The righteous anger of Turkey

I’ve written before on how Turkey’s engagement with its Middle Eastern neighbours does not signal some huge, paradigm-shifting ‘turn east’. Turkey has been reaching out towards countries like Syria for a while now for reasons that are less ideological than pragmatic – economic benefits, shared foreign policy aims, in short the reasons that any state tries to build good international networks. To view Turkey’s ‘choice’ between East and West as dichotomous and mutually exclusive is an unhelpful hangover from the clash of civilisations theory. Turkey is an ascendant power, capitalising on this ascendancy by forging links and building its presence in the region.

Yet, post- flotilla attack, the accusations levelled at Turkey have grown stronger. It’s now an ‘Islamist state’, a supporter of Hamas, an enemy of Israel, part of the menacing Muslim ‘other’. Its reaction to the flotilla killings amounts to calling for jihad, according to Joshua Teitelbaum. Well, not quite.

Whatever your views on the justice/injustice of Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara, it is a fact that eight of its citizens were killed. Erdogan’s response is hardly the ‘bellicose exhortations’ Teitelbaum claims –  and to compare it to Turkey’s response to the recent sinking of the South Korean ship is absurd. Turkey’s citizens are murdered and Erdogan’s response is entirely justified. Teitelbaum tries to twist the Turkish leader’s language, claiming that his criticism of Israel’s actions amounts to ‘warmongering’. If you want warmongering, look to the country that recently asked the US for more bombs and a doubling of its weapons cache – Israel. US military aid to Israel now amounts to $800m worth. To turn this around, to make Turkey the aggressor and the provocator, is a huge misrepresentation of the truth. So is calling this reponse a ‘call to jihad’ – Turkey has consistently been a friend to Israel in the region, despite a history of Israeli snubs and rejections. Erdogan felt ‘personally betrayed’ when Israel invaded Gaza only a few days after Turkey hosted Israel-Syria talks; how must he feel now, when his citizens and countrymen have died?

Why is it, furthermore, that whenever a country such as Turkey tries to assert itself on the foreign policy scene it’s automatically viewed as a direct challenge to the US-led Western hegemony? Is it not possible that it’s just, well, trying to assert itself? Teitelbaum claims that Turkey is trying to ‘lead the Muslim world once more’ and is promoting a ‘clash of civilisations’. This is just total balls. Turkey’s foreign policy is, again, far more complex than this, and it’s analysis like this that promotes the clash of civilisations theory by refusing to admit that it is possible for Turkey to engage with its Muslim neighbours and, shock!, still be friendly towards the West. The diplomatic rise of Turkey – hosting talks between Israel and Syria, striking the nuclear deal with Iran and Brazil – is not just them trying to ‘be’ America or, alternatively, trying to establish some kind of neo-Ottoman caliphate by leading a monolithic Muslim bloc. This kind of reductionism is not just intellectually lazy and dishonest, it’s incredibly damaging as well. The West needs to acknowledge Turkey’s right to form its own foreign policy and, occasionally, to take initative where the West has failed.

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