28east

Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

The “Turkish model” and a cold shoulder

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And by now I owe an explanation for an unsupported claim in a previous post. My claim was that the prevailing Western attitude toward the Republic of Turkey, as embodied by an excerpt from Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent and Star, is one that pushes Turkey—a country predisposed to Western ideals—away from the West. I do not think that it is the intention of Kinzer or those who share his attitude (of whom there are many) to do this, but it is happening all the same.

Kinzer’s opinion has been vocalized many times over in the familiar debate over the exceedingly vague “Turkish model” for the Middle East. As trite and imprecise as it may be, the Turkish model is always referred to as the success of Islam + democracy. And while some describe a Turkish model that does not seem to depict Turkey at all but some utopian picture of it, the problem remains: Turkey does not appreciate this kind of attention from the West.

The reason for Turkey’s disapproval of Kinzer’s attitude and the collective acclaim for the Turkish model begins on the ground. Turkey is, as proponents of a Turkish model acknowledge, a country of Muslims (a Turkish democracy wouldn’t be remotely interesting if it weren’t). This is the most basic and the strongest tie between Turkey and its eastern neighbors. A tie that, as it realizes the economic importance of a commercially-friendly Middle East, Turkey will like to keep intact. Western support of a Turkish model endangers this tie, turning Turkey into a sort of “teacher’s pet” and its inherently-Eastern quality—Islam—into a watered-down, “moderate” religion. “Western-friendly” Islam, as some have called it, will be suspicious to even truly moderate Muslims in the Middle East, leaving Turkey unable to command respect in the region. Western approval, in this case, is not a good thing for Turkey, and the Turks are well-aware of it.

But this should give us pause: A vigorously-secular, West-leaning NATO nation trying to play the religion card in its foreign policy? And the Kemalist elite and military allowing it? The unfortunate fact for the Kemalists (Turkish nationalists) of Turkey is that they fall prey to the old Turkish proverb:

Aşağı tükürsen sakal, yukarı tükürsen bıyık.

Meaning, if you spit downwards, it hits the beard, if you spit upwards, the mustache. The one of their options, a military coup, is untenable given the success of the Islamist, populist Justice and Development party (AKP). But it would be just about as undesirable as their other option: letting an Islamist party continue to rule their secular nation. The reason that they have decided on the latter is the prevailing Western attitude as put forth by Kinzer, that despite the fact that Turkey is exemplary and a “model,” it is implicitly comparable to the rest of the non-democratic Muslim Middle East. The Kemalists would prefer their secular nation to be compared to other secular, Western nations like France, Germany, and Greece. Instead, they are marginalized and referred to as a nation of moderate Muslims who have begun embracing democracy, merely the best of the worst. The Kemalists are now seeking a new way into the Western world independent of the West’s opinion, and it means cooperation with the ruling party.

Ankara’s response, as a whole, to the implicit marginalization in the West’s attitude seems to have been to pursue more aggressively its eastern interests and to distance itself from its Cold War status as a pet nation to the West. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this shift—and one of the earliest—was Turkish parliament’s denial of American troops’ access to Iraq via Turkey in March 2003. This was an important step for Turkey in regaining its autonomy and credibility in the Middle East and a negative response to post-9/11 “praise” for Turkey’s perceived non-militant Islam. As Turkey becomes even more involved in the politics of the Middle East, both the Islamists and the Kemalists feel that it is necessary to turn their back on the West (for the time being). From now on—if Turkey has its way—its business with the West will be as an intermediary, both commercially and diplomatically, between East and West. There won’t be any more of merely “freedom to become an air-base”, but rather a quid pro quo relationship.

And so, while Turkey may turn away from the unwitting West and its domineering attitude as it seeks a new, more powerful position in one of its geographical spheres, it has in no way given up on “Westernization.”

More on that later.

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