Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Lebanon, has said this may be Turkey’s century because it’s the only country in the Middle East actually pointing toward the future. "Turkey has figured out how to be a functioning democracy in the Middle East, has figured out how to moderate political Islam and enable it to be a regular party, has figured out how to do economics in the 21st century and has figured out how to have Islam and secularism and science and individuality and community all in the same society in the Middle East,” he said during an interview with Today’s Zaman when he was in Istanbul for a discussion on Arab perspectives of Turkey.
Salem, who was here to participate in a conference on the findings of a survey conducted last July by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, answered our questions for Monday Talk.
TESEV’s results showed that Arab views of Turkey have become quite positive in recent years. This poll was conducted after the Gaza incursion and the Davos incident, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity peaked. TESEV is planning to repeat the poll, but I’d like to ask you if you expect a big shift in Arab public opinion toward Turkey?
I don’t think they will be dramatically different; they might be a little different in the Palestinian territories. Much of the attitude toward Turkey in other Arab countries was not directly related to the Davos incident or the Gaza war itself. Turkey has had a dramatically different image since the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] came to power, since saying no to the Iraq war, since Turkey set up economic, political and security relations with many Arab countries and since Turkey has taken a tougher line with Israel on the peace process. The Davos incident was simply the visible part in the transformation of Turkish foreign policy toward Israel.
What would you say about the perceptions of the people of Lebanon, where you come from?
The Lebanese have been going through a period of division and different groups look at Turkey differently. The Sunni community, which feels threatened by Iran, Hezbullah and the Shiite community, looks at Turkey as a stable, reassuring Sunni power. There are also those in Lebanon, many of the business elite, who look at Turkey as a positive example of industrialization and globalization without radical cultural change. Most have positive views because Turkey’s policy of “zero problems” means a policy of friendship with everyone. The friendship that used to bother people in the Arab world was the friendship with Israel. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan changed that a little bit. Turkey and Israel still have good relations, but Turkey put some pressure on Israel. Otherwise, Turks have good relations with Iranians, Saudis, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Americans, Russians, etc., so they would not upset anybody and would be welcomed as players.
In your presentation, you mentioned a new Arab order? Would you elaborate on that? How has it changed?
If we look at the 90-year period from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to the collapse of Iraq, in World War I Arab states gained independence from Turkey, in World War II they gained independence from Western colonial powers. The Arab countries then organized the region as an Arab world, not an Islamic world, not a Middle Eastern world. They established the League of Arab States in 1945 to organize that relationship. In the 1950s, President [Gamal] Abdel Nasser of Egypt was a popular leader who had Arab nationalism as his ideological movement. The other three states in the region -- Israel, Turkey and Iran -- were all seen as outsiders or enemies of one type or another. Israel was a very bitter enemy, and Iran under the shah was seen as a US client and hostile to the Arab world. In the past, Turkey was also seen as somewhat hostile because it had strong relations with Israel, was part of NATO, was close to the United States, and it was viewed negatively by the Arab nationalists. Also, for most of this time, Turkey was not interested in the Arab world, and Iran was not interested in the Arab world either. Most of that has now changed. Turkey is now interested. Iran became interested in 1979, and the Arab order itself became weak when Egypt signed a deal with Israel in 1979 as the leader of the Arab world [and] Egypt was lost. The occupation of Kuwait by Iraq was almost the death of any type of Arab cooperation. But the final collapse was the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the collapse of Iraq as a state.
Why was that significant?
Iraq was really the Arab border and buffer toward Iran and Turkey. When that border broke, Iran and Turkey became part of the Arab Middle East. There is no real ability now to reconstruct the old Arab order as an exclusive order. Arabs, Turks and Iranians now have to deal with each other. They have to recognize this new reality. The Arab-Turkish-Iranian relationship has to be built, especially in relation to Iran. Turkish-Arab relations are improving -- there are no really big issues between them -- but Iran is also a big player. It needs to engage more pragmatically with its neighbors. And its neighbors also need to engage with Iran more.
How do you evaluate Turkey’s approach in relation to Iran in that sense?
Turkey’s approach to the Arab world is very good: pragmatic, not ideological. It is also friendly to Iran, it reassures Iran on the issues that Iran needs reassuring on and it also encourages Iran to take more pragmatic positions. Turkey is doing the best that it can, but of course, Turkey cannot determine the situation alone.
What chances do you give to the deal agreed to by Iran, Brazil and Turkey last Monday to send 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey as part of a nuclear fuel swap deal to avoid fresh UN sanctions over its nuclear program?
It is an announcement in the right direction. We don’t know if it’s a breakthrough in the sense of a real resolution or not; I’m rather skeptical. If there is indeed a breakthrough, it’s really the result of global pressure on Iran. There is agreement among all five permanent members of the UN Security Council on sanctions on Iran, and the motion will be tabled in June. Iran knows that. It’s Iran’s last chance to avoid sanctions and make some gestures. Iran is not going in the right direction. Its security approach is unwarranted; it worries its neighbors and friends. It is responding to a threat that doesn’t exist. Iran has been pursuing a course that allows the capacity to build a bomb. That course is fact, but we don’t know if Iran is going to actually build a bomb. But even just the course of more enrichment without the reassurance of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is raising tensions. Iran says it is against the United States and Israel, but its neighbors and friends are afraid.
Do you think Turkey’s achievements have been appreciated in the Arab world?
The general public is excited and interested in Turkey’s foreign policy in Israel and Gaza. The governments mostly welcome the Turkish role in counterbalancing the Iranian presence; others welcome Turkey because of economic cooperation. What’s lost is that there is no major part of the Arab community which really appreciates Turkey’s achievements in politics, economics and culture. In politics it has a functioning democratic system with accountable governments, with reasonable levels of transparency, free citizenry and so on. These factors are not paid very much attention to in the Arab world. Secondly, its economic achievements, this dramatic economic growth comparable to China, Malaysia and Taiwan that Turkey has achieved without oil, has not been felt in the Arab world in general.
You also mentioned that in regard to Turkish culture.
The Arab world is in a very sad and critical condition in its civilization and culture. We have gone backwards. We don’t produce real culture or profound thinking. We have a bit of poetry, literature and cinema, which is miniscule compared to the size of the Arab world. The public culture is completely dominated either by globalized pop culture or Arabized pop culture, which are both shallow, or by a traditionalist religious culture. None are creative or intellectually progressive. This is a regression from 50 years ago to the degree that there are no real centers of thought. In that regard, Turkey has done much better: it has a much more advanced and sophisticated understanding of the role of religion in society, secularism, faith and science, community and the individual, the individual and the state, faith and civil society, etc. All of those questions of life are treated in a much more intelligent, advanced and sophisticated way in Turkey.
Then let me ask the question you asked in one of your articles: Could this be Turkey’s century in the Middle East?
Turkey has figured out how to be a functioning democracy in the Middle East, has figured out how to moderate political Islam and enable it to be a regular party, has figured out how to do economics in the 21st century and has figured out how to have Islam and secularism and science and individuality and community all in the same society in the Middle East. In that sense, it might be Turkey’s century because it’s the only country in the Middle East actually pointing toward the future. Iran does not propose a viable future, Saudi Arabia does not, Egypt does not. Syria doesn’t. Morocco doesn’t. Israel doesn’t. Turkey is the only one who is saying, “This is the way to do it.” Also, Turkey is the only one that is proposing an order or a set of relations for the Middle East that makes sense for everybody. Iran proposes a revolutionary Middle East that it dominates. Few want that. Saudi Arabia proposes a Wahhabist Saudi-dominated Middle East. Not many want that. Israel proposes an Israeli dominated region, etc. The only proposal which makes sense for everybody is Turkey’s, which is saying: “I don’t want a Turkish empire, but I say let’s all respect each other’s sovereignty and security, let’s build on common economic and political interests, let’s help each other, let’s do business and let’s work together.” In that sense, I said it might be Turkey’s century, just as the 20th century, which was the American century.
Then comes the debate about the sustainability of Turkish foreign policy. Is Turkey’s foreign policy in the Arab world sustainable? What is your view of the future? If this government goes, would its policies in the Middle East continue?
A lot of what has happened in Turkish foreign and regional policy reflects changing Turkish interests, not the whims of a party. Turkey’s economic growth, like China’s economic growth, is now dependent on the stability of its entire environment. It depends on good relations with everybody in that environment because it needs oil and gas, it needs to transport oil and gas and it needs to trade and export with as many countries as it can. Those are fundamentals. And a number of the breakthroughs with Syria and the fall of Saddam have already happened. So a new government would simply come and reap the benefits of that and would not have to do anything other than continue to manage these interests. Today, it’s clear even to an outsider that even the other side, the opposition, in Turkish politics is no longer the way that it was, so many of the basics of Turkish foreign policy, security and economics would not change. Some of the things that are expected to change would be the tone -- maybe some of the aspects of relations with Israel -- but I don’t think there would be a fundamental change.
What are your views on the future in the Middle East? Do you see a region divided by conflicts or a region in harmony? How can the states of the region move forward?
The future of the Middle East is uncertain. There are three possible scenarios: tensions could escalate into war between Israel and Iran, the US and Iran or Israel and Lebanon-Syria; this would be terrible for the region and would probably lead to a deterioration in Iraq and Lebanon as well. Alternatively, the status quo could continue, with no real escalation to war but no real progress toward peace and prosperity. The best alternative, which will require great effort from all states in the region, as well as the US and the international community, is to achieve breakthroughs toward peace on the Arab-Israeli front as well as over the Iranian nuclear issue. If such breakthroughs take place, then we can imagine a much more peaceful Middle East, one whose states build relationships of trust and cooperation and whose peoples begin to enjoy the fruits of peace and prosperity. The way forward is clearly to try to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs in the key conflict axes in the region and to move on to building a cooperative regional order.