat at the Western table. The irony, of course, is that the new, assertive Turkey has more to offer the West than its pliant predecessor. With a mind of its own, it has greater strategic credibility in the Middle East and the Muslim world. This is the Turkey the West really must not lose.”

Stephens clearly understands what I mean when I refer to “Turkish Gaullism.” A sense of grandeur has come to Turkey. It is not Islam, but nationalism and frustration with Western hegemony that fuels such Turkish assertiveness and self-confidence. The West can try to co-opt rather than confront Ankara’s new strategic credibility in the Middle East. Yet, as long as the blood feud with Israel remains unresolved, it may prove almost impossible to co-opt Turkish Gaullism.