Throughout the Middle East where small, subtle gestures like a slightly a raised eyebrow or tilt of the chin are often enough to set armies in motion, a one-word change in school textbooks is like a loud warning shot.
Such a change recently in Egyptian school books was interpreted by many in Turkey as a direct challenge to Turkey’s plans to play a larger role in the region and the Moslem world in general, an attempt to ‘put Turkey in its place.’ It was a not-so-subtle reminder to the Egyptian masses as well as other Arabs that they should be very cautious about accepting Turkey’s new regional pretensions
Like so many issues in the region, this spat has its origins about 500 years ago. The Ottoman Turkish army under Yavuz Sultan Selim conquered Egypt in 1517. The Ottomans stayed nominally in control of Egypt until the 20th century, even if the Ottoman influence had faded to a very tenuous ‘control’ by the late 19th century.
Previously, the Egyptian school books referred to this period of Ottoman influence as a ‘conquest’. Now, a Turkish news agency reports with great alarm that the Egyptian school books now refer to this period as an ‘occupation’ as if to remind people that the Ottoman Empire was, in fact, a non-Arab empire that dominated the Arab world
This change was greeted with glaring headlines as ‘Shameful’. The tone of the story was how ungrateful the Egyptians were being for referring to the Ottomans as occupiers when, really, all they were doing was protecting the Egyptians and improving their living standards.
In this view of the world it’s really only those nasty English and French – and now the Americans – who have empires complete with colonies and puppets. Somehow, to many people in Turkey, the Ottoman Empire that stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf and on to the shores of Tripoli was more like a social welfare organization. Any of the subject nations or peoples that resisted the beneficence of Ottoman control was seen as a ‘traitor’ and ‘ingrate’.
Many in Turkey are still furious that during World War I, when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, much of the Arab world resisted the sultan’s call for jihad and sided with the infidel English to end once and for all the 400 year Ottoman control of their region. These Turks consider that the Arabs ‘stabbed us in the back.’
Until very recently the Turks and the Arabs had what could best be described as a frosty relationship. Every time I travelled from Istanbul to Cairo to visit our office there the Egyptians lost no opportunity to disparage the Ottoman Empire and stress the superiority of modern Egypt over Turkey. In their eyes the Arabs had a culture and civilization going back hundreds of years compared to the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ Turks. More than once I heard even educated Arabs refer to the Turks as ‘jumped-up nomads.’ Even if the centuries of Ottoman control had never happened, Turkey’s former close ties to the United States, Europe, and Israel always made the country somewhat suspect in the eyes of the Arabs. Its secular political system and Western-oriented society even made its Moslem credentials somewhat dubious.
During the past few years Turkey has been trying to mend fences with the Arabs, partly out of spite for what is perceived as Western rejection of Turkish membership in its club, and partly as a genuine effort to build on its growing economic and military power by expanding its regional influence. Turkey has the largest economy south of Vienna, and its businessmen and entrepreneurs are active throughout the Middle East. Many Turks are extremely proud to see that their country has emerged from its junior, very junior, partner status with the West and is now forging new alliances with its Arab and eastern neighbours.
So far its most visible efforts have been with countries like Syria and Iran that many others see as despotic or sponsors of international terrorism. Turkey ignores these complaints and says, disingenuously, that its efforts will help build bridges to bring peace to the region. So far its efforts, particularly its Israel-bashing, seem to have been a great success with the Arab ‘street’, but many governments of the traditional Arab powers are far less enthusiastic about the Turkish efforts.
Egypt, for one, has its own problems with Hamas, and could well resent what it sees as Turkish meddling in intra-Arab issues, challenging the pre-eminent position of Egypt in the Arab world. Thus the school book issue could be seen as an indirect warning to Turkey to keep its nose out of Arab affairs. Many of the Arab regimes don’t like the idea of outsiders stirring up their own populations and becoming more popular than the local governments in the process. It’s hard enough to control their own masses without some other country trying to become the defender, spokesman for the oppressed of Gaza.
Turkish leaders are discovering, however, that the country’s higher profile generates mixed reactions at best. Inevitably some other countries will resent this sudden assumption of leadership. And conflicts will arise even with their new best friends the Iranians. Turkish leaders were given an unpleasant surprise when a senior Iranian official recently referred to the Armenian deportations in 1915 as genocide. Definitely a ‘no, no’ as far as the Turks are concerned. Despite furious back-pedalling by the Iranians the suspicion began growing in some Turkish quarters that the Iranians were playing them for fools – using Turkey to blunt the impact of the U.N. sanctions while ignoring every bit of unsolicited advice the Turks give them.
The real measure of Turkey’s success as a key regional player will be in how it manages these inevitable intra-regional conflicts. The policy of ‘zero conflicts’ is nice, but extremely difficult to practice where religious and political passions run high, and where memories are long enough to remember the previous subjugation to Turkish rule. Turkey will be fortunate if the conflict is limited to words in a school book.