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For years, Turkey has been the West’s great hope. It is a Muslim democracy and loyal Nato member, ally in the war on terror and living rejection of the idea of a clash of civilisations. We flattered ourselves that it was keen to join the European Union so it could further ‘modernise’ — by which we meant westernise. As Turkey became richer, so we imagined, it would become a more moderate and a dependable ally of the free world.
It is now clear that this was a fundamental misjudgment. Turkey is indeed growing richer, but the extra wealth is only lubricating its slide towards extremism. Its military links with Israel, so long a defining feature of its pro-western foreign policy, were spectacularly ended a fortnight ago after the Israeli Defence Force raided a flotilla bound for Gaza and nine Turks were killed. Since then, the anti-Israeli rhetoric of Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister since 2003, has only encouraged the country’s shift towards an anti-western position.
It is tempting to blame Erdogan for the change, and dismiss him as a wild card. But his success (reinforced by his 2007 re-election) reflects a profound transformation in Turkish identity. Economic growth has empowered the provincial middle class, at the expense of the secular elites who once ruled in Istanbul.
After decades of staying out of Middle Eastern politics, Turkey is emerging not just as a player but an agitator. It is warming to the idea of a politically united ‘Muslim world’. Last year, about a third of the Turkish population wanted to join the EU — down sharply from four fifths when Erdogan took office. Over the last decade, the number of Turks defining themselves as Muslim has risen by 10 per cent, while half of the country describes itself as Islamist. Yet it is a very specific type of Islamism that Erdogan seems to welcome. He has denounced the moderate Palestinian Authority as ‘an illegitimate government’ and, though he denounces Israel, he had no qualms about hosting Sudan’s president, who faced an indictment for war crimes.
As recently as 1998, Turkey was siding with Israel against Syria, whom it suspected of giving covert support to Kurdish rebels. ‘We will say “shalom” to the Israelis on the Golan Heights,’ read the headline in one Turkish newspaper at the time. Such a headline is unthinkable now. The way to win votes and sell newspapers is to denounce Israel and raise fears about its nuclear arsenal. And to ask what Turkey’s response should be when — and it is when, not if — Iran acquires a nuclear weapon.
The old answer to this question — work on a missile defence shield with the Israelis — is no longer an option. It is far more likely that Turkey will seek its own weapon. And to judge from the amicable body language at the Russia-Iran-Turkey security summit in Istanbul on Tuesday, a new alliance is emerging. The days when Turkey regarded Russia as its only serious enemy, and the West as its surest form of protection, are long gone.
For our part, the instinct to regard domestic Turkish politics as an irrelevance has led the West to overlook a fundamental shift in power in the Middle East — an error that may lead to a multi-polar nuclear standoff in the world’s most combustible regions. When the new Turkish Republic started asking the world to say Istanbul rather than Constantinople, Ella Fitzgerald memorably declared that this was ‘nobody’s business but the Turks’. What’s happening in Turkey now is, alas, everyone’s business.
Our debt to Maggie
Some politicians and members of the press have worked themselves into a fury with John McDonnell, the Labour politician who said this week that he wished he could go back in time and ‘assassinate Thatcher’. Harriet Harman has been urged to denounce him for making a ‘threat’ against the former prime minister. Though their indignation is understandable, they should lighten up. McDonnell (who on
Tuesday withdrew from the Labour leadership race) was not, of course, being serious. His line drew loud laughs from his audience, a GMB trade union crowd.
But more than that, John McDonnell has in fact done the Lady a service. In postulating a world without her, he has served to remind us how vital she was to this country, and how great is the debt we owe her. Before Thatcher took charge, Britain was at the mercy of bullying unions, a state-controlled economy and a Conservative party which had succumbed to a ruinous Keynesian orthodoxy. Would the Conservatives have changed tack so radically in 1975 without her as leader? Was there another candidate even half as good? The answer is no.
It is a tribute to the Iron Lady that 20 years after she left 10 Downing Street, her socialist opponents still see her as the enemy.
THE SPECTATOR 12 June 2010 5