Turkey is in the news a lot nowadays. A growing economic and political power, it has always been a necessary focus of strategic interest, given its location.
At the same time, Turkey has always been seen as a problem. European nations are scared of a Moslem nation, whose values are held to be inherently incompatible with its own, being amongst them. Those same Europeans were happy to create such a nation in Kosovo, and ignore Albania, but Turkey is now too big to control.
The West will have to find some way of dealing with it, but at the moment it is failing dismally. This is because it does not want to admit what Turkey’s real problem is. It manipulates that real problem, but when it finds it can’t do that anymore it is quite happy to sacrifice Turkey precisely because it has a problem the West wants it to have, to suit its own interests. How this benefits Turks, Westerners or anyone else is once again not being taken into the equation.
Turkey may be a Moslem state but it is also very definitely a secular one. It was founded as such by Kemal Ataturk, as a modern and nationalist alternative to the defeated and dismembered Ottoman Empire. Ataturk and his ideas remain almost universally idolised in Turkey. As such, the assumptions on which he built the state cannot be questioned.
Ataturk and his Young Turks thought they had discovered there was such a thing as a Turkish identity which was being submerged by the multinational Empire, which had been held together by religion rather than ethnicity. But this turned out to be a trick of the political light.
Those who responded to this thinking were no longer Ottoman and needed to be something after the First World War had destroyed their self-confidence. They didn’t belong geographically to any of the new nations being carved out of the Empire, so they were what was left over. They lived in the crucible of the original Turkish state, and therefore, by default, were Turks.
But in fact there is no such thing as a Turkish identity. This is precisely why bodies such as the Turkic Council go out of their way to project one. From time to time there has been a “Technical Co-ordination” group in the European Parliament, whose members have only one thing in common – they don’t belong to any of the other groups, so don’t have the facilities only groups qualify for. You can’t say this in Turkey, but modern-day Turks are the equivalent of the members of this group.
Ataturk himself was ethnically as much Greek as anything, and the “Turkish” people come from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds: Kurdish, Armenian, Georgian, Iranian, Azeri, Arab, Bulgarian and a large number of European racial groups. Hence the aggressive self-promotion of the Turkish identity: the concept is used to justify everything, precisely because it doesn’t actually exist.
Does this sound familiar? People in the US, both official and otherwise, are fond of talking about “American values”, “The American Way” etcetera. These terms are not used to imply that the US has a distinct identity which should be celebrated, but that the American Way is superior, and should therefore be imposed on everyone else.
Who are the Americans this is the Way of? People from a wide range of backgrounds who are ethnically anything but American. The real Americans are what used to be called “red indians”, who have plenty to say about the seizure of their land by these newcomers and the appropriation of their heritage.
The American Way is so called precisely because it is a construction invented by, and designed to benefit, people who are not ethnically American. It is aggressively promoted as superior to try and make that ethnicity magically come into existence, and create an identity which most US nationals themselves only partially accept, referring to themselves as “Italian American”, African American” or whatever as they cannot escape their actual ethnicity.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the US, icon and standard bearer of the political West, has longstanding friendly relations with Turkey. It speaks with the same forked tongue, and acts with the same motivation: if something is “Turkish” it is better for its own inhabitants, and increasingly for those of neighbouring countries, than anything they themselves might prefer.
The abundant benefits friendship with the US and Turkey can bestow come with this important string attached: they aren’t an option, they are what everyone must strive for, like it or not. This is the problem no one wants to face, because the consequences are too severe to contemplate.
Sometimes the American or Turkish way isn’t the best in a given country in given circumstances, or even in the US or Turkey themselves. But neither the US nor the Turks can afford to believe that, because the idea strikes at the heart of their “nationhood”. They have to be superior to exist at all. If they are simply one option among many, there is no purpose in having an American or Turkish state, and that is a development neither party is prepared to contemplate.
The geopolitics of fear
For this reason, Turkey is indulged on the one hand and disdained on the other. We are told that Turks are inherently xenophobic, martial and unpredictable (look at any official country guide) even though this is not usually observed by visitors or those who know Turks living in other countries. This is a way of indulging the aggressive claims of “Turkishness” – such behaviour is seen as natural, not a childish attempt at self-disguise.
On the other hand, Turkey is treated with suspicion for displaying the very same characteristics. For example, Turks are psychologically incapable of recognising the Armenian genocide for the same reason they cling to their non-existent ethnicity, but are still expected to do it. For most of history the term “Turk” has simply meant “Moslem as opposed to Christian”, but when Turks seeking an identity display any symbol of Islam this is seen as aggression.
So what is Turkey to do if it wants to deal with the rest of the world? Caught between competing interests, Turkey’s domestic politics is stranded somewhere between meeting the demands of the modern world and reincarnating the long-vanished Empire. To some the Ottoman era represents a Golden Age when Turks had no need of foreign friends, an obviously attractive notion. The country may have been founded to get rid of the Empire, but its politicians are still expected to strive towards it by a good portion of the public.
Pushing in both directions simultaneously is a high-wire balancing act with no safety net, as many other post-imperial nations have found. Alliance with the West is seen as the best way of providing that balance, as the West is more popular than the Eastern alternative. But due to the inherent folly of the West bolstering the US search for identity; such an alliance is more likely to tip Turkey over the edge at any time.
Other countries may well ask why Turkey is a member of NATO and “wannabe” member of the European Union when it is all the things they are told not to be – allied with terrorists, repressive of minorities, in constant danger of yet another military takeover and not in control of its own bases. The answer is that if the US behaves the way it does it must support those with the same problem, whatever else it might say about them. Such a position is not designed to serve any interests. It is motivated simply by fear, not of an enemy but of oneself.
Taken at its word
At present the West is in its disdain phase. It is portraying Turkey in terms of media clampdowns, the temporary marriages of the Prime Minister and the role that Turkey has played in supporting the US in promoting the Islamic State and then defeating it once it became a force of its own. Turks are responding by saying that they are Turks, so this is what they do, and it must be better than anything else. The West is in no position to complain about this when it has supported all these activities for generations to cover its own fundamental weakness.
It is now being remembered once again that when ISIS/ISIL came to prominence Turkey attacked the very idea of Western intervention in the Middle East, accusing the US of only being interested in securing access to oil wells in the region. It then sought to build bridges, and fulfil the terms of its US defence agreements, by allowing ISIS to use its territory and acting as a market for its oil. But this is forgotten now Turkey is questioning the wisdom of allowing NATO to conduct airstrikes on ISIS from its territory.
The West does not like the fact that Turkey is now in a position to say such things. South Stream has been a windfall for it, and the sanctions the US and EU imposed on Russia have proved a blessing for Turkish companies. The identity promotion which worked for the US is now working too well for Turkey, as it is no longer a client state. Is the West really ready to take Turkey’s pretensions of superiority at their worth, at the risk of undermining those of the US?
So now we are hearing about “ever-increasing authoritarianism” and “the semblance of a democratic country.” We have to hear this rather than explanations of how things got that way, and why the West wanted them that way when it now claims to care for Turkey’s Kurdish and other minorities, the obvious victims of the promotion of a fake Turkish identity. No one wants to face the ultimate consequences or erecting castles in the air out of sand, even if the sand has oil underneath.
The endgame is clear. The West created the modern state of Turkey as a more amenable alternative to the Ottoman Empire. It sent warships up the Bosporus to remove the Sultan, not to attack the Young Turks.
The modern state is more amenable because it speaks the same language. Western foreign policy is a projection of the American desire to create an identity to disguise the fact it doesn’t have one. Turkey can only be supported as it is built on the same bogus foundation.
But now Turkey is getting too good at its job. The Turkish identity can’t be better than the US one, or provide a more suitable model. Negative rhetoric is now being applied to it in an attempt to destabilise it. What the West is complaining about is what it always wanted Turkey to do. It couldn’t have wanted anything else because it is running in fear of itself, and the fact it does exactly the same.
It has been noted several times that ISIS is helping the US achieve its longstanding policy objective of imposing a state of Kurdistan. This will have to include the Kurdish part of Turkey to be viable. The current focus on Turkey is designed to provide an excuse for doing this.
It remains to be seen whether Turkey will call the US bluff and point out all the ways it has created what it now says it wants to destroy, and why. It might just think it has the international resources to weather the storm, regardless of what happens at home. We have long thought it was not possible to overextend hypocrisy, regardless of its practical effects, but now that might just be happening.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.