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Erdoğan Remains The Better Regional Option

26 June 2015

By Eyad Abu Shakra

How the Turkish electorate has voted in its most recent general election is its own private matter, nobody else's.

This is democracy, where at the end of the day the decision lies with those who are eligible to vote, have paid their taxes, and are in good standing. They are the ones who for the next few years will live under a government of their own choosing.

Still, the choice of the Turkish voter will, one way or another, affect their neighbors in a region in turmoil and under the threat of partition, disintegration, and falling under foreign hegemony due to Iran's sectarian project and blooming aspirations of Kurdish independence. These two developments now unmistakably enjoy American support.

Before discussing our own interests or worries, as Arabs, regarding the results of the most recent Turkish elections, we must acknowledge that the phenomenon of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist trend have managed to change the rules of the game in Turkey since Mustafa Kamal Atatürk established the secular–nationalist Republic of Turkey. However, erasing Ataturk's heritage in the modern state he built according to his dreams and beliefs is no easy task. In spite of the steady growth of political Islam in Turkey since the days of former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, secular, liberal, leftist as well as extreme Turanist nationalists have maintained a noticeable presence on the Turkish political scene. Finally, in addition to the fact that ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian minorities have actually found their voices in the last few years, Erdoğan's tough political "persona" has not even assured him the full support of the country's Islamists. Indeed, one of Erdoğan's most bitter adversaries is the prominent Islamist Fethullah Gülen, now in exile in the US.

Considering all of the above, it was domestic political and economic issues that dominated the election campaign between Turkey's main parties, a campaign which was bitterly fought in the media amid heated accusations and counter-accusations. However, this time around the exceptional situation that is playing out in the Middle East has—now more than ever before—linked what is happening on Turkey's domestic front to the regional and international scene.

The tragic situation in Syria has had a strong impact on Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have proven to be a huge economic burden as well as a contentious political issue. The long Syrian–Turkish borders are now a battlefront, and may soon become part of a new state rising from the ashes of present day Syria. Then, there are the extremist terrorist groups which are murdering people and uprooting communities under the false banner of Islam in both Syria and Iraq—Turkey shares a border with both these war-torn states. Syria and Iraq are also providing the strategic depth and reserve to Kurdish separatists in Turkey, who during these elections managed to achieve a remarkable victory.

Erdoğan's strident Sunni Islamist discourse has added to the tense climate by alienating not only the secular nationalists, liberals and leftists, but also non-Sunni sects led by the Shi'ite Alevis (primarily Bektashis and Qizilbash) who have expressed solidarity with Syria's ruling Alawites, making sectarian tension within Turkey even more likely.

On the other hand it is only natural that the international community should take the outcome of the Turkish elections seriously. Turkey is the largest Muslim country bordering Europe, and during the "Islamist" Ottoman era its relationship with Christian Europe was not always cordial; moreover, there are fairly large Turkish communities living in the heart of the continent.

In spite of their much-trumpeted commitment to the democratic process, serious and respectable European and American newspapers launched bitter attacks on Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Thus, if the media in democratic Europe and the USA finds no problem in interfering in what is supposed to be the Turkish electorate's democratic choice, then we, as Arabs, have every right to express an opinion on what is at stake in Turkey, for the following reasons:

First, Turkey is a major influential neighbor. Its geographic proximity affects the Arab world, whether we are talking issues of ideology, water resources, economy, or factionalism. With regard to religion and history, there is no escaping the fact that Sunni "Islamist" Turkey (under the guise of the Ottoman Empire) governed most of our (Arab) countries for around 400 years, ending only with its defeat in the First World War.

Second, the multifaceted challenges confronting our region have taken us far outside of our "comfort zone." Hence, it is no longer acceptable to keep dreaming while shunning realities and failing to address the situation on the ground. We are now threatened by two major dangers: Takfirist terrorism in the name of Islam, and those who have long been exploiting it and are currently using it as an excuse to impose their hegemony over the Middle East with clear international blessings.

Third, the successive crises created by the above-mentioned regional threats, have or should have, put paid to convictions that have been clearly misplaced. This applies to certain global superpowers we thought were forever committed to regional security and historical alliances, some major Muslim countries which many thought were trusted allies in times of need, and brotherly Arab countries whose position vis-à-vis regional threats has been disappointing. The Syrian crisis, in particular, has revealed these countries are unconvinced that creeping Iranian hegemony from Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, and later encircling the Arabian Peninsula through controlling Yemen, is a strategic threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council, if not pan-Arab security.

Fourth, there are several common geopolitical interests between the Arab world and Erdoğan's Turkey—provided the latter agrees to be an ally and partner, and not a "guru" or "master." Arabs and Turks have a common interest in checking the Iranian onslaught and stemming the tide of sectarian agitation it is nurturing and exploiting. In fact, just as Iran is blackmailing us by forcing us to choose between either accepting its hegemony or destroying our countries through the murderous terror of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), its projects also threaten Turkey's national unity and stability.

Therefore, from a strategic standpoint, Erdoğan's Turkey and the Arab world are fighting the same battle—we should fight this together, on the condition that Ankara respects our sovereignty and interests.

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978. 

 

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