While leaders of the Middle East are caught between solving new and old economic and political problems, and while the peoples of the region are losing hope due to a lack of direction or solutions, one country is quietly forging ahead with plans to become a regional superpower. And one man is directing and implementing this drive.
Ahmet Davutoglu was a professor at Marmara University and the chairman of the Department of International relations at Beykent University. He was the chief adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, before being appointed foreign minister in May 2009.
Davutoglu believes that Turkey has the makings of a regional superpower and that its deep historical and geographical connections with Arabs, Kurds, Persians, Central Asians and Caucasians are an advantage.
Located on the Mediterranean as well as the Black Sea, Turkey is both in Asia and Europe, a member of Nato and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Muslim yet secular and democratic, economically and politically stable, and prospering.
In an increasingly volatile world, Davutoglu believes that Turkey has the right, ability and confidence to play a major role according to its own interests and not those of any alliance it is part of.
Father of the nation
Turkey is a nation of 77 million people who have, for most of the last century, lived according to the founding principles of one man – Kamal Ataturk – the so-called father of the Turks.
Secularism, nationalism, and Westernisation are all enshrined in a constitution penned in 1923, and unquestioned by the vast majority of the Turkish population.
But times are changing for Turkey, both at home and abroad.
With its unmatched geographical location, Turkey is on course to regain some of its historical influence across the Middle East, while remaining an important ally of the European Union and the US.
Increasingly, Turkish diplomats are being called upon to mediate in seemingly intractable regional disputes, whether between Syria and Israel, or Iran and the US.
But unity within its own borders remains a pressing issue, and these complicated domestic problems are hindering Turkey’s progress, including that elusive entry to the European Union.
Taking its place
But, with a new found confidence epitomised by Davutoglu, Turkey may finally be ready to take its place as a genuine global power.
|Ahmet Davutoglu, right, has sought to mediate the Iranian nuclear issue [AFP]|
Over the past few months, Al Jazeera’s Rageh Omaar had unique access to Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy.
Although only in office since 2009, he has long been considered the power behind the throne, having advised prime ministers and foreign ministers for the past eight years.
During his first year as foreign minister, Davutoglu has sought to build on this influence by promoting Turkey as a truly global power.
In spreading this message, he has made over 100 official foreign visits, lifted visa restrictions on several neighbouring countries, and even taken cautious steps towards a normalising of relations with Armenia, following a century of enmity.
In doing so, he has utilised Turkey’s unmatched strategic location for diplomatic gain.
“What is Turkey? Turkey from a traditional perspective has an Eastern culture, part of the east but from the modern perspective, also we are EU or Nato, part of Western tradition. Therefore the developments in Turkey [are] like a litmus test,” Davutoglu says.
“If we are successful in a dynamic manner and peaceful manner, it won’t only be a good example for Turkey or our region, but it will also be a good example and contribution for the global developments in the future.”
National identity has always been Turkey’s pressing issue, and is still guaranteed to provoke controversy.
Kamal Ataturk founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Overnight, he abolished a 700-year-old system of government, changed the alphabet and dress code, and looked one direction: towards the West.
For him, to modernise was to westernise, and becoming an accepted part of Europe was the ultimate goal. And all of this was to be imposed on an overwhelmingly Muslim society.
For Ataturk, there was no other way. And, in the intervening decades, to disagree with the ideology of Ataturk was to invite censure or worse.
Today, however, many Turks are questioning the very cornerstones of their society, and once again daring to ask: Who are we?
Davutoglu does not believe that being a Muslim clashes with being European.
“We are proud of our religion and identity but at the same time we are part of European culture and European history and we are proud of that identity as well,” he says.
In the last year alone, Turkish diplomats have claimed credit for mediating between Israel and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, and even attempting to negotiate over the Iranian nuclear issue.
“We don’t see crisis first, we first see vision. There is some foreign policy approach from crisis to vision, you concentrate on crisis and you try to deal with the crisis. Our policy is no, we focus on vision, then from that vision we are trying to solve the crisis. And that vision is good for all the region.” Davutoglu said.
The EU question
Turkey’s geographic location makes it a key partner in any discussion of the continent’s security. And yet, it is its very location at the periphery of Europe that has made the EU reluctant to grant membership.
|The EU still seems reluctant to accept Turkey as one of its own [GALLO/GETTY]|
Turkey signed an association agreement with the EU in 1963, from that time until now they have been waiting.
Some of the delay was attributed to the political situation in Turkey due to military interventions, which were deemed not fitting with EU values.
In 1999 Turkey did obtain candidate status.
“Until 1999 we had some difficulties we know that, but after 1999 we were very active to fulfil the criteria” Davutoglu said.
But the EU still seems reluctant to accept Turkey as one of its own.
“The EU tries to make this a case of Turkey’s preference to unite with its neighbours rather than the EU, but this is not valid because we implement these policies together.
“We didn’t ignore EU process when we were focusing on neighbouring countries policy.
“What is our objective? Zero-problems with our neighbours. I know it is a slogan, but slogans are symbols, symbols create a new mind and the most important thing is the transformation of mentality, changing the concepts in the minds of the people.” he says.
Davutoglu believes that Turkish membership will be an asset to the EU, because with Turkey European culture will become more diverse, and thus, help it to compete on the global stage.
In that sense, Turkish Islam, too, would be an asset to overcome this challenge, he says.
The Rageh Omaar Report: Turkey’s New Visionary can be seen from Wednesday, May 12, at the following times GMT: 1900; Thursday: 0300, 1400; Friday: 0600; Saturday: 1900 and Sunday: 0300.