The Turks hate Arabs
Part of the West or leader of the Islamic world: the Arab countries see their Turkish neighbors differently. The Jordanian journalist and head of the Turkey office of the Al-Jazeera television station in Ankara, Yousef Alsharif, analyzes how the perception of Turkey is changing in neighboring Arab countries.
One of the most important results of the visit of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Baghdad in July this year was the signing of an agreement establishing a high council for strategic cooperation.
Erdoğan's foreign policy advisor Ahmed Davudoğlu emphasized the special importance of the agreement and compared it to the agreement on the establishment of the common European market.
Iraq has meanwhile become Turkey's most important economic partner in the region, through which Turkey also gains access to the Arab Gulf countries.
The desire for a partnership with the Arabs, explained Davudoğlu, made the Turks dream of an EU-like association of the countries in the Middle East. But to what extent do the Turkish visions coincide with the Arabs' ideas about the Turks?
The answer might be the reaction of a taxi driver in Jordan. When he found out that I was living in Turkey, he asked: Are there Muslims in Turkey? And how much longer do they want to ally themselves with Israel against the Arabs?
The driver was amazed when I explained to him that 90 percent of the Turks are Muslims, that relations between Turkey and Israel have fundamentally changed and that Turkey now sees the Arabs as important partners in the region.
Equating secularism with atheism
The image of Turkey, which is firmly imprinted on many Arabs, consists of two components, Western secularism and the alliance with Israel. And many Arabs misunderstand the meaning of secularism, equating it with atheism, with the banishment of religion and the fight against its symbols.
The strictly secular system in Turkey, for example with the headscarf ban at universities, helps to consolidate these misconceptions. For many Arabs, Turkey therefore belongs to the West, some place it between East and West, but it is by no means seen as part of the oriental-Islamic world.
The fact that Turkey was the first Islamic country to recognize the State of Israel and the military agreement signed by Ankara and Tel Aviv in 1996 are still present to the average Arab. The majority of Arabs therefore sympathize with the Islamic parties in Turkey, which evoke nostalgic memories of a shared cultural and religious past.
It is those Turks who profess Islam that many Arabs want to see in power. With them they associate a country that corresponds to their own wishes: an Islamic-oriental Turkey, with which one can pursue common political goals, which stands on the side of the Arabs and distances itself from Israel and the USA.
Rejection of the Iraq invasion as a turning point
The resolution of the Turkish parliament in early March 2003, with which the support of the US armed forces in the invasion of Iraq was rejected, represented a historic turning point for the image of Turkey of the Arabs. For the first time the NATO member Turkey left the West Atlantic -american frame.
This new stance found widespread support among the Arab masses, especially since Turkey's position on the Iraq war was compared with that of its own governments:
Most of the Arab rulers tacitly collaborated with the US by providing military bases and logistical assistance. I remember the many articles in Arab newspapers praising the Turkish position and demanding: "Let us learn from Turkey how to say no to the USA!"
It is not surprising that the decision of a parliament in which the AKP has a majority aroused expectations of a new Turkey that is close to Arab interests. This change in perception intensified the sharp criticism of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan of the US military operations in Iraq and of the murder of Sheikh Yassin, the founder of the Palestinian Hamas movement, by Israel.
Erdoğan described the attack as "state terrorism", whereas the Arab governments remained silent about the attack on the man who was confined to a wheelchair. Turkey insisted that Hamas should be given the chance to rule the Palestinian territories after its election victory.
The Turkish government received the head of the movement's political office, Khalid Mash'al, in Ankara despite diplomatic pressure from the American and Israeli sides.
Turkey as a mediator
All of this reinforced the level of confidence that many Arabs have placed in Turkish politics over the past six years. Turkey is now trying to mediate in numerous conflicts in the region.
The most important example of this is the secret, indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel that came about through Turkey's diplomatic efforts. If Syria once criticized Turkish-Israeli relations the most violently of all the states in the region, Damascus is now reaping the fruits of these relations.
From a purely political point of view, Turkish-Syrian relations have improved since Abdullah Öcalan had to leave his hiding place in Damascus in 1998 under massive pressure from Turkey. The leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had previously directed his party's attacks on the Turkish military and security forces from Syria.
As a result of the normalization of relations between the two countries, Turkey also gained prestige in the Arab League. There, Syria had previously vetoed all projects or proposals to strengthen Arab-Turkish relations, citing an existing dispute between the two countries over the distribution of water from the Tigris and Euphrates.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the occupation of Iraq, the USA of all places strengthened Arab-Turkish relations. The spread of so-called Islamist terrorism led Washington to search for a moderate Islamic organization that would serve as an ideal model for the Muslims
should serve and dissuade them from terror.
The AKP was exactly what the US government was looking for. The party managed to express itself politically in a way that was not directly perceived as Islamist. It presents itself as a right-wing conservative party in the political landscape of secular Turkey.
However, it is still perceived as an Islamist party by Muslims and Arabs. The AKP government received support as part of the so-called "Wider Middle East" project, with which Washington encouraged its allies in the rich Gulf States to invest on a large scale.
The Gulf states supported the Turkish economy, which in turn promoted the rapprochement between these states and Turkey. They had previously observed the secular system with suspicion, which was particularly true of Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, the American occupation of Iraq reversed the military and political balance of power: Iraq, previously an important factor in the balance of power in the region, collapsed. Iranian influence in Iraq and the entire Middle East increased. The Arab triangle, consisting of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, fell apart. Syria was moving towards Iran.
No hegemonic striving in the Islamic world
So the eyes of the other Arab countries turned to Turkey as a new ally against Iran. The Saudi kingdom in particular, which viewed the matter as a denominational rather than a political conflict between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states, considered the predominantly Islamic-Sunni Turkey with its strong army to be capable of playing the role that Iraq had previously played in pushing back of Shiite-Iranian influence in the region.
The official rapprochement between the Arabs and Turkey went so far that the Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz made three trips to Turkey within 14 months. Saudi kings had never visited Turkey before.
But Turkey kindly refused the Saudi offer of leadership in the Sunni Islamic world. It was emphasized that the Turkish state was based on a secular system, that polarization according to denominations was rejected and that the dialogue with Tehran was supported.
At the same time, however, Turkey took advantage of this official rapprochement to sign a large number of trade and economic agreements throughout the Arab world.
The strategy pursued by the AKP of adopting a neutral stance gave the country a mediating role in the conflicts in the region, from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the events in the Sudanese province of Darfur and the events in Lebanon to the nuclear dispute with the Iran. This makes a decisive contribution to changing the stereotypical image of Turkey in the Arab world.
A large number of Arabs still think, however, that the changes on the Turkish side are due to the AKP alone. If the field were left to the military or to another party, Turkey would not march on in the chosen direction. So there are still doubts as to whether the new course of Turkish foreign policy will last.
The Arab countries know that Erdoğan and his supporters in Turkey have many powerful opponents who want to wrest their power away from them. In the cultural field, the Arabic synchronization of Turkish television series has contributed very successfully to breaking down stereotypes.
With the two romantic TV series "Noor" and "The Lost Years", which the Saudi-financed satellite broadcaster MBC broadcast in 2007, Turkey reached almost every Arab home.
Desire for freedom in the Arab world
The Arabs "experienced" the Turkish customs and habits. The secret of the series' success in the Arab world is certainly people's desire for more freedom. Secularism guarantees Turkish Muslims this freedom, especially in the relationship between men and women.
No wonder that only the Islamist extremists protested against these series. In her opinion, it was all too openly propagated in the series that women have the same right to love and desire as men.
The extremists fear that the Arab masses could get out of control as a result of such impulses and demand more freedom. It is also no wonder that the number of Arab tourists in Turkey this summer was three times as high as last year.
Turkey even advanced to become the Hollywood of the Middle East for the video clips of the Arab singers: those who want to stand out from their colleagues who are filming in the Arab world choose Turkey as the backdrop.
The Arab world is still proud of the beginnings of the Ottoman rule, which lasted around five hundred years. One fondly remembers Sultan Mehmed Fatih, who conquered Constantinople, later Istanbul, in 1453 and drove out the Byzantines.
The last hundred years, however, which culminated in the rule of the nationalist movement of the "Young Turks", have left deep scars in the memory of the Arab peoples.
Turkish nationalism as a dividing line
The cruel stories passed down by the grandparents recall the racist politics of the Young Turks, the slaughter of non-Turkish population groups, the countless forced recruitment of all men during the period known as "Seferberlik" when the Young Turks tried to occupy Russia, and the Ottoman Empire in dragged in the First World War, in which the Arab part of the population had not the slightest interest. During this time, Turkish nationalism developed.
The Young Turks pursued the ideology of Turanism, the primacy of the Turks and the peoples related to them. The separation of the races was a consequence that brought this behavior of superiority with it.
This dark chapter of history was also written in
of the Syrian TV series "Brothers of the Dust" and aroused violent protests by the Turkish government when it was broadcast in the Arab world in 2001. At that time, Syrian-Turkish relations were strained by the Öcalan crisis, which had not yet been overcome.
In any case, it is certain that the stereotypical image of a fearsome Turkish ruling elite is still present in the nooks and crannies of Arab thought.
It always came to the fore when the military staged coups or an Islamist party was banned in Turkey. Gradually, however, this image becomes weaker and loses its horror. The economic development also arouses the admiration and recognition of the Arab entrepreneurs, who are currently investing more and more in Turkey.
Positive effects of the reforms
The astonishing result of all these aspects, together with the less active role of the Arabs in the region, is an impression that is spreading more and more among the Arab masses: the Arab world again needs Turkey's support. She needs to close ranks with the Turkish people to protect her own interests.
Turkey's experience with the European Union has provoked sarcastic reactions from many Arabs. The EU would never allow a state like Turkey to join, Turkey was criticized for its aspirations to join.
But even at this point, attitudes have changed since the positive effects of the European-style political and economic reforms that Turkey has undertaken over the past decade have emerged.
Many Arabs are now in favor of a union or partnership between the Arab and European countries bordering the Mediterranean - perhaps one could benefit from this in a similar way to Turkey. Indeed, the Arab countries are grateful for the Turkish efforts to rediscover the Arab world.
There is no indication that the idea of a Turkish-Arab reunification would be offended. The model is the old connection in the Ottoman Empire, but on the condition that the new Ottomans rule, embodied by the AKP, and not the secular descendants of the Young Turks.
The aim of this ideal unity must be to get the Arab world out of its political backwardness, to strengthen the democratic currents and the
Overcoming political crises to create a more stable and modern Middle East.
Translated from the Arabic by Stefanie Gsell
© Culture Exchange - magazine for international perspectives
The Jordanian journalist Yousef Alsharif was born in Damascus in 1973. He has lived in Turkey for over 15 years. Alsharif works for the Turkey office of the Al-Jazeera television station in Ankara and writes for the Arab daily Al Hayat, which is published in London. His special topics are Turkey and its relationship with neighboring countries in the Middle East.
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