Tayyip Erdogan is Arab world’s new hero

February 10, 2009
Analysis: Erdogan is Arab world’s new hero
By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI Contributing Editor

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (UPI) — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in the limelight of the international media recently, portrayed as both a hero and a villain.

Erdogan’s star has never shined brighter, though, strangely enough, not in his native Turkey as much as in the Arab world. That in itself is an anomaly, given that memories of the Ottoman rule — which lasted from 1299 to 1923 — still lingers, and often some in the Arab world will recall atrocities committed by the Ottoman Turks as though they happened only yesterday. Indeed, the concept of time in the Middle East can be very different from the Western perception.

On a recent visit to Syria, which only a few years ago had seriously strained relations with Turkey, the Turkish prime minister was told by none other than President Bashar Assad that he was even more popular in Syria than Syria’s own president (an amazing feat, given that the Syrian president traditionally scores above 99 percent of the votes in any election).

The reason for the Turkish prime minister’s sudden rise to stardom in parts of the Arab world? His ardent defense of Hamas during the recent conflict between the militant Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement and Israel. To be sure, while most of the Western world labeled Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” Erdogan was practically alone in championing its cause.

The pivotal moment came last month during a heated debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when, angered by the moderator allowing more time to Peres, Erdogan stormed off the stage, but not before he had a chance to accuse the Israeli president of purposely killing civilians in Gaza.

Erdogan’s reception upon his return to Turkey was that of a conquering hero. Some Turks, however, found their prime minister’s involvement in the Middle East conflict regrettable and contrary to Kemalist philosophy of not getting involved in the Arab world.

But in the Arab world Erdogan’s popularity skyrocketed, particularly given the lack of support extended to Hamas from traditional Arab leaders over the bombing of Gaza — a silence that was almost as deafening as the bombing itself.

Erdogan’s popularity rose even further in the Arab world when he stated that the definition of terrorism should be revisited — obviously making such a statement with Hamas in mind.

“Terrorism, of course, may well be the most contested word in the contemporary political vocabulary,” writes Peter R. Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence and senior lecturer in the department of War Studies at King’s College, London.

“There is no agreed definition of terrorism in international law, nor is there any agreement amongst scholars,” says Neumann in the latest issue of the Adelphi Papers (No. 399) issued by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

As Neumann points out, the proposal for the definition of terrorism as put forward in 2004 by the U.N. High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change defined terrorism as any action “that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

Of course, using that definition of terrorism, the word may be applied just as easily to both sides in the most recent Middle East dispute — all the more reason why a consensus on the designation of the word “terrorism” is unlikely to be agreed upon anytime soon.

Turkey’s support of the militant Palestinian organization was seen as highly controversial in many of the Western world’s capitals. And while the prime minister was given a hero’s welcome at home, many in Turkey saw him as a villain. Not to mention the impact the prime minister’s discourse had in Israel, with whom Turkey has diplomatic relations. Indeed, Erdogan’s popularity went right through the roof — with crowds hailing him from Cairo to Casablanca and beyond.

The Arab street’s reaction to Erdogan’s rush to the defense of the Palestinians should put to rest the misgivings still harbored by some that the Palestinian question is not a major issue in the Arab world and does not act as a rallying cry nor serve as a perfect recruitment poster for the more radical fringe of militant Salafis and Takfiris, such as al-Qaida and its affiliates.

And while Erdogan’s position was not viewed favorably by many, it is important to note that now more so than ever, as Turkey’s star continues to climb — and with it the prestige of Erdogan — Turkey can play a vital role in helping settle the Middle East conflict.

Until recently Turkey tended to avoid getting pulled into the region’s political squabbling. Now that Ankara seems to be concerned by developments in the Middle East, the Europeans and the Americans have criticized the Turkish prime minister’s stance. The intelligent approach, however, would be to encourage Ankara’s participation in the peace process.

Cuneyt Yuksel, a Turkish parliamentarian and vice president of the political and legal affairs department of Turkey’s ruling AK Party, told this reporter that “Turkey only wants to ensure that there will be peace and prosperity in the Middle East.”

Yuksel said that at every meeting with Hamas, his party emphasizes to the Palestinians the “urgency of giving up the gun in exchange for a peaceful dialogue.”

“We keep telling Hamas that they must forget the gun” and devote all their energies toward achieving what they wish for — a state they can call their own. “But,” stresses Yuksel, “Hamas must abandon the gun.”

Every rocket Hamas fires at Israel only serves to further delay the peace process. Every delay in the peace process allows further developments of Israeli settlements. Every development of new Israeli settlements further complicates the peace process. In essence, Erdogan’s entry onto the Middle East stage should be hailed as that of a hero, not booed as that of a villain.



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