Saturday, July 3, 2010

Turkey beckons, not just Orhan Pamukh

With our Government keeping all its oranges and papayas in the American basket, we lose sight of big things happening elsewhere. Big things have been happening in Turkey with implications for the Arab-Israeli imbroglio, for the European Union's fundamentals, for America's global strategy, for the general idea of religion in politics – in short, for the whole world. Is India anywhere in this picture? If it is, our Government is keeping it a secret.

In some ways Turkey is a wonder of history. It is the only Islamic country that was constitutionally de-Islamised by Kemal Ataturk, president from 1923 to 38. It was also the only Muslim state to recognise Israel, under American influence of course, and even sign a military treaty with it. Turks, who are non-Arab like Iranians, ruled all Arab lands including holy cities like Mecca and Medina under the Ottoman Empire (which once extended from Spain to the Hindu Kush).

Winds of change began in Turkey after Ataturk's CHP party lost power in the 1980s because of corruption. The mildly Islamic AK party then came to power, first with the help of other parties and, from 2002, on its own. Its leader, Erdogan, is now in his second term as Prime Minister. He is charismatic not only because he was a member of the Turkish national football team, but also because he launched far-reaching economic reforms and various programmes to build schools and hospitals.

Above all, he distanced Turkey from Israel, becoming an instant hero of the Arab world. An Arab editor even compared him to the legendary Gamal Abdel Nasser, the nationalist icon of Egyptians and all Arabs. At first Turks were confused by this newfound friendship; traditionally Turkey had looked down upon Arabs. But the Israeli attack on Turkey's aid ship to the Gaza Strip in May changed everything. Israel's solitary Muslim backer is now its sworn adversary.

A major fallout of this development is that Turkey has become, for the first time in its history, a player in West Asian affairs. It reinforced that position by becoming an interlocutor, along with Brazil, in Iran's nuclear argument with the West. The result is that the importance of traditional ringleaders like Egypt and Saudi Arabia has decreased.

That worries America. For one thing, its client state of Israel has lost the only friend it had in the neighbourhood. For another, its old-time ally, Turkey, is turning eastward, setting aside its long-term ambition to join the European Union. Objections to its membership of the EU, primarily from Germany and France, have offended public opinion as well as the political parties of Turkey.

These historical shifts may take firm shape after next year's elections. For all his populism, Erdogan cannot be sure of victory. Ataturk's CHP has found a fresh lease of life with the election last month of a new leader. This former civil servant, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is so clean and sage-like that he is known as “Gandhi-Kemal”.

That alone should inspire India to get closer to Turkey. The new Kemal has mentioned India and China as two countries Turkey should focus on. Besides, Turkey's best known writer, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamukh, will be a natural if unofficial brand ambassador for India given his friendship with our own quiet young novelist Kiran Desai. Turkey's economic potential is yet another attraction.

All that aside, it is a great country. They are a friendly people and there is no city in the world – in beauty, historical richness, variety and colourfulness – as Istanbul. Of the country's 60 million population, 15 million live in this astonishing city. But don't venture into the streets when a football match is ending. The crowds spilling out of the stadium have a tendency to take over all streets. Turks are crazy about football.