- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Turkish Republic, quite possibly the only country in the Greater Middle East to have officially adopted a strict ruling on separation of church and state (or in this case, mosque and state), appears to be making two fundamental deviations from this basic tenet which was encrusted in the very foundations of post-Ottoman modern day Turkey.

Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the architect of the new republic, was a great visionary. He knew where he wanted to take his nation after the loss of the Ottoman Empire to the debacle of World War I. Ataturk shifted Turkey’s horizons from looking eastward, where it had traditionally tended to lean, having more in common with the peoples of the Levant and of the Arabian Peninsula, than with the Europeans.

Ataturk succeeded in mentally detaching the greater portion of Turkey’s past (and intended future) from its Levantine roots and grafting it to Europe. He and his successors have been trying ever since to anchor Turkey solidly in Europe.

That is until now.

Predictions have been made by this reporter in the past that if the European Union, which Turkey has been trying desperately to join for the better part of several decades now, continues to prevent Ankara from adhering to the Brussels club, the day would come when Turkey would begin turning toward the Middle East and Central Asia. Europe has continued to block Ankara from full admission to the European Union.

Now that day has come.

The Turks are beginning to look eastward for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The mixed blessing is that Turkey, possibly more so than any other nation in Eurasia, will know how to handle itself in the Middle East.

“The larger problem that many either don’t see, or want to ignore, is the fact that Turkey’s identity is going through a speedy transformation,” said Tulin Daloglu, a Turkish journalist in Washington.

Indeed, this transformation comes in the form of changes in Turkey’s domestic policy as well as changes in its foreign policy.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister, some observers feel, is gradually eroding what Ataturk erected, and some are less than pleased that Mr. Erdogan is cuddling up to Islamist groups such as Hamas and taking Turkey headfirst into the Middle East quagmire.

“My first reaction is negative. Erdogan might have strong emotional attachment to Hamas,” said Mr. Daloglu, “but Turkey should not be competing with other leading countries in the region. It should be [working] in full cooperation with them.”

Turkey’s flirtation with the Middle East may come as a mixed blessing to the West.

On the one hand, a rapprochement between Ankara and the Arab world, particularly with the Islamist organizations such as Hamas, will help bring about a settlement to the long-standing conflict.

Additionally, once the fighting abates, which it eventually will, and as the peace process picks up again, one of the needs will be for the parties involved in the conflict to agree upon a multinational deterrence force to police the Gaza-Israel border.

Deploying Western troops, be they European or U.S., would be completely out of the question for quite obvious reasons. They would make too tempting a target for Islamist gunmen in the region. Arab armies would be unacceptable to Israel, as would probably Russians and members of the former Soviet Union.

That leaves the Turks. Turkey has the largest, toughest military in the Greater Middle East, more likely than not, on par with Israel’s. Some of its units have seen action in the mountains of Kurdistan, where Turkey has been fighting a guerrilla war against the PKK - the Kurdish Workers’ Party - for several decades now.

The dark side to this turn of events is that Turkey’s newly found friendship with the Arab world and its continued exclusion from Europe will result in further “Islamizing” it.

The end result could be that instead of having Turkey act as a buffer between Europe and the Arab/Muslim world - a role Turkey played with great success during the Cold War as NATO’s front line with the Iron Curtain - Europe may now find Turkey joining the Arab/Muslim world and militant Islam that much closer to the heart of Europe.

• Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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