Turkey must urgently look beyond

Turkey must urgently look beyond

The wave is getting bigger. First it was Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Then it was Sweden and Denmark. These are the countries that barred or warned about barring Turkish politicians from speaking in their country as part of political campaigning among Turkish emigres. The Netherlands went as far as to prevent Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from flying to Rotterdam last week, just days before the general elections in the country.

However, we are only in a momentary, temporary context. The real issue is far beyond Turkey and the countries in question - and much more comprehensive.

Islamophobic and anti-immigrant movements have been spreading in Europe for a while. Even Sweden and Denmark, which are ranked among the most liberal democracies, seem to be leaning toward this new rhetoric. The new U.S. President Donald Trump has also stolen the hearts of voters based on such a discourse.

The reason for the rise of such sentiments in Europe for the first time since the Second World War is obvious: Economic crises, unemployment, the flow of refugees, and terrorism have all scared aging and impoverishing Europeans. They are feeling claustrophobic. The current “zeitgeist” has penetrated from the voter base to politicians and vice versa. Muslims have become the main target of fear and rage, as the West considers the Islamic geography as the main source of terrorism and the refugee crisis.

What is more concerning is that this anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment seems to be gradually growing in Europe. The far right not only occupies politics, it is also spreading through the public like a virus. After all, politicians can change their rhetoric in one day, yet the prejudices that stick in the minds “are harder to crack then an atom,” as Einstein once said.

Equally alarming is the fact that centrist parties are also using the same rhetoric, in order to attract voters of the far right. Populism and Islamophobia are thus capturing almost the entire political range. In addition, a far right party rising in one country causes domino effect by triggering its counterparts in others. Hatred toward an “other” spreads to many “others” too. The rage against Islam turns to all “others” over time, polluting the entire environment.

On the other hand, the “other” that is excluded - in other words, the Muslim community - becomes more and more sharpened toward the West. As a result, the atmosphere is prone to more conflict in the future between these two poles, and between Turkey and Europe at present. 

Yet there is an important role that Turkey could fulfil in this context: At the moment Turkey looks like one of the poles in the current crisis. The Islamophobic politics in Europe and the current political discourse in Ankara have positioned Turkey as one of the two parties in the conflict. But there is a fact that we shouldn’t forget: Turkey’s own essence. 

Turkey embodies a unique character that does not appear in any other country in the world, connecting Europe and Asia not only geographically. The country has connected with the Western hemisphere in one way or another since the 19th century. Turkey’s membership of NATO and the Council of Europe are among the many examples. On the other hand, it is also part of the Middle East and the Islamic world. It is therefore the only Muslim member of the Western family.

This is what makes Turkey not one of the poles in the conflict, but a country that contains the two poles within itself. This characteristic, in turn, loads Turkey with a very important and unique mission: Reducing the gap and bridging the two sides, instead of being one of them.

Actually, Turkey had played this role until 2010 under the same AKP government that is currently going through a crisis with Europe. During that period, Ankara was driving its soft power forward. Its launch of the “Alliance of Civilizations” initiative in 2005, together with Spain under the roof of the U.N., was the most successful outcome of this vision. Its mediation between Israel and Syria, its attempted role as facilitator between Iran and the West to settle the nuclear agreement, and its foundation of a trilateral cooperation mechanism together with Afghanistan and Pakistan, are just some examples among many others. The U.N. was even planning to open up a “mediation center” in Istanbul just a couple of years ago.

It is essential for Turkey to save its capacity to fulfil this function, which is still possible. Yet this urges Turkey first of all to not position itself as one of the parties of this confrontation, and to put its dialogue and membership process with Europe back on track. 

In this way, Turkey would in the long term be able to serve a very important transformation and help reduce the Islamophobic wave in Europe, weakening the conflict between the two poles, and playing a constructive and pioneering role in the region. Its contribution would be reinforced if Ankara continues its EU membership perspective. 

So Turkey should urgently remind itself and the world about its unique position. But it takes always two to tango - European leaders and bureaucrats need to remember that they also need to assume some responsibility.