Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Turkish Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy

by Ed Husain
September 30, 2011

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan arrives to address the opening session of the Arab foreign ministers' meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on September 13, 2011 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

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.


  • Posted by rippon

    “Whatever the United States’ intentions and failures in Iraq, it did not seek to colonize Iraq”

    What *did* the US seek to do in Iraq, then? And how has the US – and, more importantly, Iraqis – fared as a result of the US’ intentions? And whatever the US “intentions and failures” in Iraq so far, what should the US be seeking to do there now?

    (These questions are far more vital than Turkish history from past centuries.)


  • Posted by Ed Husain

    Thank you, Rippon. The United States sought to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime for a host of reasons. In hindsight, we now know some of these arguments to be more credible than others. Nevertheless, the accusation of colonialism is unjustified.

  • Posted by rippon

    It seems your ancient history is far better than your recent history.

    The US expressly did not seek to overthrow Saddam. Both Bush and Blair were very explicit that the aim was disarmament, not regime-change. Blair stated explicitly in parliament that Saddam could remain as long as he got rid of his WMD. (One reason regime-change was expressly not an aim was because that was known to be illegal.)

    Accepting your assertion, though, what example(s) can you give from the “host of reasons” for seeking to overthrow Saddam?


  • Posted by aydin

    Ae we naive enough to belive what blair, bush, etc say at press conferences.

    So oil is not an issue? It is THE issue. Any other reason is a failed excuse.

    One more think. Calling turk’s rule colonization mesns not having an idea what it is? Which arab country speak turkish tofay? Which resource did turks took away from arabs?

    They stop blame game and do something constrctive. U

    I dont see any value in the so called support for Erdogan. It is fake and support of crowds on the street and for wrong perceptions. It should not mislead turkish authorities.


  • Posted by Anti-fascist Turk

    The US, even if it didn’t mean to colonise Iraq, did something that should be condemned ; INVADING Iraq for no good reason. I supported the US action in Afghanistan but I have always been against the invasion of Iraq.

    As for Erdogan, many Turks, including me, think that his aim is to make Turkey a ‘moderately Islamic state’, a regime like Morocco’s or Tunisia’s perhaps. EU accession talks seem to be leading nowhere. Erdogan’s mind and actions are almost always in the Middle East. His anti-Israel stance possibly comes from his being anti-Semitic ;everyone knows that he comes from a hardcore Islamist background.

    Turkey is moving further away from the West,unfortunately. Media censorship in Turkey has reached a bad level. Dissent faces often tough actions by the security and judicial forces. Kurdish people’s problems continue ; the problems in the Southeast of Turkey are far from being solved. Turkey still keeps its land border with Armenia closed, causing economic difficulty to many Armenians.

    As an anti-fascist, pro-Western, internationalist Turk, I think and fear that Turkey is heading towards a dark future.

  • Posted by Hakeem Shaybani

    “some of these arguments to be more credible than others”

    Which ones do you find to be more credible?

  • Posted by Al

    Reading Rippon’s statements, and about the “hindsight” theme, it should be reminded what Condoleeza Rice once said as head of the Foreign Office: military intervention is going to “become a fixture” of the geopolitical background in the coming decades.
    In fact, with the “hindsight” of Libya too, Rice’s remark finds bipartisan corroboration.

    It cannot be fathomed whether this ought to be considered a full fledged new “doctrine” – however the impression we have is that it is not a matter of colonialism but, rather, it seems world word III fought one battle at a time rather than letting it spiral out of control as one major outbreak.

    If there is one thing that finds all of us in agreement, it is that we all sensed, since ever, that if such a war had to be fought, it would have had to do with the Middle East.
    The rise of fundamentalism was, arguably, another symptom of how unavoidable this looming “war” was perceived on both fronts.

    It is my contention that this is what is really happening in the background: fighting world war III check by check on the Middle East checkboard.

    In this regard, such a war appeared unavoidable. The real eventual target has always been, of course, Ira-n. Ira-q was only a step towards it: indeed, it is an old doctrine that of fighting your major foe by proxies, eroding its margins rather than attacking its kernel.

    Now, we are dealing with the few left pawns of this game: Syria and Iran. And yet the major outbreak may still come: it is in fact possibile that the only thing truly capable of catalyzing the Iran passage, shall be awaiting for Iran to undertake a nuclear strike that will instantly erase any opposition – I am hoping this will never happen but we have dire signs out there and another head of the foreign office, Hillary Clinton, has already said that in such a case “Iran will be wiped off the map”.

    So the question is not to colonize or not to colonize: the question is more tragic, and it seems to be whether we will be able to end world war III by insulated checks, without letting it unleash the apocalypse dogs it has been keeping threatening the world with for at least 50 years.
    Will we manage?