Not only has Turkey moved away from a wounded Turkish secular nationalism, but Egypt has moved away from a naive Arab nationalism.
by Juan Cole
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Cairo on Tuesday morning, being greeted at the airport by thousands of cheering Egyptians.
Even though two dramatic moments envisaged by Erdogan’s staff– a side trip to Gaza and a speech in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo– have been cancelled, the visit is nevertheless an important one. Erdogan will explore trade deals and military cooperation with Egypt.
Since it came to power at the polls in Turkey in 2002, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has innovated in much expanding Turkish trade. In 2002 only about 12 percent of Turkey’s external trade was with the Middle East. Now the percentage is about a quarter. By making peace with the Arab world, the Turkish government opened it to commerce on an unprecedented scale.
Justice and Development was able to accomplish this opening to the Arabs because it is more oriented to Turkey’s (Sunni) Muslim latent identity than to the strident Turkish nationalism of the officer corps, followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. If Turkey is primarily about being Turkish, then it will likely have ethno-nationalist conflicts with Arab neighbors such as Syria, as were common with the Turkish army dominated Turkish politics. But if Turkish identity is about being a moderate, modern kind of Muslim that values multi-culturalism and aspires to be European, then there is no real reason for conflict with Arab neighbors.
Ethnic nationalism can make for bad relations with neighbors if it is taken too far. But a Christian Democrat or Justice & Development kind of party can sidestep thorny issues of ethnicity and racial discrimination.
Not only has Turkey moved away from a wounded Turkish secular nationalism, but Egypt has moved away from a naive Arab nationalism. With the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime, Egypt is groping toward a new, multi-cultural politics that makes a place for Muslim religious parties and for secularists alike. Many young Muslim Brothers speak favorably of a “Turkish model.”
Turkey and Egypt do about $2.7 bn in trade with one another annually (roughly the same as Turkey and Israel). Some 250 Turkish companies have invested $1.5 bn. in Egypt. In the first half of 2011, Turkey was the world’s fastest-growing economy.
The combination of trade expansion, “harmonious relations with neighbors,” and emphasis on a moderate Muslim identity instead of a strident Turkish nationalism have allowed Turkey to reestablish strong ties with the Arab world. Most of the Arab world had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Istanbul. Arabs and Ottoman Turks most often went their own ways during World War I, and at the end of the war the Ottoman Empire collapsed altogether. There were bad feelings between Turks and Arabs. As a result, Israel sought out Turkey as part of its policy of allying with non-Arab countries in the region.
Now that the Turkish government does not define itself primarily in ethnic terms, Turkey is no longer behaving like an outsider in the Middle East. Like the Arabs, it cares about the fate of the displaced, stateless Palestinians. But Turkey likewise is committed to parliamentary democracy, giving it a great deal in common with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
All Turkey would have to do is to double its trade with Egypt, and it will have replaced its trade with Israel, more or less. Israel refuses to apologize for killing 9 Turks, one of them an American citizen, during a raid in May 2010 on an aid ship aiming to relieve the blockaded civilian population of Gaza.
Israel is by its intransigence driving Turkey into the arms of the Arabs, and the only victim visible on the horizon is the Israelis themselves.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s speech at at the Arab League on Monday and at the Cairo Opera House on Tuesday made waves in the West because of his denunciation of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and the warm public welcome he received among Egyptians.
But a controversy has broken out about a television interview Erdogan gave while in Cairo in which he said, , according to al-Sharq al-Awsat in Arabic, “Now, in this transitional phase in Egypt, as well as in what comes after it, I believe that the Egyptians will establish democracy very well, and they will see that a “secular state” does not mean “an irreligious state.” Rather it means respect for all the religions and giving all individuals the freedom to practice religion as they please.”
Erdogan’s remarks drew an immediate rebuke from Essam al-Arian, the number two man in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s sponsored political party. He said that Egyptians did not need to be taught about democracy by Turkey.
In an Arab context, Erdogan’s Justice and Development party is not seen as a truly Muslim-religious party, since it does not work for the implementation of sharia or Islam’s version of canon law. Turkey has a secular constitution, and attempting to overthrow it is quite illegal. Al-Arian and his faction of older Muslim Brothers do not want a separation of religion and state in Egypt, on the Turkish model, and so were alarmed that Erdogan was promoting it. Younger Muslim Brothers are said to be more positive toward Erdogan’s stance in this regard.
Erdogan’s party is cautious about challenging seuclarism in Turkey because it is illegal to do so and past Muslim parties have been removed from power or dismissed for taking that stance. Egypt has no similar recent tradition of imposed secularism from the top in the law, though on a de facto basis the old Hosmi Mubarak regime did sometimes put disabilities on the religious parties.
Al-Arian in past statements has underlined that his party would not seek to abolish pluralism in Egypt. But it is disturbing that he reacted so vigorously to Erdogan’s remark. If you weren’t trying to turn Egypt into a Sunni version of Iran, it is hard to see why you’d be so upset with what Erdogan said.
Juan R. I. Cole, Middle East scholar, is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. His website: www.juancole.com and Informed Comment
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