Can Turkey Lead the Muslim World?


Stephen Kinzer, author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds and one of the United States’ most knowledgeable Turkophiles, has an optimistic op-ed in today’s Boston Globe about the recent normalization agreement between Turkey and Armenia and Turkey’s potential as a regional power.
Kinzer is very optimistic about Turkey’s potential to be a leader and peace-builder in the Middle East and Central Asia. He identifies Cyprus as the one remaining obstacle to Turkey’s ascension on the world stage.
He hastens to add that Turkey needs to sort out its own domestic social contract before it can assume the kind of leadership role that Kinzer envisions. Indeed, achieving balances among freedom and security; Islamists and secularists; and military and civilian leadership remain huge challenges – but this week’s agreement with Armenia is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
From the article:

For nearly all of its 86 years as a state, Turkey has kept a low profile in the world. Those days are over. Now Turkey is reaching for a highly ambitious regional role as a conciliator and peacemaker.
When Turkish officials land in bitterly divided countries like Lebanon or Afghanistan or Pakistan, every faction is eager to talk to them. No country’s diplomats are as welcome in both Tehran and Jerusalem, Moscow and Tblisi, Damascus and Cairo. As a Muslim country intimately familiar with the region around it, Turkey can go places, engage partners, and make deals that the United States cannot.
This new Turkish role holds tantalizing potential. Before Turkey can play it fully, though, it must put its own house in order. That is one reason its leaders were so eager to resolve their country’s dispute with Armenia.
Turkey has one remaining international problem to resolve: Cyprus. Then it must solidify its democracy at home. That means lifting restrictions on free speech and fully respecting minority rights not just those of Kurds, whose culture has been brutalized by decades of repression, but also those of Christians, non-mainstream Muslims, and unbelievers.
Under other circumstances, Egypt, Pakistan, or Iran might have emerged to lead the Islamic world. Their societies, however, are weak, fragmented, and decomposing. Indonesia is a more promising candidate, but it has no historic tradition of leadership and is far from the center of Muslim crises. That leaves Turkey. It is trying to seize this role. Making peace with Armenia was an important step. More are likely to come soon.

You can read the entire article here.
— Ben Katcher


15 comments on “Can Turkey Lead the Muslim World?

  1. WigWag says:

    Well to be fair, BlameGame, once a person has been dead for 74 years like Lawrence has, it takes a particularly well refined “gaydar” to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was actually gay. But I think the evidence is pretty convincing.
    To be fair, Lawrence never admitted to being homosexual. In his only comment on the subject, he said that that while he did not find homosexuality morally wrong he did find it “distasteful.” In addition, after his death, most of Lawrence’s friends denied that he was gay even though he never married.
    I don’t find these denials particularly compelling. After all, when he was a teenager and probably just becoming aware of his sexual preferences, Queen Victoria was still the Monarch of his country; she had a famous aversion for homosexuality. In addition, when Lawrence was a young boy of 7, Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted of “the crime that dare not speak its name.” If he was gay, all of this provided Lawrence with a powerful incentive to deny his sexual preferences.
    Whether he was gay or not, there is little doubt that Lawrence had a taste for sadomasochism. As I mentioned in a previous comment, there is considerable doubt about whether the claim he made of being raped by the Turks after he was captured at Deraa was true. Several Lawrence biographers say the time-frame of the incident that he described made no sense. Also, the Ottoman Commander he accused of sodomizing him went on to live a blameless life. Moreover, there is a well documented history of Lawrence hiring people to whip him. This is something he did right up until the time of his fatal motorbike accident.
    Most interesting is his relationship with the young Syrian boy who served as his personal assistant, Selim Ahmed. There are two versions of how Ahmed first came to serve Lawrence. The “official” version suggests that Lawrence met Ahmed when he was conducting a pre-war archeological dig at Carchmish. Lawrence immediately began calling Ahmed his “Dahoum” (dark boy) and teaching him English. They were inseparable until Lawrence went back to England in 1914 to begin planning his role in the War effort. When he returned he discovered that Ahmed had died of Typhus.
    The second version of how Lawrence met Ahmed is more interesting but may be apocryphal. Some people claim that Ahmed was a gift to Lawrence made by Al Hussein, then the Hashemite Emir of Mecca, King of the Hijaz and King of the Arabs. Al Hussein was a rival of the Al Saud clan although both Hussein and his Al Saud kinsmen fought bravely against the Ottoman Turks at Lawrence’s side. Interestingly Al Hussein is also the great, great grandfather of the current Hashemite King of Jordan, King Abdullah, II.
    Regardless of how Lawrence actually met Ahmed the relationship between them was particularly close. Was it a homosexual relationship? It’s hard to know for sure.
    But Lawrence did dedicate his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” to “SA.” Could “SA” have been someone else? Possibly, but no one else close to Lawrence except for Selim Ahmed shared those initials.
    The dedication that Lawrence made to “SA” at the beginning of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” went like this,
    “I loved you so I drew these tides of men into my hands
    and wrote my will across the sky in stars
    to earn you freedom, the seven pillared worthy house,
    that your eyes might be shining for me
    when we came.
    Death seemed my servant on the road till we were near
    and saw you waiting;
    When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy outran me
    and took you apart
    Into his quietness
    Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage
    ours for the moment
    Before earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind
    worms grew fat upon
    Your substance
    Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house,
    as a memory of you.
    But for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished: and now
    The little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
    in the marred shadow
    Of your gift.”
    Remember, the dedication was written in 1926 to a 15 year old boy (then deceased for 10 years) Lawrence knew when he was 23.
    Putting two and two together, the possibility that Lawrence was gay doesn’t sound so far fetched to me.


  2. Blame-Game says:

    WigWag, I seriously doubt that Lawrence of Arabia was a homosexual. If he was, the Arabs would not have considered him to be a leader.


  3. WigWag says:

    “He identifies Cyprus as the one remaining obstacle to Turkey’s ascension on the world stage.” (Ben Katcher)
    Ben Katcher is certainly right; many European nations are vociferous in criticizing the role that Turkey has played in Cyprus and they’ve been harping on it ever since the Turkish military invaded the island nation in 1974. Many nations that don’t want Turkey admitted to the European Union use its position on Cyprus as an excuse to exclude Turkey even though if Cyprus wasn’t an issue, they would almost certainly find some other excuse.
    Ben Katcher is knowledgeable about these things; maybe he can explain why the European Union has one opinion about the proper resolution in Cyprus but a completely opposite opinion about the proper resolution of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo.
    In several respects, the situations between Cyprus and Serbia are remarkably similar.
    In Cyprus, the dispute pits Orthodox Christians of Greek descent against Sunni Muslims of Turkish descent. In Kosovo, Orthodox Christians of Serbian descent are pitted against Sunni Muslims of Albanian descent. The Kosovar Albanians were converted to Islam by none other than the Turks.
    In Kosovo, Milosevic attempted to expel tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians; after the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Turks expelled 180 thousand Greek Cypriots from their homes in the North; while 50 thousand Cypriots of Turkish descent left the South of Cyprus to move to the part of the island controlled by the Turkish military.
    Kosovo had always been part of Serbia until the Turks invaded and defeated the Serbs on St. Vitus Day in 1389; in fact prior to being called Kosovo, the territory was called “Old Serbia.” Cyprus had always been a unified nation ruled by a single government until the Turks attacked in 1974.
    For generations, Muslim Kosovars resented being ruled by their Orthodox neighbors; for generations Muslim Cypriots resented being ruled by their Orthodox neighbors.
    Why exactly do the Europeans insist on a “two state solution” for Kosovo and Serbia while at the same time they insist on a “one state solution” for Greek and Turkish Cypriots?
    To be fair to the Turks, they only want what the Europeans claim to want for Kosovo and Serbia and Israel and Palestine; a “two state solution.”
    How can the Europeans object to that?
    Isn’t there a little bit of hypocrisy going on here?


  4. Imad says:

    Wigwag, according to the History of Modern Palestine, by Ilan pappe, only Iraq expelled their Jewish population, the vast majority of the Jews from the Arab states left voluntarily. Take it as you wish, i realise that Pappe is a pretty controversial character himself.
    Personally, I don’t think that Indonesia has less viability to being a leader in the Muslim world. I would have viewed its absence in the Middle East crises as a plus, not a negative, since it can be more impartial. But it’s not at all up to speed when it comes to GDP, illiteracy, poverty, mortality rates, etc. But it does, as pointed out, have a lot of promise.


  5. ErvD says:

    “Arabs do not look to anyone, Turk or Jewish, for leadership.” Why are Iranians (not Arabs) and Hezbollah (Shia) so popular among Arabs in the region?
    You have no idea what you are talking about, do you!?
    Also, Arabs expelled many Jews from their countries after 1948. Trying to put it as if that was done “after WWII” was cheap and stupid.


  6. WigWag says:

    “Well said, Wigwag. Arabs do not look to anyone, Turk or Jewish, for leadership.” (JohnH)
    I couldn’t agree more. There’s very little evidence that Arabs liked Jews very much; after all, the Arab nations oppressed and eventually expelled millions of Jews after World War II. This is in stark contrast with Turkey where the Ottomans treated the Jews relatively well for hundreds of years.
    And of course, the Ottoman Turks included Arab lands in their imperium for several centuries. It’s not surprising that eventually the Arabs came to detest their imperial overlords.
    Despite the fact that T.E. Lawrence was extremely strange; the Arabs owe him almost everything. As you, yourself said in your earlier comment, “historically, the big regional players were Istanbul, Persia, and Egypt.”
    You are precisely right. In fact, before Lawrence there were exactly two Arab nations, Egypt and “everyone else.”
    Of course, both the Egyptians and the “everyone else” Arabs had a problematic relationship with both the Persians and the Turks for almost a thousand years.
    It’s ironic, don’t you think, that a homosexual Anglican with sadomasochistic fantasies who studied at Oxford should be the George Washington of the Arabs?


  7. JohnH says:

    Well said, Wigwag. Arabs do not look to anyone, Turk or Jewish, for leadership.
    However, if you take longevity as your yardstick for measuring success of a colonial empire, it’s tough to match the Turks. Now that the days of colonialization of mostly over, the Turks may yet take advantage of their incredible geo-strategic position and budding talent at soft power to take a leadership role again. Sad that Israel has neither, and may end up in Turkey’s shadow.


  8. WigWag says:

    “Wigwag, the Arabs were not under an onerous yoke at the time of the Arab Rebellion! Their life was not fantastic but most of the credit for stirring up trouble has to go to the British and the aforementioned Lawrence who sold the Arabs a pack of a lies (though to be fair, he didn’t seem to be aware they were lies).” (MNPundit)
    That may be your view, MNPundit, but it was not the view of the Arabs. You may not think they were particularly oppressed by the Turks; but they thought they were.
    The historical account of the period that most people rely on is TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and Lawrence was notorious for “skewing” the facts. So untrustworthy was Lawrence that George Bernard Shaw famously quipped that he is “no monster of veracity.”
    But despite this, most of the historical evidence reveals that what Lawrence imparted to the Arab tribes was not the “desire” to free themselves from the Turks, but the sense that they had the “means” to free themselves from the Turks.
    To show how crazy Lawrence really was, there is a detailed section in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” where he describes how he was captured, tortured and raped by the Ottoman Turks at Derra. The only problem is that it has been proven that the incident never occurred; it was little more than a sadomasochistic fantasy. Many of his contemporaries, including the famous General Allenby considered Lawrence to be a charlatan and Allenby took to calling him “our Sodomite Saint.”
    Of course, in many ways Lawrence is the father of the modern Arab nation but he also stoked great dissension within the Arab community. He famously backed the Hashemites over the Al Sauds; Allenby believed at the time it was because the Hashemtes supplied Lawrence more liberally with young boys.
    You are certainly right, MNPundit, that Lawrence whipped the Arabs up into a nationalist frenzy against the Turks. After all, Lawrence was a privileged member of the British Empire, and right before the Arab revolt, the Turks had handed the Empire a devastating and embarrassing defeat at Gallipoli.
    But while Lawrence trained and organized the Arabs; their animosity if not hatred towards the Turks was real and abiding.
    Besides, the Arabs believed that once the British had helped them defeat the Turks, the British would leave and hand them their autonomy. No one was more surprised than the Arabs when the “mandate” given to the British Empire by the League of Nations turned into a long-lived imperial occupation.
    By the way, I am not suggesting that this history makes it impossible for modern day Arab nations to look towards Turkey for leadership. I’m just saying that I am somewhat skeptical that in the long run, Arabs will look to anyone but Arabs for leadership.


  9. JohnH says:

    Historically, the big regional players were Istanbul, Persia, and Egypt. Today’s Israel was just a blip on the radar, stops on a trade route or a destination for pilgrimages and crusades. Over time, I expect the current anomaly to return to its historic norm.


  10. Paul Norheim says:

    The implication of this is that all the talk about Iran as the ME hegemon may be
    highly exaggerated. Perhaps one may regard this more as a future rivalry/alliance
    building between three big regional players: Turkey, Iran and Israel – a bit akin
    to the historical rivalries between countries like England, France, Austria and
    Russia, and with a huge potential for conflicts. The difference, however, is that
    this time there will be even bigger players (USA, China, India, Russia…)
    supporting the respective players in the region.


  11. MNPundit says:

    My attempt to make the passage I reposted a quote was a failure, I apologize for the poor formatting.


  12. MNPundit says:

    Posted by PissedOffAmerican, Oct 15 2009, 10:33AM – Link
    All they gotta do is set a few honey traps for US Congress people, and bribe those Congressmen they can’t blackmail. With the able assistance of a United States government that is so corrupt that it dare not investigate such crimes, in fear of implicating BOTH sides of the aisle, such espionage can continue without fear of ionvestigation[sic] of retribution. And it always helps to promise the American traitors a lucrative lobbying position with the Turkish governmentAh! The AIPAC way, well it is quite effective.
    Wigwag, the Arabs were not under an onerous yoke at the time of the Arab Rebellion! Their life was not fantastic but most of the credit for stirring up trouble has to go to the British and the aforementioned Lawrence who sold the Arabs a pack of a lies (though to be fair, he didn’t seem to be aware they were lies).


  13. WigWag says:

    Whether Turkey can lead the Muslim World is a very interesting question. Thanks to Ben Katcher for this extremely interesting post and for the link to Stephen Kinzer’s article.
    A couple of thoughts come to mind.
    Thanks in part to Hillary Clinton, Turkey and Armenia have begun the process of reconciling but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that they have actually reconciled. Turkey has still not come to grips with the fact that it committed the first genocide of the 20th century; killing many hundreds of thousands of Armenians. The difference between the way Germany came to grips with its behavior and the way Turkey has confronted its past is like the difference between night and day.
    Katcher didn’t mention it, but Turkey has made an excellent start in trying to repair its relationship with the Kurds. Erdogan and Gul have begun a genuine dialog with the Kurds of Turkey and they have relaxed some of the most onerous restrictions on the Kurds. They should be commended for it because it is safe to assume that this was done in spite of, not because of, the inclinations of Turkey’s armed forces and internal security apparatus.
    Despite the good beginning, Turkey has still not relaxed onerous restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in schools and in governmental operations; but it is good that talks are ongoing.
    Turkey has also done a good job at forging relations with the Iraqi Kurds. Now that the Kurdish Government in Iraq has demonstrated that it is not providing any logistical support for the PKK, the Turks seem motivated to work with them on economic issues especially related to energy.
    On Cyprus, the support of Turkey for the recalcitrant attitude of the Turkish Cypriots is causing consternation all over Europe. Turkey certainly shouldn’t get its hopes up over admission to the EU until this matter is satisfactorily resolved. In my opinion, Turkey is not completely wrong when it comes to Cyprus. I have always wondered why the Europeans have one attitude when it comes to the divisions in Serbia and Kosovo and a completely different approach when it comes to divisions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.
    Before Ben Katcher gets too enthusiastic about Turkish prospects, he should reflect on just how backwards the Turks still are.
    It is true that measured by many development parameters Turkey leads the Muslim world. But this is really more a sign of how backwards the Muslim world is rather than an affirmation of modernity in Turkey. In terms of per capita GDP, Turkey is 61st in the world ($13,139) behind nations such as Botswana, Gabon, Malaysia and Equatorial Guinea. In terms of life expectancy, Turkey comes in at 93rd place, behind both Gaza and the West Bank and behind countries like Egypt, Algeria and Sri Lanka. In terms of infant mortality, Turkey comes in at 110th place with a death rate of 27.5 deaths per 1,000 live births (the rate in the United States is 6.3/1,000). Turkey is behind nations such as Bosnia, Syria, Jordan, Viet Nam and Indonesia. In terms of literacy, Turkey is in 100th place, behind nations like Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Suriname.
    Ben Katcher is right that Turkey is making a play to lead the Muslim World and Turkey’s aspirations seem to welcomed by most Muslim nations. But I can’t help but wonder how durable this support will be, especially amongst the Arab nations. After all, it was less than a century ago that the Arabs united under T.E. Lawrence and the British Empire to throw off the Ottoman yoke.
    The fact that the Arab nations came to hate the British doesn’t diminish the hatred that the Arabs had for the Ottoman Turks whom they butchered with relish under Lawrence’s leadership. An interesting side note given the way homosexuality is viewed in the Muslim World today, is that Lawrence was almost certainly gay and he is reported to have had sexual relations with numerous Arab tribal chiefs, especially from the clans that came to rule Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
    All of this makes me wonder whether the Arabs will be willing to look to leadership from the Turks any more than they are willing to look to leadership from the Persians.
    It will certainly be interesting to watch how all of this plays out.
    Thanks again to Ben Katcher for keeping us informed about Turkey.


  14. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “or” retribution


  15. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Can Turkey Lead the Muslim World?”
    Of course they can. All they gotta do is set a few honey traps for US Congress people, and bribe those Congressmen they can’t blackmail. With the able assistance of a United States government that is so corrupt that it dare not investigate such crimes, in fear of implicating BOTH sides of the aisle, such espionage can continue without fear of ionvestigation of retribution. And it always helps to promise the American traitors a lucrative lobbying position with the Turkish government.


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