It is very common to see frequent headlines about the Middle East. ‘Palestine seeks recognition by the United Nations’ is one of the latest. There are many more, especially in the light of the ‘Arab Spring’ (or, as the Arab media call it, ‘revolution’). But the country that deserves the most attention is one that still eludes the spotlight. That country is Turkey.
Over the years I have constantly spoken about the need to ‘watch Turkey.’ Recent events are vindicating my warning.
Turkey is clearly a key nation of the Middle East, politically, geographically, and militarily. Here’s why.
Turkey the Land:
This nation is located in the Middle East yet serves as a bridge between the Arab world, Central Asia, and the Balkans in SE Europe. It is known as Asia Minor and Anatolia; it was here that the seven churches of Revelation were located (chapters two and three). A natural leader, it has had the Seljuq Empire during the time of the Crusades (1071-1325 AD) and the long-lived Ottoman Empire from (1300-1922).
Turkey the People:
Turks are from Central Asia and migrated to Asia Minor around 1,000 years ago. Many have a mixed Eurasian appearance, in part because the Ottoman Empire was so multi-ethnic. After converting to Islam, the Turks took the leadership of the Muslim world from the Arabs and held on to it for centuries. The Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was also the Caliph of the Muslim world.
The Turks have been known as a war-like people, very much akin to their Central Asian ancestors. During the Ottoman period there was a constant state of war, either acquiring territory or seeking to retain it. The Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 AD was a major turning point for the following reasons:
1. Byzantine Empire: 1453 spelt the end of the millenia-old Christian Orthodox Byzantine Empire;
2. Empire Expanded: 1453 led to a major expansion of the Ottoman Empire; the empire grew to incorporate most of North Africa, all of the Arab Middle East, Turkey, much of the Black Sea coastline, and even SE Europe. It is because of the Ottomans that certain white Europeans became Muslims, namely the Albanians, Bosnians, and Kosovars.
3. Western Exploration of the New World: After the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, they blocked the land route from Europe to India. Thus, 1453 served as the catalyst for western exploration of the New World, including the journeys of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco da Gama.
The ‘New Turkey:’ 1923
Turkey to a radical direction from its imperial past with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Its favoured son Mustapha Kemal, known as Ataturk (‘Father of the Turks’), was the man who gave Turkey its one and only victory in World War I: the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. When Greece invaded Turkey after the war, Ataturk came to the rescue and pushed back the Greeks. This led to the first major population transfer of the 20th Century: all the Greeks in Turkey had to move to Greece, and all the Turks in Greece were sent to Turkey. It was only then that Turkey became ’99% Muslim.’
Ataturk buried the Ottoman Empire and became the supreme leader of the newly-emerged Turkish republic in 1923. He believed that his nation’s future depended upon becoming western-orientated and secular. So with lightning speed -- and a rod of iron -- he implemented breath-taking reforms, including the abolition of the Muslim caliphate (something al Qaeda and other Islamist militants are aching to restore), the banning of the fez and head scarves, changing the Islamic legal code to the Swiss secular code, changing the day of rest from Friday to Sunday, converting the Turkish alphabet from Arabic script to Roman (the script used in English), granting constitutional freedom of conscience and religion. Yes ... a Muslim could change his religion in Ataturk’s Turkey and a Muslim woman could marry a non-Muslim man ... reforms unthinkable even by liberal Muslim countries today!
Though a military man, Ataturk’s republic no long went on armed adventures like its Ottoman forebears. They opted out of World War II and only fought in the Korean War (1950-1953) because the United Nations told them to.
For almost 90 years, Turkey has continued in its fiercely secular orientation, strongly enforced by the military. Any perceived deviation from the pathway of secularism could lead to a military coup, such as happened in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, where the generals staged a soft, ‘postmodern coup.’ Turkey joined NATO and until now sought membership in the European Union, but approval of their application has become as elusive as ever, despite Turkey’s many reforms.
In addition, Turkey has had diplomatic relations with Israel and even entered into a military alliance with the Jewish state in 1996. It has been rightly argued that it was the Turkish-Israel alliance, not the ‘peace treaties,’ that has kept the peace in the Middle East. The reason? The war-party in the Middle East will have to think twice before coming against the two most-militarily strong nations of the region. It is called ‘balance of power.’
But of late, the ‘balance of power’ has been tipping ... and in the worst possible direction at the worst possible time.
As readers learned last week, the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Revolution’ is a grass-roots movement where the general population, mostly young, has through mass protests broken the ‘fear barrier’ of their repressive long-term autocratic Arab regimes, causing several to collapse and others to be under threat. The protestors are demanding democracy, freedom of conscience, speech, and religion. However, the ‘Arab Spring’ is causing instability around the region and there is no guarantee that the democracy-loving revolution won’t be hijacked by fundamentalist forces that will be even more repressive than the secular dictators. Though Israel itself is relatively stable, it sits right in the middle of all this instability and thus it is less in a mood to make peace concessions. All of this is making the region less stable.The ‘Arab Spring’ has made certain governments more sensitive to Arab public opinion (often called ‘The Arab Street’), which is decidedly anti-Israel.
Now add to this mix Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan has eagerly sought European Union membership. The EU is greatly ambivalent about Turkish membership and has gone out of its way to ‘lift the bar.’ For years I have been saying that if Europe continues to reject Turkey’s application ... as now seems the case ... Turkey will be tempted to ‘look East,’ cast away its secularism, and reconnect to its religious roots. Should that happen ... the whole region and the world ... will feel the tremors.
Erdogan, fresh from his third election win, has energetically sought to reassert Turkey as a regional leader. Critics see this as a ‘neo-Ottoman revival,’ which implies imperialism and military aggression. Erdogan recently visited some Arab nations in what was dubbed his ‘Arab Spring Tour.’ During this time he has verbally championed the cause of Palestine, though he has been much more quiet about the violent repression of protestors in Syria.
Erdogan has severely criticized Israel for its intercepting of the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May 2010, a putative aid ship seeking to break the blockade of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of 9 Turks. He called it a cause for war -- though Turkey’s greatness demanded restraint. The United Nations commission said that Israel’s force was excessive, but that its blockade of Gaza is legal under international law. Turkey has demanded an apology and compensation for the victims. Israel has said ‘No;’ it would not apologize for defending its people.
So Erdogan downgraded diplomatic relations, expelled the Israeli ambassador, suspended the 1996 military alliance, placed sanctions on Israel, and threatened to send warships to escort a future flotilla. But it does not stop there ... he is also warning Greece and Greek Cyprus, along with Israel, about oil and gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, under the pretext of protecting Turkish Cypriot rights. One Turkish newspaper spoke of a new ‘Cold War against Turkey’ by Israel, Greece, Greek Cyprus, France, and Germany. These are very strong words ... will the actions be even stronger?
So here’s the scorecard: the ‘peace-keeping balance of power’ between Israel and Turkey is tipping, Turkey is being more assertive regarding its rights and even hinting at military action in a manner unheard of since Ottoman times. Israel’s erstwhile military ally has become its fiercest critic, while its few embassies in the Arab world are being protested and even attacked. All of this is happening at the very time that the Eastern Mediterranean needs the utmost of calm during the storm of the ‘Arab Spring.’ What is now required is statecraft of the highest order ... and people who will ‘watch and pray.’