Will Turkey Weather the Middle East Storm?

A cycle of terrible violence has taken over much of the Middle East. Its center has shifted from Iraq (where sectarian strife has recently escalated again) to Syria, but it encompasses Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia as well. Farther east, Afghanistan is suffering its second decade of violent conflict, while Pakistan seems to be chronically on the brink of war, civil war, or social breakdown.

The most worrisome underlying threat is the increase in fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Likewise, pious conservatives and liberal and leftist secular youth, who joined forces in Cairo and Tunis in 2010-2011 to challenge the dictators, have now turned on each other: witness the Egyptian security forces’ appalling massacres of Islamist demonstrators in Cairo recently, following a military coup carried out with liberals’ support. The region’s people are sliding into enemy camps, deepening their societies’ wounds in the process.

I have often argued that Turkey should not intervene in the internal affairs of its neighbors or adopt a Middle East-centered policy. Both government and opposition should remain steadfastly focused on Europe, despite the obstacles that the European Union has placed in Turkey’s way during membership negotiations.

But Turkey cannot be indifferent to the tragedy engulfing its southern neighbors. The Arab world’s pain is acutely felt, owing to Turkey’s historical, religious, and emotional bonds with these countries. Moreover, economic ties and sheer proximity mean that Turkey’s prosperity depends, to some degree at least, on that of the Middle East.

In recent years, there was hope that Turkey could help by serving as a model of a successful economy and well-functioning democracy; but recent events have raised doubts. In fact, Turkey must overcome four sources of internal tension if it is to continue to thrive economically, consolidate its democracy, and act as a compelling example to others.

The first and most serious source of tension stems from the need to recognize Kurdish identity as a fully legitimate part of the Turkish Republic. Those who wish to express a Kurdish identity, as well as all other citizens, must be confident that, while all remain committed to national unity, Turkey is a country in which diversity can thrive.

In recent years, there was hope that Turkey could help by serving as a model of a successful economy and well-functioning democracy; but recent events have raised doubts.

Second, there is an underlying historical tension between the large Sunni majority and the Alevi-Bektashi minority, loosely linked to Shia Islam.

Third, there is the difference between those who adhere to the tradition of political Islam and those who uphold the strict secularism that came with the republic. Often this social “divide” intersects with the Sunni-Alevi cleavage, as the Alevis have increasingly aligned themselves with the political left.

Finally, there is a growing perception of partisanship within the public administration. Building independent, non-partisan regulatory bodies was one of the key pillars of the 2001-2002 reform program. But these reforms have been rolled back recently, with independent regulatory authorities again coming under the control of government ministries (though it seems that the central bank has retained much of its autonomy). As the perception of non-partisanship in public administration has diminished, proximity to those in power has become another source of tension.

Turkey benefits from republican reflexes and values that have been built over decades, as well as from humanist wisdom anchored in centuries of history. Yet, given the regional context, Turkey’s internal tensions now represent a serious threat.

All sides must manage these tensions with great care and caution. Respect for diversity and individual freedom, and concern for generating growth and jobs in an atmosphere of social peace, must be guiding principles. Healing the wounds to which all sides have at times contributed, and practicing forgiveness, should be the order of the day. A spiral of frustration and antagonism must not be allowed to develop.

Turkey must look carefully at the catastrophe unfolding around it in the Middle East. Humanitarian help is necessary, and Turkey is providing it generously, in ways that should serve as an example for Western countries. But Turkey’s political leaders, opinion shapers, and citizens must also recognize that the only protection against a similar disaster at home is a vibrant democracy, a fully professional public administration, and a tolerant society embodying pride and affection for the country’s diversity.

Others will not protect Turkey; some may even promote strife within its borders (historical examples of such tactics abound). Turkey alone can protect itself, and only by upholding truly democratic behavior at home and pursuing an external policy that promotes peace and democracy but does not take sides in the region’s ongoing battles, particularly between Sunni and Shia.

Fortunately, there is hope. The Gezi Park demonstrators who in June protested peacefully against the use of excessive police force by simply standing still also protested peacefully, years ago, against the ban on the headscarf then in effect in Turkey’s universities. This kind of concern for the rights of all is a hallmark of Turkey’s young generation.

Similarly, when the outgoing governor of Van sent a farewell message last month to the largely Kurdish-speaking people in his southeastern province, he delivered it in Kurdish – and received warm wishes in return.

A large majority of Turkey’s citizens share such generosity of spirit. That is why, despite serious difficulties, Turkey has a good chance of overcoming its internal tensions and becoming the example that its Middle East neighbors (and perhaps a few of its European neighbors as well) so desperately need.