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POLITICS: At East-West Crossroads, Turkey Presses Ambitious Agenda

ISTANBUL, May 21 2009 (IPS) - Two soaring bridges link Asia and Europe in this historic city, which straddles the two continents.

For the past few years Turkey has likewise acted as a crucial bridge between the western and Muslim worlds. Turkey is a member of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The current secretary-general of the OIC is a Turkish historian.

In early April, U.S. President Barak Obama issued a crucial appeal for understanding between the west and Islam during a visit to the Turkish capital, Ankara.

The Turkish government has been led since 2002 by the moderate-Islamist Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AKP). Now Turkey, a democratic country of 71.5 million people that has long embraced the separation of church (mosque) and state, looks set to play an increasingly important role in both the Middle East and the broader Muslim world.

In the Arab-Israeli arena, for eight months until last December, Turkey sponsored and hosted a series of breakthrough proximity talks between Israel and Syria. It brought the two nations closer than ever to concluding a final peace agreement. The talks were abruptly ended after Israel invaded Gaza Dec. 28.

In February 2006, Ankara hosted Khaled Meshaal, the national leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. One month earlier, Hamas had won the elections to the Palestinian legislature.

Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have both repeatedly called on the international community to respect the results of the Palestinian elections and urged western countries to find a way to deal with Hamas.

In an achievement that indicates Turkey’s weight in world affairs, Turkey has been able to retain its good relations with Israel even while adopting this stance.

On U.S.-Iranian relations, Gul and Erdogan have consistently called for a negotiated resolution of the two countries’ problems. At a conference held by Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre here Thursday, former diplomat Can Buharli noted that Turkey’s relations with Iran have grown stronger over the past decade.

Turkey is a majority-Sunni country. IPS found no Turkish nationals who agreed with the claim made by some western officials that an Iranian-backed “Shiite wave” is about to take over the Middle East or that Iran’s nuclear programme poses a threat to the region.

Back in 2003, Turkey firmly opposed the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, and refused to allow the U.S. military to use Turkey as a transit corridor for the invasion.

The distinctive position that Turkey now occupies in world affairs is, most Turkish commentators agree, largely a result of the in-depth strategic thought of Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, who was appointed foreign minister on May 1. Before that, Davutoglu worked as a special adviser to Erdogan, running Turkey’s shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria and other initiatives on Erdogan’s behalf.

Some years ago Davutoglu developed the concept that Turkey should have “zero problems with its neighbours.” More recently, he has advocated building on that to strive for “maximum cooperation” with all neighbours.

With some neighbours, like Armenia and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, that approach has proven difficult. But even with those two, Erdogan has considerably improved relations that were previously very tense.

In late April, Turkey concluded a five-point “road map” agreement with Armenia. One of the points stipulated that the two countries will establish a joint historical commission to investigate what happened to the Armenians in Turkey in 1915.

Regarding northern Iraq, Turks now seem confident that they have solid commitments from the ethnic-Kurdish provincial leaders there that they will no longer give sanctuary to fighters from the PKK, a movement of ethnic-Kurdish Turkish citizens that has waged a lengthy armed struggle in eastern Turkey in support of its secessionist goals.

Israel is not an immediate neighbour to Turkey. But even there, Erdogan has worked for maximum cooperation, despite deep differences over Tel Aviv’s policy toward the Palestinians. In January, those differences spilled into the elite halls of the annual Davos conference when Israeli president Shimon Peres raised his voice to Erdogan in a panel discussion – and Erdogan stormed out of the hall.

Peres later called Erdogan to apologise.

For all its attention to the Middle East, Turkish foreign policy is still strongly oriented toward the country’s longstanding goal of joining the European Union.

“We see ourselves as part of the west, without a doubt,” Buharli said. “And our neighbours in the region see us that way, too. Indeed, that is part of what makes us attractive to them.”

The two successive AKP governments in Ankara have brought seven years of unprecedented political stability to a country that throughout the Cold War was plagued by numerous military coups. Many people around the world also view the AKP as an intriguing example of how an Islamist party that commits to democratic principles can become well-integrated into the political life of a democracy.

When Turkey became a nation-state in 1923 ,it was founded on the explicitly secular and Turkish-nationalist principles of its first president, Kemal Ataturk. From then until today, Turkish women have been forbidden to wear Muslim-style headscarves in public universities or government offices.

Ataturk ran the republic as a one-party state, clamping down on political opponents. Under him and until very recently, successive Turkish governments also used the military to ruthlessly suppress any signs of cultural autonomy or political separatism from members of the country’s sizeable Kurdish minority.

Since the AKP came to power in 2002 it has moved ahead carefully on all these once explosive issues. It has not pushed forward its longstanding request that scarf-wearing women be allowed their full economic and social rights.

The wives of both Gul and Erdogan are scarf-wearers, as are around one-quarter of the women one sees on the streets of Istanbul. (The proportion is reportedly higher in the country’s interior.) But here, as in many majority-Muslim countries, young women with and without headscarves mix easily together.

On Kurdish issues the AKP has moved ahead more determinedly – in a constructive, pro-peace way. Earlier this year the public television station started airing programming in Kurdish for the first time.

In general, the AKP has built a strong political base by pursuing a policy of “live and let live” at the ideological level – while also paying attention to the efficient and non-corrupt delivery of good public services to all citizens.

One liberal secularist told IPS that though she was not an ideological supporter of the AKP, “If you are a liberal in Turkey, then the AKP is probably the party that will best support your needs and interests.”

Not all Turkish secularists agree. On Sunday, around 20,000 militant supporters of Ataturk-style secularism demonstrated in Ankara against the AKP and against a wide-ranging investigation the country’s judiciary has launched into a reported anti-government plot hatched in 2007 in what is called the Ergenekon case.

Istanbul residents expressed different opinions to IPS on whether there is any substance to the Ergenekon allegations, or whether the whole affair is an AKP exaggeration or witch-hunt. But they seemed to agree that the judiciary could be trusted to sort out the truth from the many lurid allegations now swirling around the case.

In a country where the rule of law was trampled on so thoroughly until recent years, that trust in the judiciary seems like a significant achievement.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at

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