Turkey looks east and makes waves

Turkey has long been a map of possibility — its eastern fringes touching Iraq and its western borders brushing Europe, a place where the music of Beethoven played amid the call to prayer.

This predominantly Muslim nation is a member of NATO and a candidate, although an unwelcome one, to join the European Union. But Turkey is peering east, dispatching financial brokers, pistachio merchants and diplomats across a restless region that is both looking for and suspicious of any gleam of fresh leadership.

By default and through its own designs, Turkey has gained stature in a Middle East where old Arab powers are fading and gulf states are preoccupied with the global financial crisis and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strengthened relations with former enemy Syria, improved ties with Iran and, to the agitation of Egypt, arisen as a provocative Muslim voice for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

“The country’s conservative government has an ideological fit with the Middle East and the larger Muslim world,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist with the newspaper Milliyet. “And, practically speaking, there’s no place for Turkey in Europe, at least in the short term.”

The crisis over the recent deadly Israeli raid on a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza upset the strategic relationship between Israel and Turkey, which has been the Jewish state’s closest Muslim ally. The two cooperate on defense and amassed $2.5 billion in bilateral trade last year. But Turkey’s fierce reaction to the killing of nine Turkish activists by Israeli commandos highlighted the nation’s growing disenchantment with the Jewish state.

The U.S. worries that the eastward tilt of Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government runs counter to Washington’s ambitions. Ankara has increasingly insinuated itself into Palestinian affairs and has appeared to embrace Hamas, which controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel. But this tack has turned Erdogan, who once sold sesame buns in Istanbul’s poor neighborhoods, into a hero in the Muslim world.

A father in Gaza named his newborn son after him. Arab writers asked why their own leaders, regarded as corrupt and cowed by the West, weren’t as scrappily eloquent in supporting Palestinian rights. Turkey has usurped the limelight from Iran, which funds and supports Hamas, and from Egypt, which for years has been trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

This has fueled jealousies in some Middle East capitals that view Ankara as interfering in the balance of power, even as its overall regional trade has jumped to more than $31 billion from about $5 billion over the last eight years. But others in the region see Turkey’s Islamic brand of democracy and free markets as a pragmatic approach not only to Israel, the U.S. and Europe but also to political cooperation and business deals with the emerging powers of China and India.

“Turkey has been a role model for Islamic countries,” said Reza Kaviani, an Iranian analyst. “Turkey has proved that Iranian policy of exporting Islamic revolution has only led to extremism, in contrast with Turkish democratic policy, which has led to true sympathy toward Palestinians and further international pressure on Israel.”

For Egypt, the problem with Turkey is its resonance with the “common people,” said Sameh Sorour, a Cairo-based political analyst.

“Egyptians have always endorsed any regime that opposed Israel, let alone publicly condemned an Israeli act or policy.... But Turkey is also a secular country with great financial developments and close ties to the West. It represents everything the Egyptian regime is trying to stand for, and that’s why Cairo won’t be able to discredit Turkey,” Sorour said.

Ankara’s venturesome diplomacy has limits. A recent effort by Turkey and Brazil to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran was viewed as naive and angrily discarded by Washington. Turkey faces other challenges in engaging the Middle East: ensuring that it doesn’t let its improving human rights record slip and understanding that courting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who is wanted on war crimes charges, may harm its image in the European Union.

Straddling East and West is the historic Turkish riddle. Founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 upon the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, where the military held sway for decades, hammered itself into a secular state.

It was an uncomfortable, often raucous, fit. In 2002, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, swept to power and religion played a more prominent role.

The country positioned itself as an Islamic democracy that would fit into the EU. Despite making political and human rights reforms, however, Turkey felt ostracized by Berlin and other capitals that believed a country with thousands of minarets was not truly European.

Its pride damaged, Turkey kept its Western alliances and its bid for EU membership open but shifted its focus in the opposite direction.

“The AKP party’s blend of Islam and nationalism very much looks toward the East,” said Mustafa Karahan, director of an energy investment company. “The party figured, ‘Instead of being a small brother in the West, let’s be a big brother in the East.’ The only problem with this is that a lot of Arabs, especially Egyptians, don’t like Turks. But Egypt’s time is done. It’s over.”

It is not likely that Turkey will become the unifying voice in the Middle East, especially in the disparate Arab world, where these days leaders are more consumed with preserving their power.

Cultural differences and historical animosities further complicate Ankara’s role. Turkey was once the seat of the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries harshly ruled much of the Middle East. But the country’s ascent is a reminder that Arab states have lacked a shared vision since the 1960s, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser held up the hope of pan-Arabism.

“Turkey is rising. Iran is rising. Where are the Arabs?” said Mesut Ozcan, assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul Commerce University.

“Erdogan is filling this gap, but Turkey doesn’t really want to be the leader of the Middle East. This is about markets and security, of creating an atmosphere to benefit Turkish businessmen. Turkey is trying to create a new language.”

Special correspondents Amro Hassan in Cairo and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.