Professor Samir Salha holds that if Turkey is accepted by the European Union, it would serve as a bridge carrying European democratic values to the Middle East and bringing Islamic culture closer to the West.
“Turkey would enter the EU as a locomotive, pulling several carriages consisting of the Middle Eastern countries. The important thing is the EU perception of this and the European understanding that this is a good thing,” he told Today's Zaman during our Monday Talk interview.
Professor Salha of Kocaeli University located near İstanbul is the co-author, together with Yousef Al Sharif of Al Jazeera-Turkey, of last month's Open Society Foundation report: “Turkey's European Union Membership: The Arab Perspective, Notes from Arab media.”
With several examples from articles that appeared in the Arab media, the study details how Turkey's EU bid was initially perceived in the Arab world as proof that Turkey is further breaking from the Muslim world, but the process has shown Turkey is able to become more democratic while remaining both secular and a mostly Muslim country.
‘Arab intellectuals analyze the reasons behind the reluctance of the EU to accept Turkey. They say that the reasons behind the EU's hesitance are Turkey's religion and culture. They voice concerns that the EU has been hypocritical by not accepting Turkey because while the EU has been calling for respect for and acceptance of differences, it is not practicing that'
The study also shows that the Arab world has started to approach Turkey more with the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in power, since the Arabs traditionally believed that the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “pulled Turkey away from what was long assumed to be its natural place: the Islamic and Arab worlds.”
But Salha said Turkey's experiment with the EU has encouraged the Arab world to establish better relations with the West. He elaborated on the issues while answering our questions.
What would you say about the general course of Turkey's relations with the Arab world?
Turkey and the Arab world have made different strategic choices. This has been partly for reasons stemming from their inner political dynamics and partly due to the interventions of foreign powers. Even though Turkey and the Arab world share a deep culture and Islamic traditions, they have not been able to turn their common points to their advantage. Arabs cannot overcome the difficulties among themselves to do it, and they look to the EU model more today.
Is Turkey's EU accession process a factor in the Arab world for doing this?
The EU presents a political, judicial, social and economic model for the Arab world. And Turkey's accession process has had an influence on this. If Turkey had become a member of the EU 20 years ago, Turkey would be a different country today, the EU would be different and the Middle East would be different.
As you know, Turks do not have high hopes about Turkey's membership in the EU since the EU has been experiencing enlargement fatigue and Turkey has slowed down its reform process. From your research, though, my impression is that the Arab world has high hopes in that regard. Would you explain this?
The years of 1999 and 2004 are important milestones in that regard. In 1999, the EU gave Turkey candidate status at their Helsinki Summit, and EU leaders agreed in December 2004 to start accession negotiations with Turkey. Before, Arabs did not support the idea that the EU would give candidate status to Turkey and would start the accession process. In 1999 and 2004, the Arab world saw that both the EU and Turkey were serious. After 2004, Arab intellectuals started to discuss how Turkey's membership in the EU would benefit the Arab world. They also analyze the reasons behind the reluctance of the EU to take Turkey in. They say that the reasons behind the EU's hesitance are Turkey's religion and culture. The Arab intellectuals voice concern that the EU has been hypocritical by not accepting Turkey because while the EU has been calling for respect for and acceptance of differences, it has not been practicing that. The Arab world intellectuals hold the EU accountable for that.
How would Turkey's membership in the EU benefit the Arab world?
The first benefit relates to democratic development. The second is that the EU would have dialogue with Arabs through Turkey, as the EU's borders would touch the Middle East. When Arabs go to Turkey, they would also go to the EU, approaching Europe culturally, economically and socially. This is true for Europeans as well. They would approach the Middle East more. In other words, Turkey would enter the EU as a locomotive, pulling several carriages consisting of the Middle Eastern countries. The important thing is that the EU perception about this and the European understanding that this is a good thing.
How do you think this would benefit the EU? There are a lot of Europeans who support not coming closer to the Middle East because they see the area as unstable and unpredictable.
When you look at the advantages of globalization, it already brings the EU closer to the Middle East. The EU has to have more contact with the Middle East. And Turkey would help to further strengthen ties and increase dialogue between the EU and the Middle East. The Europeans and the Arabs should mutually seek ways of compromise and dialogue.
‘Turkey’s relations with Arab world improved a lot’
When do you think the traditional Arab perceptions of Turkey started changing?
During the leadership of Turgut Özal, Turkey's relations with the Middle East improved. Turkey had neglected the Middle East before. Özal mostly established economic ties with the Gulf states at the time. But Turkey and the Arab world have had long-term grudges against each other, and that could not be overcome overnight. So the relations have had ups and downs. For example, Turkey and Syria did not have good relations because of the problem of terrorism. Another example is the water dispute, especially between Iraq and Turkey. But such problems do not exist today anymore. Turkey has signed agreements with Syria and Iraq over water in the past regarding how much water Turkey would release to these countries. Today, Turkey releases more water than necessitated in these agreements especially because it has largely completed the Southeastern Anatolia Project [GAP], consisting of several reservoirs.
And Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999…
In the 1990s, Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East was dominated by security concerns until the capture of Öcalan. There was a power vacuum in northern Iraq because of the Iran-Iraq War and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and then the Gulf War. The PKK used the region for terrorist operations against Turkey. The PKK was also attacking Turkey from its bases in Syria. Turkey and Syria had come to the brink of war as Turkey threatened to go to war with Syria. Syria then expelled Öcalan and he was captured in Nairobi and sent to Turkey. Then, following the death of Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad in 2000, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer attended his funeral in Syria, which had a positive effect in Turkish-Syrian relations. Turkey has had a new government since 2002, and there have been new policies.
Samir Salha, professor of international relations
Born in Midyat, he completed his primary and university education in Beirut and did his doctoral studies at Sorbonne University, where he focused on political science and international relations. He taught at Dicle University in Turkey from 1989 to 1999. At Kocaeli University since then, he is currently the head of the public law department and the international law section. Among his books are “The Problem of Asi River in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon Relations” (1995) and “Judiciary and Political Specifications of the Arab League” (1996). He writes a weekly column at the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. He also writes opinion pieces for Turkish dailies such as Zaman and Yeni Şafak.
How was the Arab world's perception of this new government of the AK Party then?
The Arab world was divided about how much credit should be given to the AK Party government. At the beginning, the more liberal countries, such as Syria, the North African countries and Lebanon were supportive. Then the Arab monarchies started to cooperate with Turkey. Even though the monarchies established a trusting relation with Turkey later than the liberal states, their relations with Turkey have speedily increased. Such countries as Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have economic, social, educational and cultural ties with Turkey. There are even strategic ties. The AK Party has had an even more active foreign policy in the Arab world since the 2007 elections. And there are even more courageous steps taken in that regard.
Would you give examples of that?
Turkey and Syria have had joint military exercises. This is a huge step forward considering that the two countries were about to go to war some 10 years ago. Another example concerns Lebanon. In the past, Turkey did not have direct relations with Lebanon and its relations with Lebanon were through Syria. But today the Turkish military is in the peace forces in Lebanon [a Turkish unit in United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)]; Turkey was the first country to condemn Israel's military operations in 2006 in Lebanon; Turkey has been acting as a mediator to resolve disputes between Syria and Lebanon; and Turkey had close contact with Lebanese groups, political leaders and political parties to help to strengthen Lebanon's stability in the election process in June. These are important developments. And the latest example would be Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's visit to Lebanon. But the Turkish media have not covered the visit extensively as much as the Arab media.
What do you think was the significance of Davutoğlu's first visit to Lebanon as the foreign minister of Turkey at the end of July?
The Turkish foreign minister went to have breakfast with the Turkish peace forces in south Lebanon in the morning, then he had lunch in Beirut and later he had dinner with Turkmens in the only Turkmen village of Lebanon [Kuvasra] in the north of the country. It was a remarkable visit.
Salha: Arab world watching developments regarding Kurds
“Arab perspectives change from one country to another. Most Arab states have been watching Turkey's approach to the Kurdish issue carefully but have not fully analyzed it. The Arab world would favor a solution which would take regional concerns into consideration. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is still fresh in their minds. Considering the reasons for the invasion, the situation in Iraq in 2009 is unnerving. So, foreign interventions are not desired in the Middle East. The question is whether or not the Kurdish question will be resolved within the borders of Turkey or not. The Middle Eastern states are closely watching the developments.”
Al-Jazeera representative Yousef Al Sharif says Turkey has changed a lot in the past 15 years
“I've been living in Turkey for 18 years. I have observed the magnitude of change that the country has gone through not only in the economic sphere but also in the areas of democratization. People in Turkey might be surprised to hear this, but Turkey's relations with the EU have been progressing fast. I say this as someone who saw the situation at the beginning of the 1990s. …
“When it comes to relations between Turkey and the Arab world, many of the problems of the past, like the flow of water from rivers originating in Turkey, are not problems any more today. Turkish officials work to make sure Iraq and Syria have enough water. There is more cooperation between the two than conflict. …
“What separates Turkey from its Arab neighbors is that Turkish people are not as prone to violence. Turkish people favor dialogue more than violence in comparison to Arab people. In addition, Turkish people are open to change and are more pragmatic as opposed to the Arab people, who perceive change and new things as a threat. …
“Arabs discover that there is more in Turkey than İstanbul. They now go to the provinces of Trabzon, Bodrum, İzmir and the Mediterranean resorts in addition to İstanbul.”