Turkey plays a pivotal role between the West and the Middle East, says Graham Fuller, author of the recently published book, The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. Mr. Fuller is a former vice chairman of CIA’s National Intelligence Council and previously served 15 years as an intelligence officer in various countries of the Middle East and Asia. In his latest book, he explores how – after a long period of isolation – Turkey is becoming a major player in Middle Eastern politics.
Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Graham Fuller says that people tend to forget that Turkey ran the most extensive Islamic empire in history, lasting for about 600 years. The Ottoman Empire, he notes, stretched from the Balkans to the borders of Iran and included much of the Arab world and North Africa. Mr. Fuller argues the new Turkish republic, now ruled by the “moderately Islamist” Justice and Development Party [known by its Turkish acronym AKP], is returning to a “normal state in the Middle East.” With the Kemalist reforms of modern Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Graham Fuller says, Turkey became a Western-oriented secular state and effectively “turned its back on its entire Islamic past as backward and primitive.”
Graham Fuller explains that “secularism” in Turkey was based on the French model, which meant a “weakening of the role of religion in the state and in society.” That contrasts, he says, with the American model in which the state simply “stays out of religious affairs.” In Turkey, for example, the state “banned certain types of religious practice.” The controversy over whether university women should be allowed to wear the “headscarf,” Mr. Fuller says, is “emblematic,” and it is bound up in the struggle over the proper role of Turkey’s political elite and the “intervention of the military in political affairs.”
Mr. Fuller calls Turkey the first Muslim country in the world to “freely and democratically elect a party with Islamist roots into full national power and to do so without violence.” He suggests that the Turkish public is moving away from the notion that Turkey should be a “loyal ally of the United States, or indeed of anybody.” Mr. Fuller observes that people now see “Turkish interests” and “American interests” as not necessarily the same. He says that “ironically” the ruling AKP is the most “positive towards the West” of any of Turkey’s political parties, some of which are quite anti-American. That’s partly because the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has raised the political prominence of the Kurds there. According to Mr. Fuller, Turkey tends to view the world “through the lens of its own Kurdish problem.” Furthermore, he says, Turkey sees U.S. policy in the greater Middle East as “highly destabilizing” to the region, whereas Ankara is now seeking improved bilateral relations with all its neighbors.
Regarding Ankara’s foreign policy, Mr. Fuller says it no longer revolves around Washington. Turkey’s new government, in fact, is moving towards a “no enemies policy, where they have “good relations with every single neighbor.” Europe, he says, is the major focus of the Turkish economy, but whether – or when – Turkey will become a member of the European Union is not yet clear. Mr. Fuller stresses that an “independent” foreign policy is not incompatible with Turkey’s having good relations with the United States or with EU membership. Furthermore, he says, Turkey now has economic and energy interests in Russia, China, Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Gulf.
Graham Fuller is the author of numerous books on the Muslim World and Islam, including The Future of Political Islam. He is an adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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