The Middle East is changing dramatically, and the age of Arab dictatorships finally seems to be coming to an end. Iran has been squeezed between internal dissent and international pressure. Israel is about to lose the security it was given by Arab dictators, who in return received Western support. Only the Turkish state is in the position to gain huge territorial gains. The Turkish state uniquely enjoys good relations with the West and, under the populist Islamist government, is about to hegemonize many Arab nationalists and Islamists. It is not strange that the Turkish domination of the Middle East is welcomed by Arab Islamists as a revival of the Islamic Empire and by Arab nationalists as an alternative to the failed project of Arab nation-states, which are now collapsing one after another. Sunni Arab masses live in such desperation that they embrace any non-Western and non-Shiite enterprise in the region. Turkish imperialism to the frustrated Islamist and nationalist Arabs is promising a project that would save the Middle East from both Americanism and the Iranian domination. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knew how to capitalize on the Arab frustration right from the beginning of the victory of his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in the 2002 elections in Turkey. However, until 2009 his main agenda still focused on internal issues in order to secure a vast populist base for his party, and to ensure the domination of state apparatuses, including the army and the secret police. Then in 2009, he and his party had attained enough power and popularity in Turkey to turn towards their expansionist agenda. Erdogan began this new chapter with a theatrical show against Shimon Peres at The World Economic Forum in Davos. After giving a moralist and religious lecture to Peres on the Israeli violence, he walked off the stage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrbQsHkVQ_4.
It is very telling how Amr Moussa, who was at the time the Secretary-General of the Arab League, stands up in a clear state of confusion and shakes hands with the “angry” Erdogan, as the latter is leaving the stage. Moussa then hesitates for a moment, as if trying to decide whether to follow Erdogan or sit again, but ultimately, with bad-faith, he complies with Ban Ki-moon’s hand gesture and sits down again. Moussa’s handshaking with Erdogan, his hesitation, and his lack of will to action perfectly represent the Arab situation with regard to Israel and the US. All Arab states agree that something is wrong, but still they all conform to the status quo. They all say one thing and do the opposite. On the other hand, the Turkish PM has seized the perfect opportunity to become the hero in the Arab world, in spite of the fact that Turkey has always had full diplomatic, military, and trade relations with Israel. In fact, this was the case until the Israeli raid on the Turkish-led aid Flotilla to Gaza in 2010, which the Turkish government has made into another big propaganda project to win more Arab popularity.
I will comment on three issues very briefly with regard to this new Turkish enterprise in the Middle East: first, the easy one to recognize, the hypocrisy of Erdogan and his Pro-Islamist party, the AKP; second, the Israeli-complex in the Arab world; and thirdly, the new Western strategic mistake in the Middle East.
Turkey and Kurdistan
While Erdogan was lecturing to the attendees of the Davos Forum in 2009 on the Israeli violence in Gaza, Turkish air forces were dropping bombs on Kurdish villages, the police was shooting at Kurdish demonstrators, and there were, and still are, hundreds of Kurdish children in Turkish prisons for charges of propagandizing for a “terrorist” organization.[i] At the moment there are daily air strikes against Kurdish villages in southern Kurdistan. On August 21, 2011, a family of 7, including a two-month-old baby, a two-year-old girl, and a 16-year-old boy, were killed by an F16 strike. Just weeks earlier, on August 3, 2011, the Turkish regime put 106 former Kurdish mayors and politicians on trial for charges of “terrorism”. And the list goes on and on.
The Kurdish question is too big and too old to say anything important about it here. To put it succinctly, the discrimination against Kurds in Turkey has always been at the heart of the state’s policies. To this moment, in all the Kurdish cities in Turkey, martial rules are in effect. More than 20 million Kurds in Turkey are denied the most basic rights and now, even if a government tries to take any serious steps towards making peace with the Kurds, it will face furious and widespread Turkish opposition.
To Kurds, Kurdistan is a country colonized by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In those terms, the biggest part of Kurdistan, home to over 20 million Kurds by most estimates, is occupied by the Turkish state. Of course, even many open minded Turks, let alone Turkish nationalists and fascists, do not share this view. Here we can refer to different sources on either side of the debate. It is part of journalistic and scholarly games to refer to the sources that reinforce the view put forward by the writer. Here, I am not going to refer to any sources to make the point that Kurdistan is indeed a colonized country. Instead, I rely on the virtual reality on the city streets of what is now the southeastern Turkish Republic. I have personally been in some of those areas and noticed their resemblance to the cinematic reproductions of non-German cities just after being taken over by Nazi Germany in good WWII movies. Tanks in city squares, military check points on bridges, army units storming houses, huge military bases with prison areas for mass arrest, and state-funded local thugs guiding army units into the countryside, are casual scenes. In short, the Kurdish cities are treated as a different country, and the Kurds as enemies. In fact, it was the acts of the Turkish state (not any Kurdish political discourse) that ultimately convinced many people like me that Kurdistan is indeed a colonized country. Once you leave the Kurdish areas behind and head to the areas with a Turkish majority, everything changes: the roads are incomparably better, the police are more civilized, the presence of the military is rather symbolic, and different laws are in effect with regard to demonstrations and arrests. To see Kurdistan as a colonized country then has nothing to do with one’s own political ideology, provided that the observer has not been brainwashed by the Kemalist ideology. Turks in Turkey live a different reality than that of the Kurds, so the diffusion is not only rooted in the ruling ideology but also in the two separated worlds, the Turkish one as opposed to the Kurdish one. That is to say it is simply an epistemological mistake to think Kurdistan is not a colonized country. In Turkey Kurds who do not deny their origins are never treated as equal citizens within the Turkish state, yet they are continually accused for not considering themselves Turks. A Kurd is expected not only to be silent about the systematic discrimination and dehumanization that is practiced against her, but also to be grateful for it. The Turkish nation is allergic to the word “Kurd”. This is apparent even in the media that claim to target the Kurdish question. Such is the case in I Saw the Sun (Mahsun Kırmızıgül, 2009), a Turkish film that supposedly addresses the problems of a Kurdish family who have one son in the Turkish army and another is a guerrilla in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The implication is that the war is a war between “brothers”. The movie is creative in dehumanizing and ridiculing Kurds, but what I want to mention here is the fact that all the villagers, in what is supposed to be a Kurdish village caught in the war between the PKK and the Turkish army, speak only Turkish. The goal of the film is to dehumanize the Kurd, but that would imply the existence of Kurds and the Kurdish language in the first place. Hence, the film aims to make certain claims about subjects whose existence is denied by the film itself. This film is representative of the paradox in which Turkish racism is living; namely, the enemy exists only as a nightmare. The enmity and the hatred are real, but the enemy as an identity holder does not exist. In Turkey, usually Kurdistan is referred to as “the east”, and Kurds as “terrorists”. Everything else about “the east” and its population is a subject of fascist imagination.
Erdogan’s party is transforming the Turkish state from a fascist state, like Mussolini’s Italy, to a fascist and totalitarian state, like Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Initially, they showed some tolerance for the Kurdish question, but now, with their popular support, the unlimited empowerment of the police, and the culture of violence that always dominated Turkish politics, the AKP government is openly practicing an ultraviolent policy in Kurdistan. What I won’t do here is compare the Turkish politics towards the Kurds to the Israeli politics towards the Palestinians, because that might wrongly lead to decriminalizing the latter. Similarly, I do not want to contrast the Kurdish struggle with the Palestinian one because that, again, might imply erroneous inferences. The point, however, is that the Turkish agenda has nothing to do with justice for Palestinians because a system that manages to deny all justice to over 20 million people who are living under its control cannot possibly be concerned about justice elsewhere. The Turkish regime is using the Palestinian question in order to deceive and win the emotions of Arabs as a means of ideological hegemony and, thus, for the purpose of dominating them and the Arab world. Unfortunately, the popular Arab is ready to be dominated by the new populist Turkish propaganda with little resistance. I will touch upon the reasons for this in the next section.
Israel, Arabs, Domination in the form of a Complex
Of course, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Golan Heights is well known to anyone who has even a minimal interest in Middle Eastern affairs. What is not so widely understood though is the extent of the wound left in the Arab collective psyche by that occupation. Israel has not only occupied Arab lands, but also occupied Arab judgment and imaginations for over half a century.
Arab nationalism has two intertwined sources of its symbolic capital: Islam and a modern sense of national identity inspired originally by the ideologies of modern European nation-state, especially the German and French. Whereas Islamist Arabs focus almost exclusively on the first source, non-Muslim, non-Islamist and secular Muslim Arabs garner their strength from the latter, with groups of practicing-Muslim Arabs falling somewhere in-between depending on many geopolitical, cultural, and regional factors. However, one thing, among others, that the majority of Arabs do undoubtedly have in common is enmity towards Israel. This feeling of enmity is as complex as a psychological complex can be. To Arabs, Israel is more than just an enemy. It is rather a case of domination in the most negative way: as a psychological obsession. The Arab nationalist measures almost all politics in relation to Israel. To her/him, good and evil are measured in relation to her/his mental image of Israel. Thus any power (whether Arab or non-Arab) can be favored by the Arab nationalist as long as it is hostile to Israel and vice versa, regardless of how many Darfurians, or Kurds are killed by the power in question. Moreover, one of the most serious triggers of the ongoing discontent in the Arab world, especially in terms of the corrupt, totalitarian Arab regimes, is the fact that these regimes did not make the conflict with Israel a political priority. In fact, there are even worse exceptions, like Egypt and Jordan, who have made peace treaties with Israel.
Saddam Hussein knew how to play with this issue to gain popularity throughout the Arab world. In 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, as his regime was being attacked by the U.S.-led coalition, Saddam, in response, threatened Israel, who had nothing to do with that particular conflict. Many Arab countries actually took part in the war against Iraq, but Saddam chose Israel as his main target of threat. Sure enough, Saddam became arguably the most popular Arab leader of all times. The occupation of Kuwait, let alone the Kurdish genocide or the violent oppression of the Shiite in Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s regime, did not matter much to these Arab nationalists. Consider the huge difference between the popular Arab reaction towards the American war against Saddam’s Iraq, on the one hand, and NATO’s war against Qaddafi’s regime, on the other hand. The same Arabs who were ready to (and in many cases, including many Libyans, did) go to Iraq to defend the Baath regime, not only approved of the NATO attacks on Libya, but also believed that NATO did not attack quickly or aggressively enough. This difference in reactions from the same people was not because Qaddafi was more oppressive than Saddam Hussein (he was not). Rather, the main reason behind the different reactions was that Saddam was seen as a retaliator against Israel, whereas Qaddafi was thought to be indifferent about or somehow in favor of the Jewish state. In Libya, even the Islamists are fighting side by side with the NATO forces against Qaddafi, though each side for different reasons. The reason many non-Tunisian Arabs supported the Tunisian revolution was not because they felt so strongly for the Tunisians and their freedom. Rather, it was because they believed Zein al-Abedin ben Ali’s regime was too corrupted to ever do the right thing: to support the Palestinian cause more aggressively. Throughout the Arab Spring, the Syrian regime has been the bloodiest regime with regard to peaceful demonstrations, yet the Syrian revolution has gained very little support from non-Syrian Arabs. The reason for this again has to do with Israel: the Syrian regime has openly supported Palestinian militant groups, and Hezbollah. Syria is seen by many Arabs to be representative of what they call “the rejecting front” – Khadh Al-mumanaa – , and because of that even its alliance with Shiite Iran has been pardoned by nationalist Sunni Arabs and Sunni Islamists outside Syria. Inside, the Islamist faction of the upraised Syrians accuse the Al-Assad regime of not being sincere in its conflict with Israel. They claim that the regime prevents them from attacking Israel, which is actually true, and to them that is sufficient to delegitimize the regime.
To the Arab nationalist, even the Palestinians themselves are not entitled to negotiate with Israel. That is why Hamas enjoys such massive popular sympathy as opposed to the PLO, who is considered to have given up the goal of the abolition of Israel. On the official level, Arab regimes, except for Syria who always supported Hamas, backed up the PLO. In the name of a conflict with Israel, the Baath regime in Syria has never lifted marshal laws in the country. Of course, the target of this state of emergency was always only Syrians themselves. No opposition of any kind has ever been allowed under the Baath regime. Anyone in Syria could be kidnapped by the secret police and put in prison for unlimited periods of time, up to a lifetime, under these laws. I lived in Syria from 1999 to 2001, and witnessed how no one was safe from the regime, including Palestinian refugees. But, again, that was fully excused by many deluded Arab nationalists because to them what mattered most was the struggle against the claimed enmity, Israel. Palestinians mattered only when they were victims of the state of Israel and because of that, an Arab regime, or Hamas, could do what they pleased to Palestinian refugees. In fact, there is no Arab regime that did not, in any way that suited it, use the Palestinian question to its own advantage. All 22 Arab regimes have had very bad records of corruption, political oppression, and violence against their own citizens, to different degrees, from torture of political prisoners to acts of mass murder. If we take an average Arab nationalist from any country, none of the atrocities taking place in the rest of the 21 Arab countries would irritate him/her as much as the existence of Israel.
Israel has not only occupied Arab lands, but also occupied Arab judgment and imaginations for over half a century. In fact, the complex over Israel almost froze Arab history at a certain moment at which nationalism was considered a progressive ideology for liberation from colonialism. In some countries, such as Iraq and Syria, colonial powers were arguably less oppressive than the sovereign systems. The justification for this has usually had something to do with the assumed conflict with Israel, and this was, to many Arab nationalists, a legitimate justification.
What we see now is Turkey playing upon this damaged Arab psyche that seems to be awaiting any saviour. Essentially, Arab nationalism is prepared to deny itself for the sake of winning its imagined war against Israel. Even more than that, it is ready to give up its ultimate dream, a nation state from Ocean to Gulf, as Arab nationalists put it, and happily submit to its former Ottoman colonizer, if it can only see its other dream, the destruction of Israel, fulfilled. Again, this obsession has turned Arab nationalism into a suicidal creature liable to negate its defining philosophy, represented in the principle of sovereignty.
Turkish Islamism is therefore primed to win the emotional support of Arab nationalists and Arab Islamists alike because Palestine is sacred to both. Because both sides have failed to win the conflict against Israel themselves, Turkey, aiming to revive the Turkish Empire under the Islamists, is the last hope for them. This modern-day empire will have all the racist elements of Turkish nationalism bred with the imperial foundations of the Ottoman Empire. In essence, it is going to be both fascist and totalitarian.
The American Role?
Now, what about the American influence in relation to these new possibilities? I think it is safe to say that American foreign policy makers are very nearsighted when it comes to their imperial enterprise. In fact, since the Second World War American foreign politics have always been in crisis, going so far as to create a crisis in order to escape one. One example of this is the United State’s initial support to Islamist fundamentalists to stop the spread of communism. However later the American foreign policy makers had to deal with the creature they had created, as it grew out of control.
Now, having supported Turkey unconditionally since the era of the Cold War, the American government unknowingly set up the Middle East to be its most dangerous future enemy. Thus it is Turkey, not Iran, that is the most serious potential threat to Western interests, including Israel. In fact, Iran will be a Western ally as soon as the current regime falls. Thanks to the Islamists in Iran, the majority of Iranians are now looking forward to embracing liberal democracy as part of their Western vision. Turkey, however, is heading steadily towards hard-core Islamism with massive support from the Americans, who are now preoccupied by what they think is an immanent Iranian threat. The truth, however, is that Turkey, with popular Arab support and a potential alliance with Pakistan (another powerful Sunni and conservative Islamic state), can very well become the West’s and the World’s next worst nightmare.
That, however, is only one possible scenario. Another possible outcome, though no less dark, is a capitalist Middle East and North Africa with an Islamist face. Like the AKP’s Turkey, it is possible that the Western powers would embrace, though reluctantly, an Arab world under Islamists who would implement neo-liberal policies. The Orientalist view, which remains the dominant perspective among ruling elitists in the West, can imagine only two possibilities in free societies with a Muslim majority: 1- extremist Islamism, like Al-Qaida, or 2- so-called moderate Islamism, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulen Movement (the ideological godfather of the AKP). Ultimately, what this means is that the Western governments would prefer, and perhaps even support the second version of political Islam. In this case, the next era of the Near East will most certainly be an era of Capitalism with an Islamist face.
[i] For an article on Kurdish children arrests see: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/features/article/jailed-kurdish-children-a-blight-on-turkeys-future/