article

06.02.10

In Israel Fight, Turkey Spurns West

Outraged Turks are taking to the streets to protest Israel’s flotilla attack—but though the neo-imperial, neo-Ottoman spirit that’s gripping the country is addictive, it may mean Turkey is finally abandoning its place in the West.

There is a lovely line that I once heard from an elderly politician to describe the forever-turmoil news cycle here: “In Turkey, the devil always comes out of the woodwork in late afternoon.”

This time, it was in the wee hours of the morning.

Israel’s dawn raid on a Turkish flotilla carrying aid supplies to Gaza on Monday has unleashed massive public anger here and derailed diplomatic relations with what was once Israel’s only ally and strategic partner in the Muslim world. “State Terrorism,” several newspaper headlines read, echoing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outrage at the killing of nine aid workers during the Israel Defense Forces raid. As Islamic groups freely burned Israeli flags in the middle of Istanbul, the Turkish government lobbied for a U.N. Security Council condemnation of the raid and the parliament asked for tougher “political, military, and economic measures” against Israel.

We are now officially caught up between the West and the Muslim world, between Islamic solidarity and our place in Europe, as our politicians lead the global jihad against Israel and we sip Cosmopolitans on the Bosporus.

The episode will likely bring renewed international attention to the Israeli embargo on Gaza and increase the pressure on the Netanyahu government to embark on the peace process in one way or another.

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But for us here in Turkey, the implications run far deeper. In many ways, the botched raid by Israeli commandos on the high seas symbolizes our moment of return to the old neighborhood we left almost a century ago—back to the heart of the Middle East.

“I don’t understand how this happened so fast,” a friend lamented last night over cocktails at an upscale nightclub on the Bosporus in Istanbul. “We were about to go into the European Union, and before you know it, there we are, everyone wrapped in Palestinian flags and sending toothpaste to Gaza.”

She’s right. The flotilla episode may boost Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab street and increase Turkey’s self-confidence as the new patron of Palestinians and spokesman of the Muslim world. But, as a European official told me this week, “People might be happy for the current Israeli government to suffer a little. But in the long run, I doubt there is any room in Europe for a country that is on the forefront of the struggle against Israel.”

There it is—out goes our struggling role in the Western camp. For better or worse, we Turks have come out of this with a new place in the global order.

But wait—have we not been desperately trying to forget that “place” for about, say, 100 years?

A bit of history would help here. Born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey has traditionally looked west, happy to rid itself of the legacy of a declining empire and the troubles in the Arab lands. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, declared “contemporary civilization” as the nation’s ultimate destiny, creating a staunchly secular republic and ultimately becoming NATO’s only Muslim member.

We shed our imperial identity, banned the fez and wore hats, dropped the Arabic alphabet for Latin script, and even got rid of the Caliphate—the papacy for Muslims—early in the establishment of the republic in 1923, hoping to join a club that would not accept us so easily.

But the tide has been going in the other direction for some time now. With the rise of a political Islam in the 1990s and the return to power of the conservative Justice and Development Party (known as AKP) in 2003, Turkey has taken a new interest in its Ottoman past and in the Ottoman lands. The AKP has popularized the notion that Turkey should not solely look to the West but also expand its influence eastward, creating alliances with the Muslim world and Russia to complement its friendship with Europe and the United States.

Over the past decade, Turkish trade and diplomacy in the Arab world have exponentially increased, often at the expense of relations with Israel. In 2006, Turkey was the first country to host the newly elected Hamas representatives and in 2009, Erdogan got into a public spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling him a “liar” and a “child murderer.” He was given a hero’s welcome back in Istanbul.

Relations with Israel have gone downhill since.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the expansion of Turkish influence in the region. You can buy Turkish cookies in supermarkets, watch Turkish sitcoms, fly out of airports built by Turkish contractors. But what exactly will be the price for going back to the old ’hood?

Identity crisis, I would say.

Samuel Huntington, the celebrated political scientist and the author of The Clash of Civilizations, has a particular place for Turkey in his theory of cultural and religious identities driving the post-Cold War world. He calls Turkey a “torn-country,” where politics of modernity clash with Islamic civilization.

We are now officially caught up between the West and the Muslim world, between Islamic solidarity and our place in Europe, as our politicians lead the global jihad against Israel and we sip Cosmopolitans on the Bosporus.

But there is something in this neo-imperial, neo-Ottoman spirit that has taken over the country since the flotilla episode that is addictive, even for a secular Turk like me. Yesterday, I watched the footage of demonstrations against Israel all over the Middle East and Europe with mixed feelings. I hate the fact that Turkey has become the primary nemesis of Israel—a country where I have many good friends who look and live like me. But then again, from Beirut to Sweden, I watch demonstrators holding Turkish flags and take guilty pride in those scenes.

Once the dust settles, there is too much we need to discuss back home. Can we really help the Palestinians and energize the peace process? Is Turkey strong enough to lift the embargo in Gaza? Or wait, wait—are we just abandoning our place in the West, losing ourselves in a fleeting moment of grandeur?

Only time will tell. But for now, I am sitting here, in Europe’s largest Muslim country, sipping rose wine and occasionally staring across the desk at an old photograph of my great-grandfather—the Albanian-born, Ottoman police chief of Jerusalem at the turn of the century.

And I have no clue whether to go left or right.

Asli Aydintasbas is a columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet.