Posts Tagged 'muslim'

Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for ekathimerini.com [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.

Hate speech: The lesser of two evils


By Harry van Versendaal

Expecting a state that has failed to enforce a smoking ban in public places to penalize hate speech is wishful thinking. It should also be undesirable.

Keen to burnish their democratic credentials and to differentiate themselves from conservative New Democracy, the leader of Greece’s power-sharing administration, junior socialist partners PASOK and Democratic Left have pushed an anti-racism bill aimed at curbing a burgeoning wave of xenophobia in the debt-wracked country. The rise in hate speech and racially motivated crimes is widely associated with the rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party controlling 18 seats in the 300-member House that wants to kick all immigrants out of the country.

The proposed legislation, drafted by Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis, who is supported by Democratic Left, aims to criminalize communication which might incite violence against groups and individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The bill reportedly foresees up to two years in jail for offenders and fines of up to about 30,000 euros for individuals and 200,000 euros for organizations.

There is no doubt that, unlike the more cynical policymakers out there, many advocates of the contentious bill are motivated by the best of intentions. However, as other European states have painfully found out, laws against hate speech come with hidden costs and unintended consequences.

A piece of legislation that caters to the needs and sensitivities of a particular section of society is by its nature exclusive and potentially open to criticism from others who are, or who may feel, vulnerable. Introducing a ban on Holocaust denial may, for example, prompt calls for prohibition of gulag-denying speech; or Muslim demands for measures against the defamation of Muhammad which – as Western governments were painfully reminded of in the 2006 Danish cartoon row – also includes depictions of the Prophet.

Put simply, what constitutes an offense is very much in the eye of the beholder. A victim of communism, to bring up a recent example, might sue Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek for suggesting in public that he would send anyone who does not support leftist SYRIZA to a gulag. Depending on the interpretation, even religious texts like the Quran or the Bible can be deemed unlawful. A ban on hate speech can be a stepping stone to curtailing the freedom of expression.

New Democracy has expressed objection to the bill, citing the fact that Greece has already had anti-incitement rules in place since 1979. This is true. Specifically, the law makes it illegal to incite discrimination, hate or violence against persons or groups on the basis of race, origin or religion – although it says nothing of sexual orientation. Also, the 1979 law stipulates it is a crime to set up or join organizations that promote racist propaganda and activity.

Nevertheless, New Democracy’s real concern seems to lie with the reaction from the more reactionary folk among its electoral base: the influential Orthodox Church and the armed forces. The party has proposed a bill, basically a revision of the 1979 law, that reportedly grants immunity to civil servants, as well as clerics and military officials. Meanwhile, the bill does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. New Democracy’s misguided motives are confirmed by its proposal to introduce penalties for Holocaust and genocide denial.

The main concern here is that taking action on “opinion crimes,” as it were – like sanctions against those who deny the genocide of Black Sea Greeks by the Ottoman Turks toward the end of the First World War, officially recognized as such only by Greece and Cyprus – inevitably leads to restrictions on free speech. In a sign of the inevitable deadlock, Turkey has passed the law in reverse, making it illegal to refer to mass killings of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians as a “genocide.”

Laws against Holocaust denial were introduced in Germany and Austria after the Second World War and they made sense given these countries’ historical background. Interpretation of the past should be left with historians rather than lawmakers and prosecutors or you risk what Greek historian Antonis Liakos has called “political control over history.” Freedom of speech in an open society should include the right to question historical facts. Instead of banning uninformed and foolish ideas, it is better to expose them to scrutiny and ridicule.

And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. It is extremely unlikely that laws against genocide or Holocaust denial will deflate anti-Semitism or discourage people from joining the ranks of Golden Dawn. Such initiatives would most likely play into the hands of the party’s supposed anti-systemic profile and allow wrongheaded thugs to pose as martyrs. An all-out ban on the party would probably fail for the same reason.

After all, Golden Dawn’s discourse and deeds are well beyond a bill such as this and are well into the criminal law code. If the political system really wants to stop the neo-Nazis in our midst, it must start by doing what it failed to do in the case of the anti-smoking legislation: stop the political gesturing and enforce the law.

Hate attacks on the rise in Greece, activists warn

By Harry van Versendaal

Racially motivated attacks have risen in number as well as intensity in Greece as authorities’ efforts to tackle the problem remain halfhearted, a network of human rights organizations has warned.

Greece, a main transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to set foot in the European Union, has seen a growing wave of xenophobia prompted by a mix of economic malaise and political disillusionment. Golden Dawn, a neofascist party that wants to kick foreigners out of the country, currently controls 18 seats in the 300-member House while polling around 11 percent in recent surveys.

A total of 154 racist attacks were recorded in 2012 by the Racist Violence Recording Network, a collection of 30 nongovernmental organizations initiated two years ago by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) that presented its 2012 report yesterday in Athens. But the actual number is believed to be a lot higher as victims are either too scared to report incidents to the police or because they are turned away.

“What we are faced with is murderous, racist violence. Its objective is no longer just to intimidate, but to cause victims,” NCHR president Kostis Papaioannou told the press briefing.

“Some people thought they did not have a dog in this fight. However, the range of attacks is growing in terms of geography as well as targets,” he said, mentioning that gay people are now also on the list of potential targets.

The report was released a week after more than 30 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers in the Peloponnese district of Manolada suffered shotgun wounds during a dispute over six months of back pay with their supervisors. The three foremen have been charged with attempted murder and illegal weapons possession and will await trial in prison custody.

Most of the documented hate attacks occurred in the Athens districts of Omonia, Aghios Panteleimonas, Attiki Square and Amerikis Square – all areas with large immigrant populations. Forty-four of the victims were asylum seekers, four were recognized refugees, 15 possessed residence permits, and 79 were unregistered, according to the report. The majority were Muslims.

Most victims were attacked in public spaces such as squares or on public transport, usually by groups of men dressed in black, and at times with military trousers, wearing helmets or with their faces covered. Several carried Golden Dawn insignia or had been spotted at public events organized by the party. Perpetrators occasionally included Albanian immigrants.

In many cases victims reported the use of weapons, such as clubs, crowbars, folding batons, chains, brass knuckles, knives and broken bottles. Assailants sometimes used large dogs.

“The victims had suffered multiple injuries,” said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, ranging from fractures and contusions to symptoms of posttraumatic stress.

Fear of attack has turned several neighborhoods in Athens into no-go areas for the capital’s immigrant population.

“People are too afraid to walk out of their home to buy bread,” said the president of the Association of Afghans United in Greece, Reza Golami.

Police involvement

Activists worryingly noted a growing involvement of police officials and public servants in racist attacks. Most such incidents, the report said, concerned duty officers who resorted to illegal acts and violent practices while carrying out routine checks.

“Many in the police force have come to view racist violence as something normal, a natural state of affairs,” Papaioannou said, adding that part of the problem is that xenophobic language has moved deep into mainstream territory.

Before the 2012 elections, Antonis Samaras, now leader of Greece’s conservative-led coalition, pledged to “reclaim” cities from the hordes of illegal immigrants.

Some of the attacks, the report said, came from public servants. Earlier this month a bus driver in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, forced two passengers to get off his bus because they were immigrants.

Experts said that many victims are reluctant to report the attacks because they lack legal documents and are therefore afraid that the police will arrest and deport them.

“Instead of investigating whether a crime has been committed, police officers rather check whether the victims have legal residence permits,” said Vassilis Papastergiou from the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees.

Activists said authorities should instead provide for the suspension of arrest and deportation decisions against victims who file a complaint. The report recommended that victims be given a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, similar to the protection awarded to victims of trafficking – a status awarded to the Manolada victims.

“We hope that the interest in these people will not last only as long as the spotlight is on Manolada,” Papaioannou said.

Pray as you go

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s not easy to get hold of Naim El-Ghandour these days. As the anti-Muslim sentiment in Greece grows, the 55-year-old Egyptian president of the Muslim Association of Greece has had to make a full-time job of defending the members of this heterogeneous minority against criticism – and increasingly against verbal and physical abuse.

Growing tension between natives and foreign immigrants, most of them Muslim, in the capital’s scruffy neighborhoods was catapulted onto center stage last week as Muslims meeting to celebrate Eid al-Adha in public squares around Athens were occasionally harassed by locals and ultra-nationalist activists. Meanwhile, even mainstream media that have traditionally backed the long-stalled plans for a mosque in Athens faulted the decision by the Muslim community to hold their prayer service in front of the Athens University (Propylaia) as a symbolically loaded gesture.

In this interview with Athens Plus, El-Ghandour, who has lived in Greece for the past 38 years, rebuffs criticism of the Propylaia gathering and expresses hope about the construction of a mosque in Votanikos, while pointing a finger at the failings of fellow Muslims.

There is a growing number of attacks on Muslims in Greece. Where do you attribute this trend?

It’s part of the rise of the extreme right in Europe. It’s a fashion that has caught on in Greece — but it will pass at some point. The ground is not fertile here, because Greeks are not racists.

Is the far-right surge a symptom or a cause? Do you see any economic or social factors behind the trend?

No, these are not merely economic. Islamophobia, the hatred for Islam, is not random. When the [ultranationalist] LAOS party and [extreme right-wing group] Chrysi Avgi were first established, they targeted Jews, not Muslims. This changed after 2001. I used to have a friend who was a member of the [LAOS] party and he would go on and on about the Jews. Now they have changed their tune.

What about the impact of the economic crisis in Greece? Could people be looking for scapegoats?

Smart people, educated people know all too well that the immigrants have not taken jobs away from the Greeks.

However, the attacks are not necessarily coming from smart, educated people.

These are a small minority and they do not concern us. We cannot deal with every single person out there. Everyone can have access to knowledge these days or they can choose to stay in the dark

Critics said that the recent prayer service [to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s main holidays] at the Propylaia was a political act, a show of force as it were.

Such criticism comes from the same people. I’ve been living here for 38 years and I’ve always prayed in open space, except when the weather was bad and we had to move to the Olympic Stadium. We would also pray at Eleftherias Square, near the US Embassy, as well as other squares. So why all the fuss this year?

Some said the Propylaia is a symbol of modern Greek enlightenment and it was an odd spot to pick for the prayers.

We had three options: Klafthmonos Square, the Propylaia and Kotzia Square. We recently held a service on Kotzia but we thought of moving closer to a metro station. Where is the problem with that? We could have held it at Syntagma Square, which is also a convenient place, but we did not want to disturb passers-by.

As for those who say this was a “show of force,” I say, a show of force against whom? The Greeks are our brothers and many of them visited the Propylaia to wish us well.

By the way, a prayer service at the Olympic Stadium once drew 18,000 people. The recent one at Propylaia drew some 4 to 5,000. Where is the show of force? Critics make money out of their criticism. They have not looked into the issue carefully. Controversy sells, serenity doesn’t.

The gathering at the Propylaia was interpreted as a reminder that Muslims who live here need a mosque.

We know that the construction of a mosque is under way. The Defense Ministry and the City of Athens have signed an agreement for the removal of the Navy base in Votanikos [to make space for a mosque]. It’s all been planned. The money has been found and things are edging forward like everything else here: slowly.

So there is no talk of taking the issue to the European Court of Justice?

No, not at all.

Do you think that Muslims who live in Greece must make a greater effort to integrate into society?

Yes, integration is a problem. To people from Bangladesh for example, and all those who walk around in supposedly religious attire, I tell them that there is no religious Islamic dress code – except for the women’s headscarf. Prophet Muhammad used to wear all sorts of clothes and colors. If he were alive today, he would probably be dressed in a suit and a tie. This is why I tell them: “Wear normal clothes like everyone else,” so that people are not intimidated when they see a different culture in front of them. We are not all the same. Some people are OK with this, some are not. At the end of the day, it’s they who came here, not the other way around. We can do this gradually, with long-term planning after we get an official imam.

Skeptics are concerned that some Muslims elevate religious law above the law of the state.

That’s rubbish.

They draw on the experience of other European countries, such as France and Holland.

Greece is not France. Those who went to France came mostly from the colonies that France had sucked the blood out of.

You mean to say that there is no vindictiveness by immigrants here?

That’s right. The Greeks never treated people like the French or the British did.

On the other hand, Muslims who live here are often not treated well either. Some might feel vengeful here, too.

It’s not like that here. Greece never asked these people to come here. And more came here [than Greece could absorb]. For every 10 jobs, there are some 100 people. That was bound to cause problems. Greeks are not to blame for this. And then there is the [economic] crisis.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I hope it will all work out in the end. This wave of hatred will abate. Many migrants are moving back to their homes. A number of programs are under way aiming to solve the problems caused by the large number of immigrants living in the center. Some will be accommodated in guesthouses that will provide food and a decent place to sleep. Some good will eventually come from the evil. Politicians will now have to implement the proposed solutions.

Liberalism and the burqa

By Harry van Versendaal

One of the most common arguments put forward against recent steps by some European governments to ban the full-face veil, known as the niqab or burqa, is the small number of Muslim women who wear it. Lawfulness, however, is not based on numbers. It is illegal to kill another man, even if only a few people wish to do so.

Of course, there are more arguments against such ban. Outlawing the burqa, opponents of the move say, is racist, intolerant and undemocratic. But it’s hard to miss the fact that the call for multicultural tolerance is coming from one of the least tolerant, mono-cultural segments of society. Interestingly, defense of the burqa has also drawn support from misguided liberals and leftist multi-culties (who seem to forget that many women in Muslim countries are still beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their faces) as well as some in the Christian right who are wary of losing their own “sacred” rights and privileges.

Leaving security concerns and the demeaning of women aside, one question that needs to be answered is why a majority should be subjected to the cultural whims of a minority? Doesn’t it make more sense for an immigrant to abide by the mores and values of the land where he or she has chosen to live rather than the other way round? And even though the West should not go down the oft-used reciprocity argument – “We must not allow Muslims to build mosques in Europe until they allow Christians to build their own churches there” – because a place like Sudan or Saudi Arabia cannot serve as standard for any modern European nation, it seems fair – in fact it is very crucial – to state that liberal states have no reason to give in to the yens of their culturally assertive minorities either. Yielding to one demand will naturally spawn further similar demands, and the list is already too long: sexually segregated swimming pools, the abolition of certain textbooks at schools, special medical treatment for women, calls for polygamy and forced marriages and so on (and, alas, we must not leave the defense of Enlightenment values to the extreme right).

Each time it gives in to segregationist demands, liberalism is effectively giving up a chunk of itself. In going out of their way to accommodate these customs, liberal states are helping to create a state within a state, a segregated society where people live in accordance with their own rules and values. For what does a woman clad in a full-face garment convey other than her willingness to separate herself from the rest of society? It’s like saying: “I am not one of you; I do not belong here; you are impure.”

Living in an open society is all about freedom, transparency and interaction – and the individuals who wish to participate in such society ought to, at least, be identifiable.

Wary steps across the Balkans’ lingering divisions

By Harry van Versendaal

A number of good-will gestures by former Balkan war foes have created grounds for optimism about the future of Europe’s dodgiest neighborhood, but some analysts express caution about the region’s true prospects for reconciliation.

Some of the recent initiatives coming from Serbia and Croatia, the two regional heavyweights, have been impressive by the standards of this conflict-ridden area. Following a push by Serbia president Boris Tadic, the country’s parliament last month passed a landmark resolution condemning the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) by Bosnian Serb forces in fields near the UN safe heaven of Srebrenica, seen as Europe’s worst atrocity since the Holocaust. Although falling short of branding the events a genocide, the motion said Belgrade should have done more to prevent the tragedy.

Croatia followed suit as its president, Ivo Josipovic, expressed regret about his country’s involvement in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.

“There is significant development in the region in the direction of going back to normalcy, stability and peace,” says Ivan Vejvoda, head of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a non-governmental organization promoting good governance in southeast Europe.

“More has happened than people realize because the western Balkans are not in the news any more, because nothing dramatic is happening, thank God,” he says. Vejvoda likes to talk about the growth in business, trade, and mutual investment, about academic and cultural exchanges, pop culture, and reality shows attracting men and women from across the region. MTV Adria, a pan-Adriatic version of the popular network, broadcasts music from the different Balkan nations. There are more Serbian tourists visiting the Croatian coast as they did in the days of Yugoslavia, and Slovenian tourists can be seen strolling in the towns of Serbia. “The proverbial kind of approach says that in the Balkans people are quick to flare up and get into conflict but conversely they’re also very quick to calm down,” he says.

Political drive

Much of the credit for the recent rapprochement must go to the two presidents, Tadic and Josipovic, who have met three times in less than a month. “They are people who have not been involved in any way in the conflicts of the 1990s, they are people of similar character, and they both come from social democratic parties,” says Vejvoda, whose think tank organized one of the meetings.

Both presidents have pledged to withdraw the mutual genocide charges filed with the International Court of Justice over atrocities committed during the 1991-1995 war and reach an out-of-court settlement.

There is no doubt that a fair number of outstanding issues remain between the two countries: resolving the border dispute, the matter of returnees, the question of internally displaced people who came to Croatia from Serbia, and the issue of missing persons. But both sides, says Vejvoda, recognize that maintaining the status quo will benefit no one. “This new approach signals that they both want to address these issues directly and to start resolving them because this will facilitate further the strengthening of ties and because it will be conducive to European Union membership,” he says.

EU carrot

Most Balkan observers are ready to admit that little would have happened without the carrot of EU accession. “I doubt that the process would have been as bold or as relatively quick if not for the allure of EU membership,” says Svetozar Rajak, a historian at the London School of Economics.

Croatia, whose accession talks were blocked last year by Slovenia over a maritime border dispute, hopes to conclude negotiations with the EU this year so as to join the 27-member bloc in 2012. Josipovic has pledged that should Croatia join the union it will not veto Serbian membership, still a remote prospect.

But some analysts warn that Balkan governments should not rely too much on Europe. Croatian historian and politician Ivo Banac, for one, questions the extent to which Brussels is committed to the process. “Unfortunately, the EU is no longer serious about almost anything, least of all about Balkan issues,” he says.

Banac, sometimes described as “the political conscience of modern Croatia,” is skeptical about the process of Balkan reconciliation. “Neither the Serbian parliamentary resolution on Srebrenica nor President Josipovic’s statements in the Bosnian parliament go to the length of expected expressions of regret,” he says. He believes there can be little progress before the two states tackle the issue of Bosnia.

Bosnia, a dysfunctional ensemble of a state created by the Dayton peace accords that ended the 1992-95 war is made up of a Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and a Muslim-Croat Federation. The survival of Bosnia, already tormented by a toxic mix of de facto partition, corruption and populism, is further strained as the Bosnian Serb premier keeps flirting with the motherland across the border. Milorad Dodik this week warned that Bosnian Serbs will never accept that Srebrenica was genocide, saying the alleged death toll is “inexact.”

All that of course helps keep Bosnia away from the EU. Belgrade and Zagreb, however, are not without blame for the situation. “Serbia and Croatia created the conditions for Bosnia’s partition and collapse. All the consequences for its future arise from this fact, although this has not yet been acknowledged, much less publicly renounced,” says Banac.

“Unfinished space”

And, of course, there is Kosovo. Ever since the former Serbian province declared independence two years ago, Serbia has gone to lengths to prevent its international recognition. Belgrade considers Kosovo, the site of a historic defeat to the invading Ottoman army in 1389, its historic heart. It has also brought the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague and a much-delayed ruling is expected later this year. It could also be a far-reaching one. “The future fate of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence will also have an impact on the international system as a whole,” says Rajak, and it is no coincidence that Serbia has found some powerful allies to support its cause – namely Russia, China and EU member Spain, all states preoccupied with their own uneasy minorities.

Banac insists that Bosnia is the main sticking point to stability and that Kosovo is merely “Serbia’s chip in this much larger game.” Serbia insists on its sovereignty over Kosovo, he says, not because it believes that it will ever gain control over the whole of Kosovo, but because it hopes it will get the Serb-dominated Mitrovica area in the north of the province. “Serbia hopes that this ‘mini partition’ of Kosovo will set a precedent for the ‘maxi partition’ of Bosnia. The ‘unfinished space’ of the Balkans remains a source of conflict.”

As always, burying the ghosts of the past will take a lot more than official apologies.

Turkey rediscovers the Middle East, but at what cost?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Driven by growing self-confidence and a yen to impress the West, Turkey is increasingly engaging itself with the Arab world but analysts warn that too much Middle East activism could backfire.

Under the stewardship of its mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its mold-breaking foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has over the past several years sought a more prominent role in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes and – somewhat paradoxically – taking a more assertive posture toward one-time ally Israel.

The true motives behind Turkey’s shift are not always easy to pin down. EU coldness over the prospect of full membership has certainly pushed the predominantly Muslim nation eastward, but analysts are not sure whether the reorientation signifies contempt about the snub or rather a desire to render itself more significant in Western eyes.

“The activism is both partly a reaction to the EU cold shower and partly an attempt to make itself more important,” said Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent think tank that recently published a report on Turkey and the Middle East.

“Turkey has always been opportunistic in search of greater exports at times of high buying power in the Middle East, and Turkey has always been less outgoing to Israel when the Arab-Israel peace process has been stalled,” he said.

‘Zero problems’

Inspired by Davutoglu, Erdogan’s longtime foreign policy guru often dubbed the “Turkish Kissinger,” Ankara has pursued a soft-power policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe. According to the ICG report, while Turkey’s total exports rose fourfold between 1996-2009, exports to the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) increased by seven times, reaching 28 percent of total exports in 2009.

In a major diplomatic turnaround, Turkey has made stunning improvement in ties with Syria and Iraq, long strained over water management of the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the alleged backing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia.

The realignment has come at a price. Relations with Israel have deteriorated. Following decades of close military and intelligence cooperation, Turkey’s public language is now more in tune with pro-Palestinian man-on-the-street sentiment. Israel’s raid on Gaza last year drew the ire of Turkish officials – most infamously Erdogan’s broadside against Israel President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During a recent visit to Paris, Erdogan branded Israel “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

There’s more that Western powers have found hard to swallow. In a gesture prompted more by dogged pragmatism than Islamic solidarity, Turkish officials have resisted US-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Turkey, a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council buys a third of is gas exports from Iran and seeks to further reduce imports from Russia, currently at 65 percent. Recently Erdogan dismissed allegations that Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons as “mere rumors.”

In one of his most controversial gestures up until now, the Turkish premier defended Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, on the grounds that “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.”

Loyalty

Is Turkey drifting away from the West? Analysts are reassuring of Ankara’s loyalty.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Turkey is turning its back on the West,” said RAND global policy think tank analyst Stephen Larrabee. He said the switch is all about change in the post cold-war security environment as the Middle East has replaced the Soviet Union as the Number One hot spot.

“What you’re seeing is a process of diversification and broadening of Turkey’s foreign policy, which, during the cold war period, was oriented almost solely toward the West. It still wants strong ties with the West but it’s not solely reliant on those ties,” Larrabee said.

Pope agrees that Ankara’s realignment does not signify any chill toward the West. “The twin pillars of Turkey’s foreign policy remain the same: its EU convergence process and the political/military alliance with the USA,” he said. “There has been a tendency by some in Turkey to overstate the ability of its Middle East policy to take the place of these fundamental pillars. This is unrealistic. Good relations with the world’s superpower are obviously vital,” Pope said, adding that it is precisely Turkey’s ties to the West that make the county attractive to the Arab world.

The same goes for Europe. The Middle East has never taken more than a quarter of Turkey’s exports and supplies only 10 percent of its tourists, while Turkey does half its trade with Europe and gets 90 percent of its foreign investment from EU states, said the ICG expert.

Too big for its boots?

However, experts warn that an overstretched Turkey risks losing sight of its priorities, spending precious diplomatic energy and capital in the Mideast when it should be working to solve problems closer to home.

“It is certainly a risk. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is badly overstretched in terms of its capabilities, plus the record is clear: limited progress on thorny issues such as Cyprus and Armenia,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey expert based in London.

A settlement on the Cyprus issue, made less likely following the victory of hardliner Dervis Eroglu in leadership elections in the Turkish-occupied north on Sunday, is a prerequisite if Turkey wishes to keep EU convergence on track. Meanwhile, smoothing relations with Washington means that Ankara must find a way to implement the recently signed protocols with Yerevan, long at loggerheads with Turkey over the killing of Armenians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Ankara has scrambled to prevent the full US House of Representatives from passing a resolution approved by a US congressional committee that has called the 1915 massacres of Armenians genocide.

EU unimpressed

Experts disagree over the extent to which Turkey’s Middle East activism could bolster its chances of joining the EU. For Piccoli, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, there is “a basic misunderstanding from the Turkish side: the belief that the EU can appreciate Turkey’s growing importance in the region and thus decide that it is an indispensable partner,” he said.

The problem is the EU has no coherent foreign policy and is not a credible actor in the international arena, especially in the Middle East. “The risk for Ankara is that those EU countries that are opposing Turkey’s bid for membership will exploit the issue to strengthen their anti-Turkey positions,” Piccoli said. EU heavyweights Germany and France have both grown allergic to the idea of full Turkish membership, offering vague talk of a “special partnership” instead.

Pope too sees a threat from skeptical European politicians playing to popular fears. “Some are exaggerating Turkey’s improved relations with the Middle East as a sign that Turkey is somehow not European. The reality is quite the other way round,” he said drawing parallels between Turkey’s policies in the Middle East – like visa-free travel and free trade – and postwar European peace-building measures.

“Turkey is trying to introduce EU-style ideas into the region like those that brought peace to Europe after the Second World War,” he said.


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