In the aftermath of Israel’s disastrous raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists, the extremely complex current situation has at its epicentre not only the disproportionate and absurd moves by Israel’s highly combative right-wing government. At the heart of the problem – which is more historical than short-term political in nature – is the largest and most powerful nation in the Middle East, Turkey. After all, most of the ships in the flotilla set sail from the Turkish coast and from Cyprus. The expedition was organised and funded mainly by IHH, a Turkish fundamentalist NGO. Its flagship was flying the Turkish flag, and the vast majority of the hundred-odd activists on board and the nine victims killed by Israeli naval commandos were Turks.

So word has it that after almost 60 years of economic, political and military alliances between the two countries, this raid marks the beginning of a war between Israel and Turkey. Actually, although indirect, it was the most visible and shocking nadir in the long-declining curve of Ankara’s relations with the state of Israel, its neighbour, but also with the West as a whole. What we are now seeing is a strong and vital country with a population of 80 million, which for decades served as NATO’s stronghold in the Middle East and whose army is considered second only to that of the US, turning its back on the North Atlantic world.

The Sirens of Islamic fundamentalism

Though the Turkish nation was technically Europeanised and secularised by Kemal Atatürk after World War I, its gradual metamorphosis and return to Islam began in 1989 with the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War. The dissolution of the rival blocs reopened the prospects, at once unexpected and ancestral, of Ankara’s hegemonic penetration into the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, and the Islamic republics of the ex-USSR. Its rapprochement with Syria and its initially cautious and later overt overtures to Iran subsequently completed this psychological, political and religious evolution from an unfinished Europeanisation process to a reforging of atavistic ties to Asia. The government, while retaining a prudent and secretive approach, began playing a tighter game in 2002 when the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, led by the skilful and arrogant Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his team-mate Abdullah Gül, now prime minister and president respectively.

Erdogan immediately embarked on long and difficult negotiations for Turkish accession to the European Union, which the Americans – unlike many Europeans – endorsed as a way to keep the country within the NATO fold. But that was also the beginning of some extremely ambiguous wheeler-dealing. It wasn’t quite clear where Erdogan and his party aimed to steer post-modern Turkey. While the often fanaticised Anatolian populations were succumbing to the Sirens of Islamic fundamentalism, Machiavellian Erdogan made some commitments to Brussels and a number of pledges on civil rights issues that went against the grain of the national and nationalist tradition: viz. abolition of capital punishment, suspension of efforts to make adultery a criminal offence, kid-glove treatment of the Kurds, and reaching out to Armenian Christians struggling for acknowledgment of the genocide.

Erdogan, re-Asianising Turkey

Erdogan and Gül, who would appear in public accompanied by their scrupulously veiled wives, gave the impression not so much of desiring a rapprochement with Europe as of using Europe to divest themselves – by invoking European stipulations and demands – of the historical and parallel power of the Kemalists, who have been present in Turkish institutions and society since the 1920s. The commissioners and MEPs in Brussels deliberately and short-sightedly exported an excessive brand of democratic moralism: they had a tendency to look down on the generals and magistrates as a single caste that carried out coups, regardless of the fact that such coups during the 1980s put an end to confused and faltering parliaments and this for short transitional periods.

For Erdogan, it was indispensable to strike a hard enough blow to reduce their importance as the guarantors and guardians of Mustafa Kemal’s secular legacy, in order to turn back and, to a certain extent, re-Asianise Turkey, which would then become the leader of the Muslim countries in the region. He has made clever use of European rules to chip away at the Europeanism of the secular junta. It is not by chance that on 22 February he ordered the arrest of over 40 army dignitaries, 14 of whom were top brass. So it comes as no surprise that Erdogan should rally to the cause of the activists aboard the pacifistic flotilla’s flagship, condemning the Israeli raid as an “act of piracy” and “state terrorism”.