By Mehmet Celebi | 18 December 2010
On September 12, 22 million Turks voted a resounding “Yes” and thus endorsed a constitutional amendment package that could open wider the door to democratization in the Middle East.
Turkey’s 26-point referendum—which will enhance civil liberties and individual rights—was watched closely by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, and serves as yet another opportunity for the country to show leadership in the region. As a prominent Arab scholar told me recently “If Turkey fails, what alternative is there for the Muslim and Arab world?”
Of all the countries in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, Israel should take the most heed. More than three months after Israel’s deadly attack on the Turkish flotilla, tension between the two countries is still unsettled. Yet one thing is clear: Turkey has the upper hand.
The nuclear deal that Turkey, much to the dismay of the West, recently signed with Iran, co-brokered by Brazil; its mediation between Russia and Georgia after the 2008 war; its ongoing role as broker for talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan; its intervention in convincing all sides to select a consensus President and subsequently Prime Minister of Lebanon; and its success in persuading Iraqi Sunnis to participate, rather than boycott, the elections—are all clear indications of Turkey’s burgeoning role as a trusted diplomatic player on the world stage. In addition, it has lifted visa restrictions and signed “free-trade zone agreements” with several countries in the Middle East, and launched strategic dialogues with a number of Arab governments.
Even the EU, where Turkey’s 40 year membership bid has been vacillating, has recognized Turkey’s key global role recently.
Recently, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb underlined Turkey’s growing influence by calling its foreign policy reach “one of the top five countries in the world today”.
“Arguably, today Turkey is more influential in the world than any of our member states together or separately,” Stubb said. “It has a great influence in the Middle East, in the African Horn in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. It’s a truly global player and we need to work together with Turkey right now on foreign and security policy.”
Nothing was clearer during my recent visit to Jordan and Israel with prominent Chicago-based Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. I was especially struck by Jordan’s intense support of Turkey—from remarks by government officials of the highest level, including former Prime Minister and current Deputy President of the Jordanian Senate Fayez al-Tarawneh, to the general attitudes of the public. Their tone signals how far Turkey has come in its relations with its Arab neighbors and suggests the influence it can wield to help resolve regional conflicts.
Arab leaders and intellectuals I met unmistakably welcomed Turkey’s rise in the region as a counter-balance to more than 30 years of Iranian efforts at hegemony. In particular, these officials genuinely believe Turkey is not seeking to dominate the region, but rather bring peace that will help boost its rapidly growing and record breaking economy.
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* Published in the Fourth Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).