Turkey and the Obama Visit: “He Gave Me Water!”


Obama did what was expected, dispensing good luck charms for all.  What he left behind is a state of delirium, a la the Hunchback of Notre Dame: “He gave me water.”

Even though some of Obama’s gestures during the visit — such as Obama reminding the young people he was chatting with of the time for Muslim prayer — have drawn a lot of interest, there is nothing extraordinary about them.  Such cleverly staged acts are no new inventions.  When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he took on the role of the patron of Islam.  In 1857, during the Sepoy Rebellion in India, the British asked the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid to intervene as the Caliph of the Muslims to help suppress the rebellion.  At the end of the 19th century, Obama’s predecessors also came to Sultan Abdülhamid II to ask him to use his authority as the Caliph to get the Muslims of the Philippines to support the United States.  None of this, however, helped prevent the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

We need not go that far back in history.  Throughout the Cold War, the whole Western world, under the leadership of the United States, used Islam endlessly.  A part of the conspiracy called Ergenekon in Turkey is rooted in this dirty alliance.1  Then, even as the curtain finally came down on the Cold War, the radical Islamic ideology and organizations were nurtured and supported to the end — the path that led to the founding of Al Qaida.  Now that radical Islam has aimed its guns at the United States and the West, the project has become pacifying it.

Some Turks may say: “The past is past.  At this point in time, isn’t this the best for us?  This mission turns us into a world-class actor.  Would it be so bad to be part of the solution?”  The problem with this line of thinking is that the project to which we are asked to contribute has nothing to do with peace and the welfare of humanity.  Neither is the issue just Islam.  The project is one of dividing up the world.  What needs to be done, first of all, is to ask: “Why, for what, and for whom are we getting involved?”  Second, remember that, in this kind of involvement, it is often countries such as ours that pay the highest price.

Look at the present state of Pakistan, which was assigned the role of helping get the Soviets out of Afghanistan.  The country became a frontline of jihad, attracting radical jihadists from all over the world, which has destroyed its delicate internal social and political balances.  The Pakistanis have received no other reward for the role they played in the Cold War except for a phone call after 9/11 threatening that they either join the U.S or be “bombed back to the stone age.”

Turkey has also been one of the countries in the “Green Belt.”  Our mission was to form a shield of “moderate Islam” against the influences of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the region and to back the U.S. in filling the vacuum left in Central Asia with the departure of the Soviet Union.  Those groups and interests in Turkey who cooperated with one another on such projects through the “deep state” back then have since started fighting one another.  They still have not resolved their differences.

Leave alone interrogating this cooperation with global plunderers in the name of humanity; even at the level of realpolitik, there is still a desperate need for a long, serious questioning of these issues.  Much as the Turkish government expects gains from such cooperation, there is a need to calculate what is to be lost in working with those at the summit of world power.  Countries participating in these grand projects often face deep fragmentation of their internal politics.  Thinking about and dealing with the implications of this is hardly ever the concern of the world powers trying to order the world around their own interests.  It is always the job of countries like Pakistan, now facing the threat of being “bombed back to the stone age” as it cannot take a firm position against the Taliban given its internal balance of power.  Even before getting to this point, the political environment of the country may have already acquired a medieval quality through conflicts and internal fragmentation of society.

In politics, extreme cynicism can have a pacifying impact leading to inaction and immobilization.  The acceleration of international politics is unforgiving for those slow to respond, let alone unable to act.  On the other hand, it also does not help to be too reckless merely for the sake of adjusting to the speed of world politics.

Have I drawn too pessimistic a picture?  The concerns I have tried to express would make better sense if we read some history and look at what is happening around us in the region at this point of historical rupture.  Collectively, whatever we do, let us first abandon the Hunchback complex and stop sleep-talking: “He gave me water.”

1  Translator’s Note: Ergenekon is the term used for the last two years in Turkey to refer to the Turkish gladio, an ultra-nationalist group with strong ties to the military and security forces, currently being accused of several acts of conspiracy.  Because of its strong alleged links to the state, it is also referred to as the “deep state.”  Here the author is referring to the role of Ergenekon in the founding of the Turkish Hezbullah, a terrorist Islamist group (unrelated to the Lebanese Hezbullah).

Nuray Mert is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul University in Turkey.  She has regular columns in the Turkish dailies Radikal and Hürriyet.  This article has been translated from her article “Bana Su Verdi!” (“[He] Gave Me Water”) published in Radikal on 9 April 2009.  Translation by Sedef Arat-Koç, Associate Professor, Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.