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Arabs and Turks: Mending a Broken Relationship

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Turkey launched the Arabic version of its official TV last Sunday. Called "TRT Arabic," the channel is expected to reach 350 million people throughout the Arab world. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who spoke at the opening ceremony, noted that it marked "a historic day for Turkish-Arab friendship," initiating an era of "brotherhood, unity and solidarity" between the two peoples. I share Erdoğan's wishes on this. I also think that we Turks and Arabs need to do a little bit of historical revision to get rid of some of the artificial walls built between us in the past century. On our side, these walls were built mainly by the nationalist ideology of the Turkish Republic. From the late 1920s on, the latter's propaganda machine created two popular myths, by which many Turks were brainwashed. Republican myth-making The first of these was that the Arabs "stabbed us in the back" during World War I. (This stab-in-the-back theme was a popular one among some other nationalists of the time as well.) The story was not totally untrue, for some Arab leaders, such as the Sharif Husayn of Mecca, had indeed collaborated with the British to rebel against Ottoman rule. But many other Arabs took the other way. As Mitchell G. Bard, the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, notes, "most of the Arabs did not fight with the Allies against the Turks in World War I." In fact, as Bard emphasizes with a subtext of his own, "most Arabs fought for their Turkish rulers." The second, and the more untrue, modern Turkish myth was that "Arabization" had been a historic misfortune for the nation. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the great patron of this thesis, asserted that Turks were "a great nation before Islam," and now was the time to discover "the lost civilized traits of the Turk." Hence came the extensive republican effort to revitalize (and actually invent) the glorious history of the ancient "Turkish stock." The historical truth, however, was the exact opposite. The pre-Islamic Turks of Central Asia were a warlike nomadic people with very little trace of cultural sophistication. But the Arabo-Islamic civilization of the medieval age was, in the words of Bernard Lewis, "the richest, most powerful, most creative, most enlightened [civilization] in the world." That's why the "Arabization" of the Turks, i.e., their gradual conversion to Islam from the mid ninth century onwards, was actually an enlightenment for them. It is no accident that all famed Turkish scholars, scientists, poets or thinkers are from the Islamic age, and not the pre-Islamic one. The synthesis of the Turkish military might and the Arabo-Islamic culture would reach its zenith in the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of today's "Middle East" for more than four centuries with relative tolerance, peace and rule of law. The Ottomans, who adopted the Arabic script and enriched Turkish with many Arabic (and Persian) words, respected the Arabs as the descendants of the prophet, calling them "kavm-i necib," or "the honorable people." This affable attitude to the Arabs lasted until the very end of the empire, with only the Young Turk government taking some extreme measures during World War I against Arab nationalism, real or perceived. Particularly the mass executions of some Arab intellectuals in 1916 by Jemal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Syria, left a very black stain. Unfortunately, the post-Ottoman Arab states, especially those in the core of the Middle East, created their own national consciousness by cherry-picking such nasty episodes in the four-century long Ottoman saga. The Cold War added to the problem, by putting us into opposing camps. A story to share However, things are changing. First, Turkey is outgrowing the myths and fears created in early decades of the Republic, and becoming more at peace with its own identity. After being dominated for decades by a wannabe-French elite, the country is now raising political and cultural leaders who are more proud of their nation's place within the Muslim civilization. This doesn't mean that Turkey is turning its face from the West -- something I would strongly oppose. But it does mean that Turkey is "not turning its back to the East anymore," as I heard Erdoğan saying on TV the other day. This also doesn't imply that Turkey will adopt the ways of its Arab neighbors. I am the farthest thing from a nationalist, but I think it is fair to say that we Turks had a better socio-political experience in the 20th century than most of our co-religionists. Unlike most, we were never colonized, and had the chance to experiment with democracy. We also enjoyed proximity to the West, a relatively free economy, and currently an EU accession process. (Who knows where the latter is going, but it has helped so far.) So, perhaps we Turks have a story to share with our Arab brothers about all the complicated questions of modernity. And I am really saying this with a sense of not pride but duty. I know, after all, that what we owe to the Arabs from a millennium ago is unforgettable.
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