A great deal has been written about the failure of the current White House to deal with the Middle East, in general, and the rapidly expanding power and influence of ISIS, in particular.
There has been little comment, however, on America’s allies in the region, specifically Turkey. Turkey, according to U.S. strategists, policy makers, and think tank gurus, is supposed to be the example of modern and tolerant Islam – a Muslim country that is both European and at the same time a window to the Middle East.
Yet, it is none of those things. The Kurds, the Alevis and the Ecumenical Patriarchate – the Great Church in captivity – will all speak to how the Turkish state has failed to achieve its lofty ambitions.
When the Ecumenical Patriarchate authorities need to secure a license to repair a window in a church, it speaks volumes on Turkish state’s intolerance. Denying the Ecumenical Patriarchate the right to train priests, and keeping the Orthodox School at Halki closed is tantamount to religious censorship.
This Turkey is part of NATO. This Turkey is America’s ally. This Turkey is part of the West and this is the Turkey that wants to join the EU. Certainly, these failings do not express the people of Turkey, whose history is intertwined with the West and whose citizens are helpless to challenge the inequities perpetrated by their governments.
The version of Islam practiced by the Turkish state is not that which historically has accepted and offered protection to religious minorities. Indeed, during the Golden Age of Islam, religious toleration and equanimity characterized the Islamic empires.
The present Turkish Government, however, likes the trappings of Islam but not its responsibilities. At the same time, the Ankara regime has failed to demonstrate that it has been worthy of receiving American political, economic, and military support by its failure to volunteer to help the U.S. in the Middle East.
When President Barack Obama was elected, his first trips were to Cairo and Ankara. He ignored Greece, because devoid of history he was not aware of that country’s contribution and sacrifices in the Second World War and also that Turkey remained neutral.
Ankara did declare war on Germany, but only a few days before the German army surrendered. It was the same kind of opportunism that easily enabled Ankara to abandon its alliance with Israel and move closer to Iran.
It was also the type of opportunism that afforded the Turkish Government the ability to avoid joining the American coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War, while at the same time selling contraband to Iraq – including weapons.
What U.S. policy makers have always failed to understand is that just because a country is strategically located, it does not mean that it will complement or aid America’s strategic interests in a particular region.
Remarkably, it was this type of misunderstanding in Washington that facilitated the Obama Administration’s feigned ignorance when Ankara armed the Syrian opposition, which, in effect, became ISIS. How many lives will American policy makers’ strategic misperception cost in the Middle East?
The much-vaunted Turkish Army can easily destroy ISIS, but so far it is remaining in its barracks. Ankara is now hoping that the Kurds will do the fighting against the terrorists who call themselves the new caliphate.
That in itself should move the Islamic Government in Ankara to act and destroy the ISIS abomination. Nevertheless, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s new president, chooses when to get hyper about the dignity of Islam or Turkey, and it is certainly not when it takes courage to act.
Remarkably, the Obama Administration, while in a fog over what to do about ISIS, has forgotten about Turkey. It is asking for British and French support and has even called on the Germans, but so far it has placed no calls to Ankara.
Where is Obama’s faith in the so-called moderate Muslim states or, for that matter, moderate Islam? The fact that the “wise” men and women policy experts think in terms of moderate Islam speaks volumes for the confusion that reigns outside the region about the religion.
There is no such thing as moderate Islam. Islam is what it is and only fanatics and terrorists pervert it to something else, which bears little resemblance to the Muslim faith. Perhaps, this is why the Obama and previous U.S. administrations have confused the role of Turkey in the Middle East.
Turkey has the opportunity to become a constructive frontline state between Islam and Christianity, a place where the convergence of religious differences offer intellectual stimulation and encourage faith.
Under such circumstances, that kind of Turkish state will bring forth the best of both its Ottoman and European heritage. In so doing, it will offer other Muslim countries and Muslims living in non-Muslim countries a mechanism with which to adapt and co-exist in multicultural and multi-religious societies. Returning the Church of Agia Sophia to the Ecumenical Patriarchate will be the first step.
(André Gerolymatos is the Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver)