IRD: As the new Middle East actor, Turkey –led by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP)—is becoming increasingly powerful. How did it catapult onto the front of the stage like this?
SK: Within the last three decades –and particularly the last ten years- Turkey’s initiatives in both the domestic and international fields have turned it into an influential actor in Middle East. Turkey is now a powerful member of the Muslim world and the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO). It has also become a Muslim European state and a developing country with an acknowledged role in the global arena.
The Turks took maximum advantage of the 8-year Iran-Iraq war -which created an economic vacuum in the region- to renovate their economy. They were actually the key beneficiaries of Iran’s ailing economy during the war and the ignorance of the diplomatic apparatus to revive our country’s regional status. The rise of the Islamist AKP party to power in 2002 brought a massive wave of change to Turkey. The current diplomatic crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has also given Ankara a golden opportunity to underline its significant regional role. And I praise the deliberate policy these modern Islamist are pursuing. They have tackled both domestic and foreign challenges, and are advancing their country towards progress so that the nation is floating the idea of reviving the glory of the Ottoman era.
Turkey uses its intellectual potential optimally. While rapidly moving towards development, the Islamists in power have checkmated the once invincible secularists and the country’s powerful military. They utilize their manpower cunningly. See how Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu –head of the ICO who is also a science historian, Mehmet Aydin –philosophy and religion scholar –Directorate of Religious Affairs- and most important of all Ahmet Davutoglu, are all serving Turkey’s interests in the best way possible. Political and intellectual celebrities have always proved useful, especially in the Middle East. In this way, Abdullah Gul, Erdogan and Davutoglu have crossed the former red lines of Ataturkism and laicity one by one, turning deep-seated secular parties –whether left or liberal- into marginal actors.
IRD: This could explain Turkey’s anti-Gaza blockade campaign. While their move has been embraced by the Muslim world, it is slammed by West. With the tension between Ankara and Tel Aviv after the Israeli Army’s raid against the humanitarian aid flotilla that lead to the death of nine, do you think the EU –or West in general- will consider realigning their ties with Ankara?
SK: Turkey-Israel ties have their roots in years when secularists and the Turkish army ruled the country. For the West –particularly the U.S. and Israel- having close ties with Turkey as an influential Muslim country is of prime importance. Erdogan’s government is heir to a set of agreements with Israel which it cannot disregard. Meanwhile, Turkey’s global agenda does not allow for conflict with Israel. The important point we shouldn’t miss is that at the core of these relations lies intelligence and defense cooperation that fall in the hands of the Ataturkist military. Ankara has signed military pacts with Tel Aviv and since 1990; Turkey-Israel relations have transformed into a strategic alliance.
The Turks will ultimately calibrate their ties with Tel Aviv with this aspect, and despite the ambitions of Erdogan and Gul, severing ties with the Israelis will never be an option. Erdogan, meanwhile, will follow his agenda. His denunciation of Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, his support for the Palestinian cause, his tirade against Shimon Peres at last year’s Davos Forum and the historical welcome he received at the Istanbul Airport afterwards, will never be forgotten.
Don’t forget that the Turks are rediscovering their historical identity. Their intermediation in the Middle East Peace Process indicates their neo-Ottoman agenda and a dispensing of a traditional foreign policy that shied away from meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.
IRD: Isn’t their rapid progress at odds with the interests of West in the Middle East?
SK: Not at all. The West is well aware of this reality, so it supports the new Islamist trend in Turkey. Americans also favor this neo-Islamism that manages to both keep a rein on secularists and meet the democratic demands of the Turkish nation. Turkey has now turned into a model for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and many other regional countries. The Pro-West secular elites have surrendered their positions to more efficient Muslim politicians in this country.
Currently, Turkey’s global approach accords with the agenda of the European Union and the United States. The EU membership strategy proposed by the AKP in *** was their first diplomatic measure to gain a foothold in global affairs and reinforce their domestic position. Terms and conditions set by the EU for Turkey’s membership in the union encourages democratic political, economic, and social reforms to detach Turkey from the era of secularist rule.
Turning EU membership into a national aspiration and a mainstream topic of discussion among European countries and the United States, the AKP cunningly marginalized the army and domestic rival parties. With the Islamists’ firm strategic steps, secularists who once held a firm grip over political power in Turkey and heavy-handedly responded any criticism have lost the game to Erdogan, turning into mere political benchwarmers.
Meanwhile, in the eyes of the West, Turkey’s Islamists are the best buffer against Islamic extremism: interaction with modern Islamists is a buffer against radical Islam. The West regards Turkey as the prime opportunity to bring Muslim countries out of their shells and democratize their regimes, and doing so without threatening their Islamic identity.
IRD: So, Turkey is still a reliable partner for them despite its Islamic guise.
SK: Support for Turkey is on the agenda of Western think tanks. Erdogan and Gul brought fundamental changes to their country which benefited the Turkish nation, the Middle East and the world. I’ll repeat this: Turkey’s path is the best buffer against Islamic extremism, such as Talibanism and Salafism.
IRD: Could this model be imitated by other Muslim countries?
SK: Yes, in most. But not in countries such as Saudi Arabia. This country has not found the capacity yet. If the Saudis vote in a democratic election, Bin Laden would emerge the winner of the ballot box. Look, in contrast to the liberal democracy in West, what we see in so-called democratic countries in the Muslim World is ‘electoral democracy’. In Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and even Iran, people only have the right to vote, nothing more.
IRD: So you think Turkey is a liberal democracy?
SK: Turkey is moving forward in that direction, certainly. It may not be a liberal democracy yet, despite the EU’s will. But overall, in terms of democracy and freedom, it stands at an acceptable point.
IRD: Isn’t Turkey’s aspiration to revive the glory of the Ottoman era a threat to Europe?
SK: Well, it is the same aspiration that has pushed Turkey forward during recent years. It is the Islamists’ driving force. Political stability and economic growth during recent years have boosted Ankara’s self-confidence, emboldening it to aspire for a regional –or even global- role. Turkey today is different from the Turkey of Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Bulent Ecevit, Tansu Ciller and Turgut Ozal. Turkey is a ubiquitous power now, from Syrian-Israel negotiations to Iran’s nuclear program. I think we can learn a good lesson from the AKP and how it has managed to deal with challenges. The Americans are also aware of Turkey’s key role in the Balkans, Caucasia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Turkey’s geostrategic position –as an East-West corridor and host of the Nabokov pipeline- helps the United States marginalize Russia and isolate Iran. The thirty-year-old break between Iran and the United States has given Americans the idea of turning Turkey into the regional leader –unfortunate to say.
IRD: Is it because of these potentials that Ankara has gained the trust of both the Western camp and the Muslim World?
SK: Yes. Turkey deserves this position. It has proved flexible enough to resolve its century-old dispute with Armenia, and is now confident enough to suggest to Russians ways to defuse the Georgia crisis. The Middle East was once said to have three pillars: Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Israel had replaced Turkey for several decades, before the rise of the AKP. Turkey has even proved to be a competent leader of cultural and Islamic movements.. Mehmet Aydin has now proposed the ‘Alliance of Civilizations’ as an alternative to Mohammad Khatami’s ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’. What Erdogan and his team are doing now is pursuing a neo-Ottoman agenda through domestic reform in politics and the economy, sidelining the snobbish military, playing an active role in the Middle East, safeguarding their valuable strategic cooperation with the United States, and pursuing EU membership. Erdogan and his party have been successful in reforms and in gaining popular support inside the country.
IRD: Success seems to have made the Turks assertive. It’s as if now they are telling the Europeans, “we don’t care if you don’t let us in the union, we are doing our business all around the globe anyway.”
SK: Diplomatic triumphs won’t divert Ankara’s attention from EU membership. Erdogan is a realistic politician, which is a typical trait in his party, of course. Turkey is now actually already a part of the Union. It is an European Commission member. Like most European states, it’s a NATO member. I think the day will come when the Europeans beg Turkey to join their union as a member.
IRD: How has Turkey’s rapid progress influenced its relations with Iran?
SK: It’s a case worthy of study, indeed. This is an exceptional opportunity for both countries to reinforce ties, a chance we have not had since the reign of the Safavid dynasty [the monarchy ruling from early 16th to early 18th in Iran, and which engaged in various battles with the Ottoman Empire]. Deterrence and rivalry between Tehran and Ankara has now given way to strategic cooperation. We can make the most of this opportunity. Erdogan’s behavior shows they have initiatives for Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran and Turkey have many common interests. It is not the 1980s anymore. Iran is not the revolutionary country it used to be, and Turks are not the orthodox secularists anymore. After the initial rise of Islamists to power in mid-1990s and the proximity policy of the then Prime Minister Necmettin Erbekanand toward Muslim countries, we have many grounds on which to cooperate. The 24-billion-dollar gas deal between Tehran and Ankara is the best proof.
Turkey has outperformed Iran in regional affairs however. Erdogan flies over Iranian territory to resolve disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a proof of the weakness of our diplomacy. We must be more active. Of course let’s not forget that Turkey –unlike Iran- has never been undermined and ignored by regional opponents and the United States. It also has high potential to normalize relations with regional and international rivals.