OPPORTUNITIES for Arab-Turkish Relations [Archives:1998/15/Reportage]

April 13 1998

Aneesa Ghanim, Yemen Times
Based on a visit to Turkey during March 1998.
Turkey occupies an important and strategic location as a link between Asia and the Middle East, on the one hand, and the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe, on the other. This unique position has played a vital role in Turkey’s history, in general and in its foreign policies, in particular.
With respect to the Arab World, Turkey represents somewhat of an enigma. While Turkish-Israeli links are shrouded with mystery and have enraged many Arabs, there are many who realize the need to come to terms with such an important neighbor.

Turkey today remains a source of confusion and frustration to the Arab world.
Deterioration in Arab-Turkish relations date back to the last centuries of the Ottoman empire. European powers, interested in further weakening the ottoman empire, fueled Arab nationalism and the call for independence. Arabs thus sided with the Allies in the First World War, which the Turks saw as a betrayal.

The rise of the Young Turks, the replacement of Arabic scripts and adoption of secularism to replace Islamic doctrines, and many other policies added to the distance between the two sides.
But the Republic of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk has done a lot better than any of the Arab states, in terms of socio-economic development. The grip of irrational clergies on the affairs of the nation were replaced by more down-to-earth policies, leading to a society that has enabled its females to contribute fully to nation-building.

But there are two problems with the Turkish military establishment’s interaction with Islamic teachings. As one Iranian intellectual once noted, “While the Turkish military wants to water-down the binding sanctity of Islamic teachings, it insists on the sanctity of the teachings of Kemal Attaturk. It is a contradiction.”

The second problem has to do with the fact that the military establishment has not embraced secularism in full. It has done so on a selective basis. The transformation to secularism is not yet complete, as is evidenced from the recent rise of Islamic politics. The Turkish military establishment, which sees itself as the guardian of secularism, is fighting the return of religion in state affairs. But the weakness in the military establishment in its fight against religious politics, is its inability to fully embrace secularism. For example, the military in Turkey are not at all impressed with such basic secular values as minority rights (read, Kurdish rights), freedom of the press, meaningful political pluralism, and other aspects of a truly free system. This is the true weakness of secularist Turkey. What it needs is more secularism with full belief in the values of a modern society, rather than a selective implementation of certain elements. That is also why Europe has repeatedly refused Turkey’s overtures because the country’s power brokers have yet to fully embrace the Western ways.

That is also why the short-lived Refah government of Nejmeddeen Erbakan made important headways to reverse the secular trend. It allowed female public employees and university students to wear headscarves, it called for transforming the Aya Sofia back to a mosque, it proposed building a mosque in the Taqseem Square at the heart of Istanbul, and took several other measures that were construed to be against Turkey’s secularism. Refah also made headways in the economy through the establishment of 10,000 Islamic companies. It also set up thousands of religious schools. But most of all, it recruited an increasing number of military and police officers in its ranks.

In other words, the matter is a long way from being settled. The internal politics of Turkey and the structure of government are bound to see major ups and downs in the forseeable future.
Going back to the relations of Ankara with the Arab World, the confusion also exists on the Turkish side. The director of foreign affairs in parliament, Mr. Edi Alaishin told me, “Turkey has ties with both Israel and the Arab world. Our ties with Israel do not disturb the balance in the Middle East and are not meant to damage the excellent relations with Arab countries. I know there is a lot of criticism directed at Turkey because of its ties with Israel, but it must be better understood. Turkey cannot claim to be a wholly European nor a completely Asian country. It is both. So some sort of balance must be struck, otherwise untold harm may occur. When former prime minister Erbakan tried to improve Turkey’s relations with Libya and Iran, he almost ruined the ties with Israel, which could have disturbed our fine balance.”
Unfortunately that fine balance does not really exist.

The country’s relations with Syria and Iraq, for example, are often characterized by conflict over water rights and the Kurdish population dispersed in these three countries. Turkey’s military cooperation with Israel, a country at war with the Arab World, does not put its policies in fine balance. Relations between Turkey and Israel are not new. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and to establish diplomatic ties with it.

By the same token, all Arab countries failed to support Turkey’s efforts to ensure the rights of the Turkish minority in Cyprus, let alone recognize the establishment of a new state in north Cyprus.
Turkey and its Arabs neighbors are going to have more problems in the future due to differences over water rights. The director of electricity-generation projects, Mr. Doghan Altinblik said, “We promised our neighbors 500 m3 per second, but in fact we provide them with more because we cannot keep all that water. So they now get 800 m3 of water per second every day. It must be noted here that most of the Tigris and Euphrates water goes unexploited into the Gulf. The countries which these rivers pass through must really know how to better exploit this water.”
Some politicians in Turkey blame the army for the agreement with Israel. Mr. Messoud Yilmaz, the Prime Minister, publicly said that the agreement was forged by the military establishment in Turkey, referring to the army’s control over the reins of political power in Turkey. The Turkish-Israeli cooperation agreement allows Turkey to benefit from certain Israeli military and technical assistance. That was vital following 1995, when Germany stopped its military aid to Turkey after the latter’s use of German-made armored vehicles to quell Kurdish unrest in the south-eastern part of Turkey.

The army chief of staff, Mr. Ismail Qadri said, “The army plays a major role in combating terrorist movements, which always makes its presence on the political scene. Our problems with some Arab countries emanate from their support for terrorism directed at Turkey. Terrorism in Turkey is mainly supported by two Arab countries. So our cooperation with Israel started because our technological capabilities were not enough. Israel is the only country that can help us understand and develop that technology. We gave Israel the chance to train its pilots in Turkish airspace, and we got the necessary technological expertise in return. If Turkey has made one agreement with Israel, it has several stronger agreements with Arab countries.”

He went on to explain the strong Turkish relations with Arafat. He added, “Our position regarding the status of Jerusalem is quite clear and compatible with that of Arab and Muslim states. Turkey always tries to push the Middle East peace process forward, using its good ties with Israel as leverage. Islam, historical relations, membership in the Organization of Islamic Countries, and many other common grounds bring Turkey and the Arab world together. We tried very hard to make our Arab neighbors understand the importance of cooperation in order to stem terrorism from the region. We gave them suspected terrorist names, photos, telephone numbers, car number plates, and other information, but all to no avail.”Many Turks also resent what they term as “hazy Arab ideas of Turkey”. Both Turkey and the Arabs will have to work jointly to rectify the erroneous image and reach common understanding.
That is it.
The Turks and Arabs need each other. There are some basic points they have to agree on. In my mind, these include the following:
1) Both sides must allow some room for the other side to act differently than themselves. This means that the Arabs must understand why Turkey may want stronger ties with Israel, or any other party. By the same token, Turkey must understand why the Arabs may want special relations with Greece, a country which has supported Arab rights much more than the Turks.
2) Islam is a shared legacy. It is nothing to be ashamed of. But each side can understand and interact with this legacy in the best way it sees fit. Neither side should feel responsible for the way the other side handles itself. If Turkey wants to go secular, it is its business, and the Arabs should not brand such effort as anti-Islam. If some Arab societies enact strict Islamic laws, Turkey should not brand that as fundamentalist or terrorist.
3) The two sides can better work together if they internalize some of the modern values of the world. These include respect for minority rights, press freedom, political pluralism, human rights, And many other similar values.
4) Most important of all, the two sides have been stuck too much in politics. Economic cooperation can yield more visible results at a faster pace. The Arabs and Turks stand to gain a lot from a clear business orientation. If you add to that cultural cooperation, you definitely have a winner.
“Our geography makes our history,” one Arab intellectual once said. This is especially true in our relations with such an important country as Turkey. One of the best approaches would be to focus on the things we share, rather than on the issues in which we have differences. I believe that we now have lots of opportunities to make or break Arab-Turkish relations. Lets make them, not break them.