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
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
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
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
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.