When I visit Arab countries, I often hear the United States accused of being an ‘‘imperial power.’’ It is also viewed as being too close to Israel, and religious extremists of the al-Qaeda trend invariably refer to the United States as “crusaders.” Consequently, important U.S. political messages on the need for democracy, the importance of freedom, and the advantages of building secular polities are ignored or ridiculed as “neoconservatism”—a discrediting label associated closely with the Iraq war in most Arab minds.
Whatever the United States’ intentions and failures in Iraq, it did not seek to colonize Iraq, or any other Arab nation for that matter. In contrast, Turkey was a major imperial power for several centuries across the Middle East. Until very recently, Turkey was not only detested by Kurds and Lebanese Armenians for the atrocities that Turkey committed against these people, but most Egyptians and Syrians were taught in their schools that Turkey’s four-hundred-year-old occupation of Arab countries was responsible for Arab economic and political decline.
It gets worse.
Not only did the dreaded atrak—Arabic for Turks—colonize Arab countries for so long, but in 1924 they abolished the office of the last man who claimed to be a caliph in Istanbul, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Al-Qaeda and others, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, still lament the loss of this so-called caliphate. Indeed, the entire Islamist movement’s premise is to reinstate a caliphate or “Islamic state;” their debate and differences are over how best to achieve it. Whatever negative perceptions of the United States can be found in the Arab world, it cannot be held responsible for destroying the caliphate. In the eyes of Islamist extremists, Turkey will always be responsible for this seemingly heinous crime.
And then there is Israel.
Until recently, Turkey’s military, economic, and political ties with Israel were another major cause of hatred for the atrak in many Arab eyes. But recent public criticism of Israeli policies by the Turkish government seems to have led to greater credibility for Turkey among Arabs. That, combined with Turkey’s early support for the Arab uprisings, has recalibrated Turkey’s position in the Middle East. Rightly or wrongly, there is talk of “neo-Ottomanism” and Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed in Arab capitals in a way that few other leaders are. It is this credibility that gave Turkey confidence to address Egyptians in such bold terms on a popular Egyptian television show:
To Egyptians who view secularism as removing religion from the state, or as an infidel state, I say you are mistaken….It means respect to all religions….If this is implemented, the entire society will live in safety….Turkish secularism respects atheists because in the end Turkey is a state that believes in the rule of law.
Was this “neoconservative” interference in Arab affairs? If so, it came from the leader of a party that the Muslim Brotherhood and others wish to imitate. If Turkey can shift in Arab perceptions, despite four hundred years of imperialism, can the United States reshape its relations with three hundred million Arabs? And thereby minimize anti-Americanism and rising radicalism in the region? Today’s New York Times rightly leads with coverage of Arab activists attempting to define the “Islamic state.” Erdogan was right to interject in this debate and speak up for universal values of freedom, secularism, and democracy.
“The Arab Street” will visit these themes and more in future posts.