Turkey and the West are condemned to each other
HDN | 11/26/2009 12:00:00 AM | Semih Idiz
Much as some Turks and Europeans would love to see Turkey leave the European fold, both will find that it is not so easy for the country to leave its European moorings.
The scathing commentary on the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government in the Washington Post earlier this week shows that the question of Turkey’s identity will continue to occupy minds in the West for some time. It is also interesting that such commentary should be increasing as the date of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Washington nears.
We won’t go into the merits or demerits of the Post commentary here except to say that it reflects the same stereotypical approach we have seen in similar commentary recently. In other words, it contains a lot that is true, but the conclusions arrived at do not necessarily reflect the complexities of this country.
Put briefly, we are going through a period when well-established assumptions about Turkey – even if these assumptions never reflected the full truth – are going off kilter. All this commentary about Turkey’s identity and direction has Ankara’s approach to Israel, Iran, Syria and Sudan at its epicenter.
Erdoğan’s by now well-known approach to these countries is seen by many in the West as carrying Islamic overtones and suggesting, therefore, that Turkey is drifting away from its traditional Western or pro-Western orientation. Hence, the need to somehow “browbeat” Ankara back into its “status quo ante” position, particularly on Israel.
Clearly some in the West, and in Washington in particular, believe that one way of doing this is to keep regurgitating the same arguments, and raising the specter of “Turkey going Islamic,” even if the “big picture” requires a little more sophistication to be understood.
Here are some points we feel are necessary to keep in mind in this context, even if these are not pleasing to all ears. What Turkey is doing today is trying to cope with the instability unleashed in the region by a host of developments that followed the end of the Cold War.
It is also trying to expand its horizons according to its new needs as a country that has reached critical mass both politically, and more importantly, economically. Turkey is thus walking down the well-known path of “national self-interest;” a path that has been well trodden by the West in the past.
Turkey also believed from the moment that the Republic was established that she belonged to the West in general, despite existing cultural differences – and such differences exist even within the West today. The West also did everything in its power to encourage this notion in the past – especially during the Cold War.
But now it seems that Turkey is not wanted in Europe, and the arguments used for this are more befitting to the Middle Ages than the start of a new millennium. Thus, there is this contradiction between seeing Turkey as the “eternal other,” while assuming that it will still remain in the Western fold, no matter what, because it is dependent on the West.
It is this assumption that is now going off-kilter, and those who could not be bothered to understand the underlying reasons are reaching out for simple and stereotypical explanations. History should have taught us, however, that you underestimate the Turks at your own expense.
Put another way, those who see Turkey moving away from the West now – and we personally don’t believe this to be the case – are basically in a state of panic because Turkey, free from the pressures of the Cold War, has started acting too independently for Western comfort.
The desired formula on the other hand is a traditional one.
A Turkey that remains in the Western fold, but is not allowed in its inner sanctum because it is the “eternal other.” A docile Turkey, that is – which thus meets the West’s varying needs.
This paradigm may have been operational in the past but it is no longer.
Like it or not, those who deal with Turkey have begun to see that they are dealing with an entity that is increasingly coming up with its own ideas, even if these do not tally with the needs of the West.
Let us assume, given this overall picture, that Europeans finally arrive at the conclusion that Turkey cannot be part of Europe, because it represents “the other,” as it has done for much of European history. Will Europe have freed itself from the problems it fears it will face if Turkey joins the EU?
What if none of those problems go away then, but become more acute instead, having been fueled with the exclusionary policy on Turkey? What will be the end result for the “Old Continent” in particular, and the West in general? Especially in a world where the centers of power are shifting to other parts of the globe.
Given overall developments there appears to be one answer to this question. Consider this scenario: Having been snubbed, Turkey, in turn, accepts Europe as “the other,” and in the new “War of Civilizations” becomes a major adversary for the West. Given the "anti-Westernism" prevailing in Turkey today, this is not such an unlikely scenario.
We always like to remind our European friends that the average Turk today does not believe his country exists “because of Europe,” but “in spite of Europe.” This is known in Turkey as the “Sevres Syndrome.”
Turkey also – with its critical strategic importance and growing political and economic clout – would then become a country that Islamic nations that have an axe to grind with the West could look up to. Put another way, relations between Turkey and the West would become the arena of a New Cold War.
In the meantime, for all the perverse dreams of the Rompuys and Wilders of this world to keep “Europe clean,” nothing of the sort happens, due to systemic reasons that have to do with Europe itself, which appear beyond the comprehension of today’s European “supremacists.”
Of course, this overall negative scenario that we have come up with here is as fanciful as the commentaries about Turkey’s identity that one comes across these days. The short of the matter is that Turkey and the West are “condemned to each other” for a host of objective reasons that will not just wither away.
This is a fact that ties down Turks who would like to see their country become a member of the Islamic world. It of course ties down Europeans also who would like to keep Turks out of Europe’s inner sanctum. But their own history should have taught these Europeans that you can not have it both ways.
As for Turks who would like Turkey to go Islamic, theirs is just as difficult an uphill battle, as the efforts of those in Europe who pretend they can make Turkey go away.