THIS WEEK’S Remembrance Day acknowledged the fallen of the First World War nearly a century ago but you only have to turn on the news to find out that war is still going on.
The Arab world had been promised self-rule following an Allied win over the Ottoman Empire, but Britain and France celebrated their victory by carving up the Middle East between them. Since then the region has been dominated by autocracy and violence and our relationship with the region has been dominated by our fear of Islam.
Our betrayal of the Middle East may yet come back to haunt us in terrible ways. At a seminar on Middle Eastern security hosted by the European Green Party in Istanbul this week, a leading authority on the Middle East, Frenchman Jean-Philippe Filiu sent cups rattling into saucers with the words, “My belief is that Islamic State will strike Europe and it will be multiple strikes.”
Filiu said it was our responsibility to act to resolve the multiple crises in the Middle East, if not for the sake of the Arabs, then for our own sake. As things stand, he said, “Islamic State has a plan. We have none.”
ISIL has advanced to the Kurdish town of Kobane which is just across the Turkish border with Syria and at least 200,000 refugees have flooded into Turkey. The US has accused Turkey of inaction against the ISIL threat.
Turkey say they can’t act alone. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wants the US and allies to create and police a “No Fly Zone” on the Turkish border with Syria which would give shelter to refugees and some protection to Turkey.
For this the Turkish AKK party has been accused of collusion with ISIL against their long-term enemy, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as well as indifference to the fate of the Kurds. But Filiu said that Erdogan’s demand was reasonable and the situation called for international force not just against ISIL but also against Assad. He described the US’s inaction when Assad seemingly gassed his own citizens last year as “a tragedy”.
He also expressed a quiet rage that Maya Arakon, a young Turkish academic on the panel, suggested the Kurdish nationalist PKK movement be removed from the list of terrorists by the EU and enabled to fight ISIL. He said he saw no difference between the reign of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and that of Bashar al-Assad.
What needed to happen to develop workable local democracies in the Middle East, he said, was that nationalists and Islamic elements had to join forces. This was what had happened in Gaza with Hamas and Fatah. He described Gaza as “the key” and said it was engaged in military action because it was besieged, not the other way around
The young Turkish academic had praised the development of secularism within the PKK but for Filiu religious fanaticism need not follow government by Muslims. Left to themselves, he said, Muslim nations tend to vote for Islamic parties in the first instance, and then go for secular ones.
But we don’t let them get that far, do we? Is our obsession with Islam greater than our interest in democracy? The West often willingly supports dictators as long as they are “secular”, such as Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran. We stood by when Egypt’s democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood was deposed by the military.
The Turkish Opposition and the West are obsessed with Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic faith and work it into all their criticism of him. There are plenty of reasons to criticise Erdogan, even if he has presided over a huge leap in his country’s economic development, but I don’t think his faith is one of them. Not unless he attempts to run Turkey by religious laws and Erdogan has steadfastly claimed that his AKP party is Muslim exactly as the largest political group in the European Parliament is Christian Democrat. Including Fine Gael.
When Erdogan came to power Islam was repressed in Turkey. It was only in 2010 that the ban on Turkish women wearing headscarves at university was lifted and the ban on headscarves in the public service in Turkey was only lifted last year. Turkish army generals still won’t attend events attended by Emine Erdogan because she wears a piece of cloth on her head.
That’s because the army has ruled the roost since the foundation of Ataturk’s Turkish Republic, much praised in the West because it has been “secular”. When I first arrived in the early 1980s in the aftermath of a military coup the country was run by armed soldiers in gold-braided uniforms. But the West had nothing to say about this, nor the expulsion of the Greeks, Armenians and Jews nor the suppression of the Sufis and the Alevis or the Kurds, as long as Ataturk’s republic was “secular”, which was short for “like us”. Like France, to be precise, the European country with the worst record on Muslim integration which is currently sending droves of young men to sign up with ISIL.
What should worry us is the fact that Erdogan, who has had three terms as Prime Minister put himself forward this year as President and won. The Opposition fears that if his AKP party is successful in next year’s General Election he will try to move the country to a Presidential style of government to maximise his own power.
There are too many echoes of Vladimir Putin for comfort and Erdogan’s relationship with Russia is becoming closer. Russia is just a hop and skip away from Turkey but for six centuries central European politics has been dominated by their hostility to each other, with Russia aching endlessly to claim Istanbul as the spiritual heart of the Orthodox faith.
Turkey has always sided with Western European powers, fighting side by side with the British in the Crimea and with the Germans in World War 1. But what happens if Turkey sides with Russia against the EU? What happens to our security if we have no ally between ourselves and the unstable Middle East? What happens to our energy supplies?
Who created this distance, us or them? Turkey has been a democracy since 1950 and first signalled its willingness to join the EU in 1959. Since then we have allowed access to 20 countries, including previous dictatorships like Portugal, Spain and Greece, and former Soviet bloc countries like Romania and Slovakia.
But Turkey is more than large and poor: it is Muslim. In 2005 a Right-Wing Austrian government torpedoed Turkey’s membership at the last minute, in what some said was a defence of Europe’s Christian identity — it might as well have been 1683 when the Ottoman army were at the gates of Vienna. In 2007, the negotiations were torpedoed again, this time by Sarkozy’s Right Wing administration in France.
The border between Christendom and Islam look very little different now than they did 100 years ago. Let’s end this war once and for all with a Europe-wide campaign to promote understanding of Islam, a sister faith of Christianity. And let’s champion Turkey’s accession to the EU, not because they need us but because we need them.
Russia is just a hop and skip away from Turkey but for six centuries central European politics has been dominated by their hostility to each other
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