Saturday, May 05, 2007

"We Turks are not Arabs, who are backward and primitive"

Turkey is experiencing internal conflict between an Islamist government and a largely secular, ultra-nationalist elite, who do not wish the basis of their power threatened by a new elite.
The AKP has thrown Turkey open to foreign investment. Last year almost $20 billion rolled in, twice the amount of the previous year. It has deregulated the economy; since the AKP took power, it has grown by a third. It has tamed inflation, stabilized the currency and presided over a jump in per-capita income from $2,598 in 2002 to $5,477 today. The state sector, controlled by the secular bureaucracy, has been reduced. Margaret Thatcher would not have disapproved.

The AKP was in fact elected in large part because previous secular governments had for so long, and so badly, mismanaged the economy -- before the last election, a huge banking scandal wiped out Turkish savings and sparked a complete economic collapse.

A casual observer might also expect that because the Turkish protesters are enemies of Islamic extremism, they are friends of the United States. Not so. The secularists here are if anything more hostile to the West than the AKP. (They are often just as anti-Semitic, too.) Many secularist legislators voted in 2003 to deny U.S. forces the right to pass through Turkey on their way to invade Iraq. At the recent rallies in Ankara and Istanbul, protesters held up signs denouncing "ABD-ullah Gul." This is an anti-American pun: The letters "ABD" stand for "USA" in Turkish. U.S. camera crews were abused with chants of "Go home, CIA spies." One particularly lunatic nationalist, Ergun Poyraz, has just published a book claiming that Erdogan is really an undercover Jew who is collaborating with the Mossad to destroy Turkish secularism.

Finally, it is the AKP, not the secular establishment, that is plumping for Turkey's entry into the European Union. The nationalists fear that the union will interfere with their war against Turkey's restive Kurdish separatists. The European Commission has issued a stern warning to the Turkish military: Stay out of politics or it will hurt your E.U. bid. Some threat. If you don't stop eating that ice cream, you won't get any spinach.

So it seems that domestic Turkish politics may be as complex as politics in many European countries. The secularists may be the biggest military threat to the region, while the islamists may be the most likely to tone down the regional belligerence of the Ottoman.

Turks are certainly not arabs--not as typically tradition-bound and tribally reflexive in thinking and action. But Turks are divided, and cannot be seen through traditional European lenses. The best course is simply to observe, and to encourage any signs of economic and cultural liberalisation.

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