While the world focusses its attention on the Arab revolution and China detains dissident artists –– Ai Weiwei is only the most iconic case in point –– Turkey is quietly exerting its influence in different regions and on different nations.
Firstly, Turkey’s influence can be detected in the Arab revolution. Although Turkey carefully avoided direct involvement in the Jasmine revolution that swept the Arab world –– Turkey’s cautious and conservative attitude toward NATO airstrikes in Libya forms the exception –– the Turkish political model has become a hot topic of discussions among Arab Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. As Shadi Hamid made clear in a recent article published in Foreign Affairs, major Islamist organizations in the Middle East have expressed the desire for Islamist parties to seek positive participation in the secular and democratic countries that sprung up in the aftermath of the Jasmine revolution. It is ironic that in the religious heartland of Saudi Arabia, a royal dictatorship backed by the West, a secular Turkey is providing political inspiration to religious Muslims. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire in making a return, albeit in a different way and in a different context.
Secondly, also in the Middle East, Turkey exerts an influence on Iran. As Western countries arrogantly practice double standards and hypocrisy regarding the development of nuclear technology –– think Israel’s nuclear arsenal –– Iran has found in Turkey a quite reliable and trustworthy partner, even if it’s applying for EU membership. Despite the Western rejection of Turkey’s proposal for Iranian uranium enrichment, Turkey and Iran seem to have reached agreements on many issues.
Thirdly, Turkish influence in the NATO, and by extension on the West, is evident. Libya provides only the most recent case in point. Turkey opposed unilateral military action by the French and insisted on joint operations under the leadership of the NATO. The West and Israel regard American and Israeli relations with Turkey as exemplary relationships between a Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Americans, Arabs, Jews, and Persians find in Turkey a model country –– a religiously, politically, and ethnically diverse island in a disorderly Middle East.
But the Turkish influence spreads far beyond the Middle East. The Uyghurs of China, ethnic and religious brethren of the Turks, have long regarded Turkey as the remote motherland. Many Uyghur nationalist movements operate out of Turkey. The Uyghurs residing in China, especially the middle class, imitate a real or imagined Turkish lifestyle in silent protest against Chinese suppression. To enjoy traditional Uyghur foods in an Eden (“Yidian”) restaurant represents the modernity the Uyghurs wish for and practice in China.
It’s amazing that China has sought to improve its relationship with Turkey in recent years. It may come as a surprise that China received the Turkish Foreign Minister for a visit to Uyghur communities shortly after Prime Minister Erdogan voiced harsh criticism of China’s handling of the ethnic violence that struck Ürümqi in 2009. More recently, on a visit of a Muslim delegation of the China Islamic Association to Turkey, the two countries signed an agreement on the training of Chinese Imams, which will take place in Turkey in the future.
China and Turkey are negotiating more and more agreements on education, trade and transportation, the military, and so on. The purpose of China’s approach to Turkey is not completely clear. If China needs help from Turkey to deal with the Uyghur issue, then China’s comprehensive engagement with Turkey may indicate the start of a strategic Middle Eastern diplomacy centered on Turkey –– not unlike the Islamist, the Christian, and the Zionist strategy. Saudi Arabia and Iran form another two pivots in this strategy.
Turkey benefits enormously from its geographic and ideological context. A new and modern Turkey is being reborn as a mini Ottoman Empire at the heart of the Eurasian continent, thanks in part to support from China.