Wednesday, 16 December 2009


BY Soner Çağaptay

Is Turkey moving closer to the European Union or away from it? For Ankara’s EU accession to move forward, Turkey needs to align with the union not only in its domestic policies, but also in its foreign policy.

Increasingly, however, Turkish foreign policy is pulling away from Europe. This is because “Econo-Islamism,” a doctrine blending business deals with a religio-political view of the world, is in charge in Ankara. This is bad news for Europe.

Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has pursued rapprochement with Russia, Sudan and Iran, and has established intimate ties with Hamas. In Europe, this orientation of Turkish foreign policy had, until recently, been interpreted as neo-Ottomanist, i.e. a “secular” attempt to re-assert itself in the Ottoman realm, to the benefit of the Euro-Atlantic community.

However, this perception has recently started to shift. For example, last April the AKP objected to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s appointment as NATO’s secretary-general, citing Mr. Rasmussen’s handling of the “cartoon crisis” as offensive to Muslims.

This is shocking, especially because in February, Istanbul’s AKP government ran an anti-Western and anti-Semitic cartoon exhibit in the city’s downtown Taksim metro station. As a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey told me: “The Rasmussen and cartoon incidents are telling: The AKP sees itself as the tribune of the politically-defined and [politically]-charged Muslim world to the West, and not as an emissary of the West to the Muslims.”

The AKP’s Econo-Islamist foreign policy empathizes not with Muslims – that would be quite normal. Rather, the party chooses to align itself with Islamist and anti-Western regimes. This policy attitude surfaces lucidly if one compares the party’s attitude to Israel’s Gaza War with Sudan’s Darfur Campaign.

At the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chided the Israeli president for “knowing well how to kill people.” Erdoğan then returned to Ankara to host the Sudanese vice-president.

The AKP is ticked not when Islamists kill non-Muslims; during the Gaza War, Mr. Erdoğan denied that “Hamas' rockets are causing casualties in Israel.” Nor is the party ticked when Islamists kill Muslims – on Nov. 8, Mr. Erdoğan said: “I know that Sudanese leader al-Bashir is not committing genocide in Darfur because al-Bashir is a Muslim and Muslims do not commit genocide.”

A recent U.N. report said al-Bashir is responsible for killing 300,000 Sudanese citizens while the international court for war crimes has called for his arrest. Yet, the AKP stands for al-Bashir and his crimes against fellow Muslims.

This is because the party supports Islamist regimes that confront the West, siding with such regimes regardless of their nature. This viewpoint is Islamist and inherently anti-European.

Subsequently, Turkey’s ties with its traditional Western allies, including Washington, have suffered. Turkey’s relations with Europe have also deteriorated; initially after 2002, the AKP aggressively pursued EU accession, but since membership talks actually began in 2005, while European objections to Turkey’s EU membership mounted, the party’s energy for the union fizzled away because of a lack of interest by the AKP to fulfill Turkey’s European destiny.

The AKP’s foreign policy favors Islamist and anti-Western regimes. Accordingly, the party has shied away from criticizing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, invited Hamas leaders to Ankara and built close relations with Qatar.

The AKP’s axis with these actors came under the limelight during the 2008 Gaza War. Instead of joining moderate Arab countries, including Egypt and Kuwait to discuss an end to the conflict in January, Mr. Erdoğan’s officials met with leaders of Iran, Sudan and Qatar, upstaging the moderates.

In addition to a religio-political view of Turkey’s neighborhood, trade deals have also shaped the AKP’s foreign policy. Growing Qatari investments in Turkey and trade with Syria are material factors that underpin the party’s foreign policy.

One arm of the AKP’s foreign policy has been to help pro-AKP businessmen get mega energy contracts and business deals in Sudan, Iran and Russia. When the AKP came to power, Russia was Turkey’s eighth-largest trading partner and the West dominated two-thirds of Turkish trade.

By 2008, the West’s share of Turkish trade dropped to 50 percent, while Russia replaced Germany as Turkey's top trading partner. Personal ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Erdoğan have buttressed rapprochement, transforming Turkish-Russian relations that have been marked by confrontation since the 15th century.

As a result, during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, Turkey sided with Russia when Moscow attacked Georgia.

Econo-Islamism is a far cry from the traditional pro-European orientation of Turkish foreign policy. Under this new foreign policy doctrine, Turkey will opt out of a NATO consensus on Iran, build intimate relations with Russia and disagree with Europe on Sudan. The AKP doctrine does not consider Turkey as being a part of Europe.

* This column originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post, and was reproduced 17.12.2009 in the Turkish daily News - member of the Hurriyet group. Soner Çağaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and author of “Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk?” (Routledge, 2006.)

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