Παρασκευή 7 Δεκεμβρίου 2012

Turkey: The past is the present

by Nicholas A. Biniaris

The beylik of the Ottomans was established in 1299 AD. After a glorious three centuries of conquests, the Gazis (warriors of faith) formed a huge Empire over three continents. Subsequently the Sultanate was abolished in 1924 and so was the Caliphate of Constantinople. Kemal Atatourk, changed Turkey to a secular state which strictly controlled religion through a Directorate of Religious Affairs and used Islam as an internal policy tool but not as an object of foreign policy keeping Turkey’s foreign policy clear of the pitfalls of the Arab world. Turkey after WWII became a member of NATO and a model of a Moslem state with democratic institutions which aspired and still aspires (?) to become a member of the EU.
However, since the rise of the AKP party in power in 2002, Islam slowly became not only a central political power but also a central social issue. Secularists, progressivists and conservatives as well as religious conservatives started to inconspicuously confront each other with suspicion over legislation about education, free speech, social and individual behavior and morals. The prominence of Islam as a historical paradigm through the Ottoman Imperial past and its relation with the MENA area plus the fact of a break out of Islam as part of a legitimate social discourse engaged with modernity for the layout of Turkey’s future brought up a host of slowly emerging existential questions about its identity. 
Islam is neither monolithic, nor unitary in dogma and more accurately in interpretation. What Islam actually is as a way of life and how it comports with the post-modern world of science, skepticism and individuality, is an ongoing debate among Muslims and non-Muslims as well as among Muslims themselves. Turkey has a Sunni majority but also an Alevite minority, various Sufi religious mystic orders, a small number of Christians and also agnostics and atheists. This medley of Muslim sects, in particular, lives in relative stability and security, but in the recent months this status have changed due to radical transformations of the surrounding areas and the foreign policy pursued by the PM Erdogan’s party, the AKP.  Erdogan embarked in an active foreign policy seeking political influence and clout in the Arab and Moslem world as a rising economic and political regional power. This was pursued in a relative stable environment till the tempest of the Arab Spring brought the house down.
The Arab Spring has brought forth the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a dominant political force in Egypt and Tunisia. At the same time the MB is active in Jordan demanding the change of the regime, in Kuwait, in Syria, and elsewhere. The Tunisian President recently predicted: “The Arab world is going through a transition phase which needs coalitions to govern, which brings together Islamist and secular trends,…These coalitions will lead to eventual rapprochement between the Islamists and the secularists. However, he added: “Islamists would have the upper hand. There’s a true way that Islam represents the common ground for everyone … Eventually Islam becomes a reference point for everyone,”[1]
Turkey through its involvement in the area as an important commercial and military power has supported and sought closer ties with these new political forces. The question rising out of these developments is: “Which will be the repercussions of these events on Turkey and its political and social structure?” The answer cannot be anything else but a probable one due to a number or unknown variables which may be added to the equation.  Nevertheless, the trend becomes more obvious by the day.
The MB in Egypt is trying to mix Islam with a political agenda as viable new political ruling elite, but there are other forces also expressing Muslim orthodoxy, or variations or it, as the Salafists, and the Jihadists. These groups expressing a more “pure” Islam closer to the first Caliphs offer a political narrative which is far removed both from the MB and the Turkish AKP. Turkey under a Kemalist narrative would have been relatively safe from these tremors. Now, the picture is blurred by at least four factors. 
Turkey’s foreign policy aspired to turn the country to an arbiter and a dominant player in the region. The last instance of this was the mediation of President Mursi of Egypt for the cease fire between Hamas and the Israelis in the very recent clash in Gaza. Erdogan tried desperately to be the mediator but his ambitions were thwarted by the new ruler of Egypt whose interests are profoundly intertwined with Hamas which is an off-shoot of the MB itself. Each incident like this will add or subtract political capital to Turkey and a proportionate effect on Turkish public opinion. 
The second front that Turkey is finding itself thrown in the fray among Moslems is in Iraq. Turkey has vital economic and ethnic interests in Iraq, due to Iraq’s immense oil reserves and the autonomous Kurdistan’s fate contested by a Shiite controlled central government. The stability of Iraq lies between Sunnis and Shiites, between Arabs and Kurds, between riches and distribution of these among the have and have-nots. The factions, alliances and conflicting interests in Iraq cut across all the categories of groups posing for power and influence in this state. A Shiite Iraq is an anathema for Saudi Arabia as well as for Erdogan but of vital importance for Iran.
The third front which is going to determine the fate of Turkey is Syria. Besides all the brotherly love between the Assads and Erdogan, Syria is posing the worst possible threat for Turkey. What is now called a civil war in Syria, which may end at some point sooner or later with the ousting of Assad[2], will bring about a second round of conflict which will adhere to the exact definition of civil war. Who will get the prize of Syria? Will it be the MB, the secularists backed by France, the USA and Britain? Is Turkey backing all contestants or just some, and who are these? Only a few days ago the Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a Syrian opposition group, has accused Turkey of allowing Saudi militants into Syria who then "harm the country,”[3] Speaking to the Voice of Russia Radio, the representative for the block claimed that "political powers like Turkey allowed [Saudi militants] to sneak in”. “These militants harm Syria," Heytem Menna said. The jihadists are slogging it out with the Kurds in eastern Syria and they are the most active insurgents of all. Are they going to relinquish their part of the booty, power, after the war plays out? There are also Sunnis and Shiites fighting against and for the government from the neighboring countries which strongly indicates the sectarian nature of the conflict.
What will be the blowback of a Syrian civil war among secularist, the MB, the jihadists, Christians and Alewites of Syria, who are closely related to the Alevis in Turkey? How is an Islamist party, the AKP with an agenda of enforcing Islamist rules of social conduct and morals going to manage such a conflict just across its borders?
The fourth factor is Turkey’s relations with NATO, the EU, USA and Israel. Turkey is the only Muslim state securely moored in a Western harbor. It is so most importantly because it is perceived as a “model democratic Muslim state” which can be a factor of stability in the area. Turkey has pushed for Western intervention in the Syrian conflict. It has accused the UN of impotency to solve crises by having a structure stemming from WWII (which is true). It has requested NATO to furnish Patriot missiles for its defense from Syrian attacks. In short, Turkey is using all of its links and ties with the West to promote a Turkish agenda in the Muslim world in the area.
The Mavi Marmara incident had alienated Turkey from its longtime ally, Israel. In the last few days though, is has become known that Turkey and Israel are pursuing talks to normalize their relations[4]. It is quite clear that Turkey cannot ask favors from the West without mending its ties with Israel. But this is anathema for too many of the factions vying for power in the surrounding area, especially the Palestinians, the Shiites, and the Jihadists.  Just recently a Bahraini parliamentarian burned an Israeli flag in Bahrain’s Parliament. The cohabitation of an Islamic agenda with a Western cape for protection and clout plus an accommodation with Israel, which according to Erdogan has committed “genocide” in Gaza, is not a viable project. It was, as long as Turkey was not involved in Muslim and sectarian politics.
Turkey cannot sail this tempest safely as a state with a stable and secure political and social environment. It is impossible to keep steering between the Scylla of Muslim politics of the MB, the jihadists, the Salafists, and the Wahhabis of Saudi-Arabia plus the Shiites of Iran and the Charybdis of Israel and the Western infidels, enemies of Islam and its Prophet. The aforementioned epithets are given to the West by prominent Imams of Islam as well as by the Taliban of the various traditionalist sects, and are not our own.
Egypt is going to play a pivotal ideological role in this historical drama. A turn to a theocratic short of regime in Egypt after the December 15th referendum in defiance of the secularist’s rejection of President’s Mursi recent decisions will force Turkey adjust its own perception of its new constitution. Egypt may become the next Syria. On the other hand the ongoing Syrian war of sects and minorities pitted against a majority of triumphant Sunnis against Assad will have a confrontational spillover effect upon Turkey itself. This will incite clashes amongst Alevis, Sufis and minority Christian sects who will perceive themselves as threatened by Muslim Sunni orthodoxy.  A stable economy, the main cause of Erdogan’s success can go up in smoke the moment the first signs of internal turmoil show up.
There is no easy way out for Turkey if there is a way out at all.
The fact that a prominent musician is brought to justice for atheistic remarks and a philosophy professor is under investigation for the same reason is not very reassuring for Turkey’s future as a model of democracy. Perhaps Erdogan is trying to preempt any moves by the hard line Islamists of his own party who see across the borders the rise of their ideological brothers. Even if the motive is benign the result is pernicious. Turkey is reverberating with the outcome of a resurgent Islam. Yusuf Kanli, a Turkish analyst wrote: “I asked some friends [How can the Turkish aspiration to somehow, and in some form, rehash the Ottoman Empire be explained?]  who are respectable sociologists and they proved to be cowardly enough to swiftly silence me out of an effort to avoid a possible confrontation with the tall, bold, bald and every angry man aspiring to become the first-ever elected sultan of this fast socio-political regression. Can anyone blame them? No, definitely not. In a country where political opponents and critics are packed in boxes labeled “terrorist, handle roughly” and confined to a high security concentration camp in the Thracian Turkey, it requires more than courage to come up and say something that might enrage the sultan or his clan of political Islam.”[5]
Turkey was defined by the late S. Huntington, as a torn state between two cultures. FM Davutoglu as a Muslim scholar embarked upon a voyage to devise a new Islamic foreign policy paradigm to supplant a failing Western one. The stark reality of the Arab and Muslim world has upset his project. The West, however, is a willing accomplice to this impeding catastrophe by the fact that it permitted and still permits Turkey to use Western backing for a dubious and highly speculative foreign policy and internal agenda that is heading to the rocks of Islam’s past as a perceived glorious present.
Nicholas A. Biniaris Author, political analyst  5/12/2012

[1]Al Arabiya (Reuter’s ) 30/11/2012
[2] We all wonder how this drama shall play out. Has Assad an ace in his sleeve? Are the Russian still keeping him in power? Will his exit be with a whimper or with a bang?
[3] Hurriyet, The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is an umbrella organization of 13 opposition groups
[4] Haaretz, 29/11/2012
[5] Hurriyet 30/11/2012