Turkey Looking Backward

While Turkey fails to take up the key role it could play in the region's future, the West fails to understand its historic sensitivities.

Turkey Looking Backward

While Turkey fails to take up the key role it could play in the region's future, the West fails to understand its historic sensitivities.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Turkey is standing on the edge of events that will change history, and yet it acts as if it does not know it. Developed countries try to understand today and tomorrow in terms of yesterday. Turkey is still living the day before yesterday.

Turkey has lived through the dismemberment of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen and is still digesting the resulting trauma. Instead of trying to see what will happen in the future, it is trying to understand what went wrong in the past.

Those who govern this country see most of the world - including their own people - as enemies. They belong to a school of thought that considers territory to be more valuable than people; they interpret life in terms of land that will be lost. For them, a newly shaped Middle East is of no concern. Instead they worry about whether Kurds in northern Iraq will, or will not, divide Turkey.

Still affected by old traumas, Turkey's leaders live in continuous fear of dismemberment and division.

Turkey stands in the middle of a triangle of trouble covering the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus. As heir to an empire that once spread across all these lands, it plays a key role in this region whether it wants it or not. If democracy, freedom and free markets are to triumph in this area one day, Turkey should be playing a pioneering role.

One way of looking at things is to say that Turkey resembles neither East nor West: just as its perception of Islam, and the way it lives Islam, isolates it in the Islamic world, so its resistance to freedom and democracy keeps it at a distance from the West. But there is also a second way of looking at things: as Turkey is the country in the Islamic world that knows the West best, so it is the country in the Western world that knows Islam and understands its problems best.

The fact that Turkey is not integrated into either world keeps it at a distance from both - a bridge between two entities that do not know each other well and look at each other with distrust. This war has shown how difficult it will be to change the face of the Middle East without taking Turkey into account.

This war has taught the West a tough lesson about how to deal with Turkey. Like individuals who have lost fortunes, countries that have lost empires are notoriously touchy. When Turkey refused to give the United States the access it wanted to open a second front in northern Iraq, the whole world thought Turkey wanted money.

More than money, however, Turkey wanted esteem. It wanted to feel significant - to be treated with respect, as an equal. The strange delight which the new neo-conservatives of the West seem to experience in putting down Muslims has unnerved the entire Islamic world including Turkey, even though she is not an organic part of that world. President Bush's arrogant and senseless stand in supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against the Palestinians has registered even in Turkey.

Napoleon is reported to have said: "You can do anything with a sword, but you cannot sit on it." The United States can take over Iraq and spread its presence in the Middle East because it has the sword with which to do this. But it will not be able to sit on it.

In a world where robots take care of production, where people communicate from one end of the planet to the other in the blink of an eye, and where computer manufacturers have replaced arms' dealers at the top of the lists of the world's richest men, it is unthinkable that the Middle East can continue to be a mess of dictators, weaponry and oil. History demands that the Middle East evolve from weapons-consuming backwardness to computer-driven development. And this requires that dictators be swept away.

History has a wildly ironic side to it. It looks as if the gates of this new era will be opened in the Middle East by a violent war initiated by two men who have neither love for mankind nor intelligence: George Bush, the representative of America's oil and arms cartels, and Saddam Hussein.

As the world enters with swords into an era where the sword has lost its importance, there are lessons to be learnt by all. The West will learn that there is a price to be paid for looking down on countries like Turkey, and the leaders of countries like Turkey will discover that there is a price to be paid for alienating their own people and living with suspicion. The time of swords is long gone: in a world where news travels in a split-second, borders, states and armies are less important by the day.

Perhaps this will be the last time we have to learn by covering our children's coffins with flags.

Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey's best-selling writers, is author of Love in the Days of Rebellion, Like a Sword's Wound and other novels.

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