Turkey has been much criticized lately for its policies in the Middle East and for “not doing more” in the fight against the Islamic State. One of the latest question marks over Turkey’s position came with President Erdogan’s speech at Marmara University on October 13, in which he denounced the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that defines the current borders in the Levant.
“Each conflict in this region has been designed a century ago”, Erdogan said, “it is our duty to stop this.” What are Turkey’s ideas to stop the many conflicts that plague the Middle East? Where is Turkey’s foreign policy heading? Your Middle East’s Victor Argo spoke with Ceylan Ozbudak, a political analyst based in Istanbul. Ceylan is also a commentator on A9 TV and a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English.
YME: From “zero problems” to “a zillion problems” with its neighbors: what happened to Turkey's foreign policy since the Arab uprisings began?
C.O.: We need to understand that Turkey is not located where the Principality of Liechtenstein is. A policy of zero problems with the neighbors is hard to deliver if the neighbors fail to reciprocate and offer zero aside from problems. It is also impossible to eliminate all problems with neighbors if all the neighbors have disputes with each other. The many conflicts in the Middle East and beyond created serious headaches for Turkish diplomacy.
YME: What is Turkey's vision for a future Middle East?
C.O.: By distancing itself from all kinds of fundamentalist influences, Turkey has realized a democratic conception of Islam, far removed from radicalism and bigotry. While in the European Muslim societies we are seeing the discussion of whether or not Sharia courts should be allowed, Turkish Muslims were protesting a politician who commented on the décolleté of a TV presenter. Turkey clearly showcases a sort of Islamic understanding which is accepting and peaceful.
"Turkey clearly showcases a sort of Islamic understanding which is accepting and peaceful"
However, all human endeavors need a periodic reform; otherwise, they give in to the expiring nature of time. Therefore, and in light of the U.N. Security Council’s incompetence to solve the security issues of its member states, Turkey is proposing to form an alternative union. What was possible for the European countries in the second half of the 20th century must be within reach of the Middle Eastern peoples today.
This union must start with the economy. As did the European Union when it first started out as the European coal and steel community. Only later it transformed into a political and social union. Turkey foresees a Middle East which is united on financial and political issues, which offers visa-free travel, free trade and equal rights for all. This is not Ottoman-era thinking, this is contemporary Western-oriented thinking. We need to stop Balkanizing the Middle East.
“Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams that we never even knew we had”, Alice Sebold writes in her book The Lovely Bones. And that’s how we must think about a future Middle East.
YME: Can Turkey compete against the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf monarchies to accomplish its vision?
C.O.: The real power of changing the political scene lies in the ideology applied, not in financial power. Because of Marx’s “das Kapital”, millions of people lost their lives. Butrus Al-Bustani carried out his nationalist works in Lebanon, which led to the start of breaking up the Ottoman territories, in a single school.
YME: In its constitution Turkey defines itself as a secular state. Why doesn't Turkey act more decisively in favor of a “de-religionization” of the Middle Eastern conflicts?
C.O.: Where does Turkey’s ruling AK Party stand on the secularism issue? To answer this, we must distinguish between the two conceptions of secularism prevalent in contemporary Turkey. One may be called ‘assertive secularism’. Its ultimate goal is to privatize and individualize religion and to ban or limit its visibility in the public space. The other concept, ‘passive secularism’, is prevalent in most Western democracies and implies state neutrality towards the various religions and allows the public visibility of religion.
The AKP’s ideology is in conformity with passive secularism, but not with an Islamist’s worldview, which aims at Islamizing the society by using the coercive power of the state.
On the other hand, the lack of religious identity will not necessarily bring peace to the region. Look at the brutality of the Baath regimes in the Middle East where the religious identities were oppressed by a leftist Baath mindset.
YME: But how does Turkey justify living the ‘passive secularism’ at home yet nurturing the assertive secularism, even the Islamist approach, abroad, for instance when supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt?
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C.O.: The Erdogan who stood in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after General Sisi’s coup was the same Erdogan who was shunned and criticized by the very same Muslim Brotherhood when he insisted on a secular-democratic constitution for Egypt. And it was also Erdogan who advised the MB to start wearing suits and ties if they want to be taken seriously as politicians.
Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood came at a time when all nations including the U.S. recognized them as a powerful government. I’m sure that you remember the TIME magazine’s cover stating that Mursi was now the most powerful leader in the Middle East. Turkey never went to that length.
When there was a military coup, Turkey opposed the toppling of a democratically elected government by the hands of a system that was no different than Mubarak. Turkey was not supporting the MB, but it was calling a coup a coup.
So Turkey criticized the MB when they didn’t put together a secular and democratic constitution and Turkey criticized Sisi when he staged a coup. We always need to see things in a broader perspective.
YME: In my latest article for Your Middle East, I argued that the Islamic State is being instrumentalized by various powers inside and outside of the Middle East to advance their own agendas. Can you comment on this?
C.O.: It is true that the world literally sat and watched the Syrian and Iraqi people losing their lives, leaving their countries or being persecuted in the worst manner possible. However, I do not believe that the majority of the politicians aim for the continuation of the civil war and the creation of a new jihadi irregular insurgency.
For many people in the West, Muslims were and are simply not important enough to intervene. In their mindset any intervention would cost too much for the intervening states and some human (Muslim) lives were simply not worth the price to save them.
YME: What would happen if the United States and other Western states would cease all interventions in the Middle East (and consequently would also stop air-striking the Islamic State)?
C.O.: The problem with this thinking is that it reduces the struggle against the Islamic State (IS) to “bombing or not bombing.” If we claim to be more sophisticated thinkers than the IS, we need to seek more productive ways and a better strategy to end all radicalization issues in the world.
As long as the ideology of the group lives on, the group will live on, with or without air strikes. It can morph into different structures and migrate to different geographical locations but the threat will remain. If we are seeking a sustainable victory, we need to stop fighting the pawns and start fighting the minds running the chess table.
YME: In your articles for Al Arabiya English, you are very critical of an independent state of Kurdistan. What is your take on the current relationship between Turkey and Kurdistan?
C.O.: Outsiders have a conception that all Kurds long for a national state. But today this idea is driven mainly by the PKK, so the state in question would also be a communist state, not a nationalist one. The PKK still believes in a Marxist-Leninist ideology.
The majority of the Kurds in Turkey follow the path of the real Kurdish hero Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, who sought to keep Turkey in unity with the Kurdish minority.
"Outsiders have a conception that all Kurds long for a national state"
On the other hand, in my view, the term “The Kurdish Problem” is an utter deception, a false phrase intended to foster division between Turks and our Kurdish brothers. With the constant use of the term “Kurdish Problem”, the impression has been given that there really is a problem between Kurds and Turks.
The Laz people from the area of the Black Sea, the Circassians, Georgians and all other ethnic groups live in peace and comfort as Turks in Turkey. They maintain their own traditions, use their own languages freely and describe themselves as “Turks.”
Yet, Kurds have been made to question their “Turkishness.” Turks and Kurds have lived together on the same land for many years. Today’s talk of separatism is based on artificial grounds.
YME: Thank you, Ceylan, for this interview.