Turkey no more ‘Sick Man’ of Europe
by Madanjit Singh Ahluwalia on 17 Sep 2018 4 Comments

In 1853, the British press dubbed Turkey the “Sick man of Europe”. Towards the end of that century, Punch magazine published a cartoon of a puzzled Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in full military regalia, sword strapped to his side, staring at a public poster announcing the reorganization of his empire by three directors - Britain, France and Russia. The poster listed the value of the Turkish Empire as five million pounds.


In 1920, after World War I, Britain and France dictated the terms of the Treaty of Sevres whereby Turkey was to be reduced to a miniscule, itsy-bitsy state. The vast Turkish Empire was to be carved into a number of new countries. It was planned that these countries would be ruled by governments that would be utterly dependent on Western Europe for survival. This was to be accomplished by elevating one faction, preferably a minority inside the new country, over all the others.


While some of those European arrangements survive to this day, in the case of Turkey itself things did not go as designed. Kemal Mustapha Atatürk, with Mustafa Ismet Inonu, Mustafa Fevzi Çakmak and Kâzim Fikri Özalp at his side, thwarted the planners in London and Paris.  After that, the new Turkish leadership boldly attempted to ‘re-do” their nation, so as to make it stronger and avoid a repetition of what had recently occurred. They did that by duplicating the West European system of industry, finance, commerce, governance and military organization. They also throttled the role of religion in the nation’s affairs. 


For the next eighty years, the Turkish ship-of-state that Kemal Atatürk had so bravely and successfully forged, sailed on this new course. However, throughout those eighty years, Turkey’s five thousand year old identity would suddenly burst onto the scene, receiving a tumultuous applause from many.  It was as though Hattusa, Hisarlik and Istanbul had come to rally the Turkish people. Finally, the military Pashas, intensely proud and patriotic Turks, would be forced to relinquish power to other Turks, equally proud and patriotic, quite impatient to restore their beloved country to its native ways and genius, brushing aside the imported model, fully convinced of the wholesomeness and greatness of their own civilization. For some, the policies of the Justice and Development Party are contradictory to the policies laid down by Atatürk. A strong case can be made that its policies are a continuation of his policies.


Presently, Turkey is dealing simultaneously with the situation in Syria and a crisis on the economic front. Perhaps a full withdrawal from Syria is likely as Turkey deals with its economic problems and forges alliances in new places. A strong, centralized Syria would normally allay Turkey’s apprehensions about the loyalties and direction of its own sizeable Kurdish population. It is a bridge under the water now, but Erdogan and the AKP had tried, till recently, to integrate the Kurds more fully by fulfilling some of their wishes.


Also, the Turkish leadership probably got blindsided in Syria by what had happened recently in Libya. When the riots started in Syria, the Turks probably thought that Bashir Al-Assad was a “goner” and acted accordingly. Prior to that, Erdogan and Davutoglu had tried earnestly to befriend the Syrians with their “zero problem” policy.


On the economic front, Erdogan and much of Turkey’s elite appear determined to not capitulate to Western economic and political demands. Is it possible that he may be able to pull off a “Mohamad Mahathir” maneuver and steer the Turkish economy into calm waters, ignoring the prescriptions and prognostications of G-7 experts and some powerful international organisations? 


As Turkey proceeds with its version of “Make Turkey Great Again” and becomes a powerful state, existing alliances and arrangements in Europe and Asia will come under strain. Its location at the crossroads of commerce and civilizations, and the historical record of its people, give Turkey many advantages. Perhaps Israel’s Turkey file is slated to become much thicker than its Iran file, the one with which it is now preoccupied.


As Western Europe’s economies are decisively overhauled by national economies in Asia and Africa, the ongoing transformation of Turkey will be replicated on the world stage. The military tool, which was the sole basis for European success across the globe for two hundred years, will no longer be available to just one side. A part of the credit for Europe’s success must surely be given to the integrity of its ordinary citizens (distinguishable from the elite) who man the front desks in local city halls, police precincts, custom warehouses and central government offices.


The ongoing alteration between Turkey and some other nations is only a small part of the larger picture of what is to unfold. As an observer, one is struck by the tremendous pride that the Turks have in their nation. Perhaps that pride is going to be the major factor in how matters are finally resolved. One recalls Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who declared in the 1970s: “We will eat grass but Pakistan will have its nuclear bomb.” That came to pass.


There is one important difference though, which will bear watching. Bhutto was not a committed Muslim, as revealed by his reply when asked about his fondness for imbibing spirits. However, though Erdogan and his colleagues are devout, proud, practicing Muslims, in very important positions, not much is known about their personal beliefs. As an Indian Sikh who listens with rapt attention to Bulley Shah and bows his head in respect when passing the mazaars of Muslim pirs, one is very aware that there are forms of Islam other than Wahhabi and Salafi. Time will tell which path Turkey of Hattusa takes in the next few years.


The author is a retired naval officer 

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