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Ziya Meral Headshot

Tell me What you ask About Turkey, I'll tell you who you are

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Ever since Turkey's AK Party emerged, foreign observers have been asking one primary question; is Turkey becoming an Islamist nation and turning against the West? Each election result and each bold foreign policy decision have been analyzed through this worry.

The assumptions of this common question signal the new Orientalism that projects onto the world its own narrative and interprets and responds to events through it's own logocentrism. Political and social changes in the Muslim-majority states are read and analyzed through the prism of Western interests and anxieties over security. Just like in the story of the fisherman who had to let go of the bigger fish he caught because the frying pan he had at home was too small, in the same way the reality that does not fit into the shape of this lens is left out and seen as irrelevant.

For this very reason, Western observers simply could not grasp that what we were witnessing with the AKP was a new phase in the dynamic history of the relationship between politics and Islam. With a sharp break from its roots in modern political Islam that dominated the 20th century, the AKP formulated a pro liberal market, pro Europe, pro globalization and pro democracy framework that also seeks to uphold personal piety and morality with no desire to base the country on religious creeds. The AKP's mindset and constituency can be likened to Calvinists and Reform Christianity that modernized Northern Europe and played a major role in the making of the USA. They share similar political theologies and religious mobilization.

While commentators have not given up on their urge to see sinister Islamist agendas under every rock, the die-hard Islamists within Turkey and the wider Muslim world continue to see the AKP as a diluted form of Islamic activism. After all these years, the initial worries that Turkey was turning Islamist still look as distant as they were when the AKP won its first election, yet such commentary is still alive and kicking in the mainstream international media.

When the Turkish government finally realized that Turkey did not have any tangible foreign policy, except being a NATO and US ally, and that the aggressive nature of globalization required Turkey to adopt to a multi-polar world and diversify its interests, it had to act dramatically. Turkey simply had no other choice but to shift gears and become proactive in maximizing its scope of influence and business partners.

This triggered a new wave of worried commentary. Turkish rapprochement with Syria and Iran as well as with Hamas were amplified on global screens, as the fish that fits the intellectual frying pans, but the bigger ones such as attempts to normalize and enhance ties with Greece, Armenia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, Egypt as well as Russia, Balkans, Latin America and Africa were left back into the river of partial perception.

The developments were read as just another "evidence" of Turkey turning its face away from the West, without any mention of what or whom Turkey was turning its face to. Not so surprisingly, there was also hardly any mention of the fact that the AKP has been the most committed party to pursue EU membership in Turkish history.

In actuality, Turkey has just been attempting to be an independent actor with multiple ties, using the complexity of its identity and affiliations to advance its national interests. Observers were merely finding evidences for their own preconceived ideas, thus concluding what they set out to conclude.

The ironic truth is that the questions asked about Turkey tell us more about those who ask them rather than the realities of Turkey and its foreign policy choices. If commentators want to make sense of on going moves by Turkey in the international arena and substantial social and political changes in the country, they must let go of old school perspectives and allow Turkey itself to show them its own mindset, questions and ambitions. Only then they can find genuine clues in assessing where Turkey is heading.