Haaretz (Israel), 02/15/2007
By Pierre Besnainou *
The Muslim world deserves a more respectable spokesman than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the extremist and hateful president of Iran. That voice could well belong to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For almost half a century, the Muslim world has been witness to a variety of movements intended to unify it : nationalism that was a response to decolonization ; the pan-Arabist ideologies of Gadhafi, Nasser and Saddam Hussein ; and more recently, the Sunni version of Islamic radicalism typified by Al-Qaida, or the Shi’ite strain whose leader is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The dream of a unified Arab-Muslim world has imperceptibly metamorphized into the utopia of a unified Muslim world, bringing together the Umma, the community of believers. Today, the man who claims to personify this unity is President Ahmadinejad, even though he belongs to a minority within Islam, Shi’ism.
But that’s not the worst of it. The type of rhetoric cultivated by the Iranian leader, which is based largely on the concept of jihad, “holy war,” reflects an attitude of violence never before seen expressed toward the West, and specifically toward the United States and Israel, the latter of which he has threatened with annihilation. This warlike language is perceived as threatening even within the Muslim world, whose moderate regimes fear the creation of a Shi’ite crescent in the Middle East, one that could be a redoubtable force for destabilization. This impression is reinforced by the behavior of Iran’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah, over the past few months.
On Iran’s border, however, at the crossroads of West and East, is a country that manages to subtly maintain a balance between tradition and modernity : Turkey. Turkish society seems to have succeeded in making the transition to modernity by adapting Western values : secularism, freedom of thought and belief, and of course, democracy.
Here is a country that puts paid to all the theories characterizing Islam as incompatible with democracy. On the contrary, while clearly affirming its Muslim culture, Turkey manages to maintain a rights-based regime in the image of Western democracies.
Another measure of the openness of Muslim societies is gained by looking at the relations maintained by their governments with the United States, on the one hand, and Israel, on the other. Even if the Ankara government was in 2003 unwilling to have its territory used by the Anglo-American coalition against the Iraqi regime, partnership with the U.S. remains strong and of strategic importance.
In addition, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, in 1949, and for 30 years it was the only one as well. For several years now, Turkey has been an essential strategic partner to Israel’s foreign policy. It is a partnership based on several pillars : a strong military alliance, a common cause of fighting terrorism, dynamic trade agreements, particularly on the very significant matter of water, not to mention the ongoing fact that the Anatolian peninsula is a favored tourist destination for many Israelis.
Some people believed that the rise to power of a party close to the Islamist movement, Erdogan’s Justice and Development party, would bring that partnership to an end. The contrary is the case, however. Several years after Erdogan became prime minister, it can be said that the Israeli-Turkish alliance is still very much alive. Indeed, even if the speech or the tone sometimes changes, there has been no substantial modification of Turkish policy. In 2005, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul visited Israel, with the purpose of strengthening bilateral relations, and a few months later, it was Prime Minister Erdogan’s turn to visit, a reminder of the friendship of his country toward the Jewish state.
During my own recent visit to Ankara, I told Prime Minister Erdogan that I am convinced of the leading role he can play in the Middle East. Respected by the entire Muslim world, from the Gulf monarchies to the states of Central and Eastern Asia, from the Islamists of Hamas to the moderate Palestinians, Turkey has succeeded in maintaining a strong and loyal partnership with the United States and Israel as well. It thus has the legitimacy to be able to interact with all the influential participants in the area.
This position makes Turkey a natural choice to serve as regional leader, in place of the harmful influence of Iran. Prime Minister Erdogan, who agrees with this analysis, is, without any doubt, willing to work for rapprochement between Palestinians and Israelis. It is now up to us to take this friendly attitude into account, and to evaluate with an open mind the role that Turkey might be able to play in the peace process. This could finally lead to a significant weakening of President Ahmedinejad’s leadership.
This is the reason why Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit in Ankara today is of special importance. That is the reason why the European Union should not brutally turn away from Turkey.
We can only hope that the next Nobel Peace Prize can be bestowed on someone who, within Islam, has succeeded in stopping the progression of hatred and resentment, bringing light and peace over an area plunged into the darkness of violence for too long a time.
* The writer is president of the European Jewish Congress.
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