The merciless nation-building experience of both Turkey and the Arab states has generated a tradition of mutual hatred and frigidity. The Ottomans, like other “foreign powers,” including various European ones, were held responsible for the ills of the Arabs, as Fouad Ajami explains in his monumental “The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967.”
Kemalist Turkey never liked the Arabs. It was part of daily Kemalist routine to dislike them. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself came from an intellectual tradition characterized by bad experiences with the Arabs. But blaming Kemalism is shallow. In the ‘50s, during the time of Adnan Menderes -- the arch-symbol of the Turkish right -- Turkey’s Algeria policy was dire. Turkish conservatives, happy to commemorate the legacy of Menderes, are understandably silent on this point. Menderes had a simple formula: It was the early years of the Cold War, and Turkey was busy consolidating its position within the Western bloc.
Not counting the weak efforts of Turgut Özal in the ‘80s, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s actions have been the most concerted to revive Turkey’s relations with the Arab world. What is more, his strategy is not confined to diplomacy but aims to work also on the social and cultural levels. In this vein, Erdoğan has even changed Turkey’s long-standing Israel policy, which had been shaped in the ‘40s. Erdoğan’s Arab world strategy has positioned Turkey in certain regions, such as the Gulf, as a strong Arab-friendly state in the face of threats to the area from Iran.
But evaluating what Turkey has done in the Arab world, particularly in light of the legacy of the Arab Spring, one clear point emerges: Turkey has made a substantial contribution to the region in economic and other fields, but the essential problem remains. Turkey cannot claim to possess the instruments needed to gain an understanding of the Arab mind, i.e. the inner dynamics of the labyrinth of Arab politics. The Arab mental geography is still a mystery to Turkey. This becomes especially clear when the Arab intellectual surveys Turkish political strategy. Unlike the Arab masses, the Arab intellectual, Islamist or secular, is not too eager to accept what Turkey offers. Turkey needs a new strategy to penetrate the closed world of Arab politics.
The penury of Turkey’s understanding of the Arab mind is a product of the Turkish intellectual. The Turkish intellectual, whether Kemalist or Islamic, is a Western-educated man. Let me put it this way: Even Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu wrote his Ph.D. thesis in English. A typical Turkish intellectual employs Western methodology to analyze Arab politics. The Turkish intellectual’s interest in the Arab world is not a scholarly but a sentimental one. Turkey therefore tends to observe the Arab world not through the lens of the intellectual, but through that of the businessperson or the politician.
The nation-building period of the last century made Turks “the other” to the Arabs, and the Arabs to the Turks. Common ground, such as Islam, is important, but only for the public. When it comes to intellectuals, the gap is as wide as the gap between Turks and the West. This is crucial, since the future of Turkish-Arab relations is as much the concern of intellectuals as it is of the general public. Let me pose a question: Who is more similar, a secular Lebanese Arab and a secular Turk, or a Lebanese Islamist and a Turkish Islamist? It should then be remembered: The Arab Spring began as the season of the masses, but Arab politics, like Turkish politics, then turned into a platform for the will of the elite.