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Turkey's Ascendancy, the Russification of Israel and the Future of the Middle-East

By       Message M. Nicolas Firzli     Permalink
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Adapted from an article first published in the Journal of Turkish Weekly, June 15 2010

Since the beginning of this century, Turkey has shown impressive results both on the economic and political fronts, growing three times faster than the EU average in the past ten years, while demonstrating that Islamic culture is fully compatible with democracy, constitutional government and the rule of law. But, the Turkish Miracle was met with a combination of disdain and skepticism in Brussels, Berlin and Paris - where conservative commentators and politicians regularly warn their readers of the growing "Turkish threat" (1)- a rather peculiar way of thanking Ankara for having stood by Western Europe throughout the Cold War! Having been repeatedly rebuffed by the European Union, Turkey, by far the most advanced Eurasian nation, has progressively rediscovered its Asian and Middle-Eastern hinterland, rebuilding age-old ties with Damascus, Delhi, Baku, Beijing and Teheran.

The economic dynamism and cultural openness of Turkey today stand in stark contrast with the ossification of Israeli society: having to deal with the consequences of its continuing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is increasingly shifting away from the Western ways of its founding fathers (e.g. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, was trained as a corporate lawyer in Warsaw and Istanbul) toward an obsessive focus on colonial control- crudely stereo-typifying the autonomous Muslim populace it seeks to subjugate, and thus reproducing the xenophobic worldview its right-wing leaders inherited from Czarist Russia. Here, we will try to understand the historical and ideological roots of the rise of Turkey, in interactive relation with European and Asian attitudes, and how they relate to the current cultural drift of Israeli society towards renewed violence and rigid militarism.

Many Turks are understandably disappointed with Europe: the systematic opposition to Turkey's EU admission (2) (even though less developed nations such as Croatia, Cyprus and Bulgaria were allowed to join), the sarcasms with which Turkish diplomatic efforts to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis have been received in European capitals, the accusations of "Oriental duplicity - etc. were a shock to many in Turkey, be they secular Istanbul urbanites or lower-middle-class Islamic-orientated conservatives. The people of Turkey resent the caricatured way their country is described in the columns of Le Figaro, L'Express, Die Welt and The Daily Telegraph: "What have we done to deserve this?" is a question often heard in Turkey and in the Muslim world at large these days" Yes, a significant segment of the European political elite is now openly anti-Turkish and anti-Asian. But it was ever thus: even in the late 19th century, when hundreds of sincerely Europhile Turkish and Arab intellectuals, aristocrats and civil servants made the effort to learn French (or German) and adopted Western ways and ideas (some even claiming to be "agnostic" or "atheist" to please their Parisian peers), Europe remained largely indifferent, if not hostile, to their genuine cultural efforts. As long ago as 1903, a vexed Turkish secularist could write that "One can deduct from the writings of these two eminent [French] historians that Midhat Pacha [the Ottoman Empire's most secular, pro-Western statesman] was, together with the political movement he represented, a fanatical warmonger, hostile to Christians, an enemy of Europe and its civilization; and that by proclaiming the Constitution, Midhat's only goal was to fool Europe: that it was the "ultimate and most audacious act of his impudent masquerade'" (3)

Sadly, there's nothing new under the proverbial sun: today more than ever before Turkish leaders are regularly attacked in European media, be they resolutely "Western-orientated" like Midhat Pacha and his Constitutionalist allies or more conservative like Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his moderate Islamist backers. A straightforward semantic analysis reveals that negative adjectives such as "brutal", "primitive", "backward", "dangerous", "hypocritical", "duplicitous" etc. are routinely associated with Turkey in the speeches of many center-right and conservative European politicians and commentators.

Tellingly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a pillar of the US national security establishment who served under four administrations (notably as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence under President Reagan), who knows the strategic value of Turkey as cultural bridge, military pivot and economic powerhouse at the heart of Southeastern Europe and the Northern MENA area- the center of gravity of the great Eurasian continuum, recently said: "I personally think that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought...we have to think long and hard about why these developments in Turkey [are occurring] and what we might be able to do to counter them and make the stronger linkages with the West more apparently of interest and value to Turkey's leaders" (4).

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The bigoted stereotypes used nowadays by Europe's opinion makers are not confined to Turkey: they have been present deep inside the culture itself, waiting to be "reactivated" by cynical politicians from across the Continent- always prompt to arouse hostility against Turks, Arabs and Asians, whatever their creed or opinions. A few months before Japan's defeat of Russia in 1905, the "epochal event of the 20th century' (5) as far as Asians are concerned, the great Japanese philosopher Okakura Kakuzo said that "in spite of the vast sources of information at the command of the West, it is sad to realize today how many misconceptions are still entertained concerning us. We do not mean to allude to the unthinking masses who are still dominated by race prejudice and that vague hatred of the Oriental which is a relic from the days of the crusades. But even the comparatively well-informed fail to recognize the inner significance of our revival and the real goal of our aspirations." (6)

As argued earlier in the columns of this journal, one cannot overstate the centrality of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 to the awakening of Altaic, Persian, Indian and Arab nationalisms in the 20th century: seemingly localized events in the barren battlefields of Southern Manchuria had profound, far-reaching implications for the political future of nations as diverse as Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the various French and British dominions of the Arab world. A star had risen in Asia, and from old-fashioned religious clerics to young urban intellectuals and secular military officers, Asian elites were set to question the colonial status quo and the local potentates who served it: "the rise of Japan was a destabilizing factor that attracted Muslim activists who wanted to cooperate with the "Rising Star of the East' against the Western empires, accelerating contacts between Japan and the world of Islam ["] a Turkish nationalist feminist, Halide Edip, like many other women, named her son Togo. Egyptian, Turkish and Persian poets wrote odes to the Japanese nation and the emperor ["] During the years 1900-1945, the question that motivated Muslims and some Japanese was whether Japan could be the "Savior of Islam' against Western imperialism and colonialism." (7)

In Iran, an old Asian nation that had been able to fend off repeated British and Russian attempts to undermine its territorial integrity, the Japanese victory of 1905 triggered the emergence of a genuinely liberal constitutional movement- the first of its kind in the region (excluding Turkey). The Iranian Constitutional coalition brought together Westernized secular intellectuals (many of them graduates of UK and Russian universities), conservative Shiite clerics from the Islamic academies of Qom and Tehran, Orthodox Christian craftsmen and merchants of Armenian descent, and Sunni Arab tribal leaders from the oil-rich province of Ahwaz- a remote region of Iran that had whet the appetite of the British colonial lobby. The leaders of the Constitutional coalition were united in their desire to build a truly modern Iranian democracy modeled along the lines of the British parliamentary system. In August 1906, the Shah of Iran had to give in to their demands: he finally granted a form of constitution and permitted the convention of a constituent assembly in charge of organizing free and fair elections in all provinces, thus making Iran the first pluralistic democracy in the Islamic world. But London and Moscow (bitter rivals elsewhere in Asia) were quick to crush the Iranian Constitutional revolution: "Without consultation or even a hint to Iranians the two powers in August 1907 entered into an agreement which dealt with their differences in Afghanistan, Tibet and Iran. In the case of Iran they in effect carved up the country between themselves. Iran was divided into three zones, Russian in the north, British in the south and a neutral zone in between ["] Lord Grey, Britain's Foreign Minister at the time, stated ["] Persia tried my patience more than any other subject."! (8)

Just like the neocons today- e.g. rightwing Israeli commentators describing Turkish, Indonesian and Malaysian civilians in the Free Gaza flotilla as "armed Asiatic hordes" and "malevolent monkeys" or former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton warning against tolerating what he thinks must be some kind of Iranian-North Korean-Turkish-Chinese grand conspiracy against the West (9), there were many conservative commentators and politicians in early 20th century Czarist Russia who openly advocated the systematic use of force against Asians and Muslims- one of these commentators was a young journalist named Vladimir Yevgenyevich Jabotinsky, an Odessa-born Southern Russian journalist who would later become the founder and chief ideologue of the "Revisionist" brand of Israeli nationalism known as Likudism. Vladimir Jabotinsky readily transferred to Ottoman Palestine the xenophobic cliche's of his Czarist formative years. To him, Palestine was like Central Asia and the Caucasus, just another primitive Muslim land waiting to be carved out by the Russian "White Man': "Jabotinsky, in 1917, published his book, "Turkey and the War', in which, analyzing the components parts of the Ottoman Empire and repudiating Lord Kitchener's (the Minister of War in Great Britain at the time) military strategy, he insisted that Great Britain should open an Eastern military offensive through Palestine, as the result of which Turkey would be defeated and the Empire partitioned." (10)

Russians of Jabotinsky's generation grew up in a self-righteous colonial, militarist culture: they had only contempt for the people of Asia be they Muslims or heathens. From the turn of the 19th century onward, the decline of Sweden and Poland combined with the German focus on its western borders had allowed Imperial Russia to concentrate its might on the Turkic regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus: with the help of French and German military advisers, Czar Alexander III's Cossacks had won relatively easy victories against the peaceful Islamic khanates of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia, massacring millions of innocent civilians as they marched eastward. The present day Circassian communities (called "al-Charkass' in Arabic) of Amman, Damascus and Istanbul are descended from the few survivors of General Yevdokimov's ruthless "scorched earth" policy"

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In those terribly brutal days, there were very few voices of moderation in the West- two of them were actually leading US scholars who spoke courageously in defense of the people of Asia whatever their creed or color, while their Russian, British and French peers were mostly inebriated with colonial hubris: Reverend James A. B. Scherer, an early orientalist and translator who was President of the California Institute of Technology, the cradle of American "high-tech'; and Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes, one of the greatest American theologians and educators, founder of the American Jewish Committee and first Chancellor of Israel's Hebrew University. Their words of wisdom still sound eerily modern more than a hundred years after they were written: [the Russians were stupefied after their defeat, they] "never dreamed that Japan would fight. "Her people are but pygmies, a little monkey race if islanders.' To overawe these "monkey-faced men,' fresh armies were sent to Manchuria ["] As for Christianity, if Russia be Christian, then the less we have of that religion the better" (11) wrote Reverend Scherer in 1905.

It's no coincidence if the leaders of the Israeli far-right today are all intimately connected to the colonial marches of the Czarist empire, just like Vladimir Jabotinsky before them: Belarus (Tzipi Livni and Ariel Sharon); Kishinev (Avigdor Lieberman- current Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, and leader of the ultra-nationalist "Yisrael Beiteinu', a party which borrowed its name and ideology from Boris Yeltsin's "Nas dom Rossija', "Our Home Russia""); and Eastern Poland- formerly part of Russia (Binyamin Netanyahu, whose father was actually personal assistant to Jabotinsky for many years).

To different extents (Livni and Sharon being less openly chauvinistic), they've all perpetuated and expanded the 19th century Czarist colonial discourse that reduces the "yellow" and/or "Mohammedan" Other to a "non-person", a small thing that can easily be disposed" As long ago as 1929, Rabbi Magnes asked his fellow Zionist settlers to abandon the temptation of violence, thus rejecting once and for all Vladimir Jabotinsky's brand of Russian-inspired "imperialist, military and political policy ["] [which] oppresses the Arabs meanwhile [and] deprives them of their right. In this kind of policy the end always justifies the means". (12) Today, more than ever, we must heed Judah Magnes's benevolent call so that Christian, Muslim and Jew may live side by side in the Holy Land, in love of God and each other.

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M. Nicolas J. Firzli is Director of the CEE Council, a Paris-based economic strategy think-tank.

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