The Turkish-Arab Dialogue Forum, organized jointly by the İstanbul Kültür University Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) and the Arab Democracy Foundation, took place last weekend. Several academics, historians and diplomats from Turkey and from many Arab countries participated in this scholarly meeting marked by intense and long debates.
At the meeting, in which the Turkish participants chose not to talk too much, the analyses focused on the probable regional developments of Turkey’s recent initiatives. While some Arab participants have said that Turkey must be engaged more in the Middle East, others have claimed that Turkish efforts are seen as interference in the Arab countries’ domestic politics. They discussed whether or not the Turkish system can constitute a model for the Arab world, whether the secular system is a modernization factor or just a reference for the authoritarian system which obstructs the country’s democratization. Turkey’s relations with Israel were vaguely mentioned; however, its relations with Iran were scrutinized. Some participants expressed the opinion that Turkey may become the “holder of balance” between Iran and Arab countries, while others said they believe Turkey will increase its regional power by expanding its influence to the detriment of Iran’s.
Even if Arab and Islamic identities are often mentioned as common values, the Arab participants spent a lot of their time displaying their differences and demonstrated that the main common denominator in this region of the world is to have the feeling of being permanent “victims.” Almost all participants pointed out the US or Israel as responsible for the region’s instability. A few of them added Iran and even the EU to that list. This common anti-imperialistic language constitutes an important variable in understanding their perception of Turkey. Some participants are convinced that Turkey’s new approach is simply a role given by the US to Ankara, and not the latter’s own initiative. Additionally, some discussants emphasized that if Turkey becomes an EU member, it will have to change its Middle East policy, anyway, and act in harmony with the imperialistic European powers. However, some of the researchers believe that Turkey’s recent actions and its relations with the US and the EU create a positive impact in helping to unlock the situation in the region, allowing the Arab countries to join the international system through Turkey.
All these debates gave us the impression that the Arab countries’ doubtful and mistrustful view of Turkey is not emanating from Turkey per se. In fact, the academics from the Arab countries have chosen to discuss the political balances, authoritarian institutions and feudal relations of their countries through Turkey. This reminds us of Turkish academics at the beginning of the 1990s, who preferred to discuss Turkey’s problems through the EU process. If one is not able to handle publicly one’s country’s problems or is not able to decide which parameters will help to explain those problems, it’s a good start to conduct the discussion through neighbors’ policies. That’s why the Turkish participants’ taciturnity was quite understandable.
Despite the existence of many historical and sometimes bottled-up problems, Turkey has decided to handle its relations with its near geography and with all its neighbors simultaneously. This is not some kind of pressure or imperialism directed against the Arab countries. This is Turkey’s quest for stability. If human rights or fundamental liberties were adopted as basic values, it would be easier to build confidence between Turkey and Arab countries.