One who commits a frontal assault is to be less feared than one who stabs his victim in the back. It is for this reason that every Turk should be grateful for Greek ultra-nationalists for it is they who say in the open what other Europeans say only when they think the wider world is not perceptive enough to pick up on their less and less ambiguous innuendo. To understand what Europeans think of “the other”, in this case Turks, one must define what Europe is. Apprehending such a definition is a fairly straight forward exercise as the frontiers of modern Europe are in the north largely the same as those between Europe and the Soviet Union of 1922 while in the south, the frontiers of Europe are on the whole still defined by those which separated Turkey from its European antagonists by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Incidentally, these borders demonstrate that while the eastern frontiers of Europe which were largely shaped by the late 19th century ambitions of the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, it has always been Russia and Turkey which have in the late modern period prevented the imperial expansion of the major European powers into western Eurasia and the lands beyond. This is the root cause of a manifold hostility.
In the 19th century, the major European powers – Britain and France in particular excelled at sowing hostility between Russia and Ottoman Turkey. Knowing full well the history of Russo-Turkish wars in places outside of the confines of Europe, the 19th century saw the major European powers allying usually with Ottoman Turkey and occasionally with Russia entirely for selfish gain. While in the age of Napoleon, Europe looked to Russia as a liberator from French terror, by 1841, the British and French authored a document that would sow the next 80 years of Russo-Turkish hostility.
The document in question is the Treaty of London which prohibited all but Ottoman ships the right of passage through the Turkish straits in wartime, thus boxing Russia into the Black Sea in order to enshrine western European naval supremacy. It was indeed this document more than any lofty ideological questions regarding ‘Islam vs. Orthodoxy’ that fomented all of the Russo-Turkish wars up to the end of the 19th century.
The horrors of the Treaty of London were corrected by the magnanimity of Ataturk who blatantly refused western European attempts to seize the Turkish Straits from Turkey, a suggestion taken seriously by many at the end of the First World War, but one as self-evidently preposterous as seizing Paris from France. The proposal to “internationalise” the Turkish Straits was always rebuffed by Ataturk and in 1936 he authored the Montreux Convention which allowed for the free passage – in both war and peace of all ships flagged by nations with a Black Sea coast.
It was Ataturk’s excellent relations with Moscow during much of his time leading his nation that set the stage for the historically positive Russo-Turkish relations one witnesses in the era of Erdogan and Putin. Yet while Russia and Turkey have mended centuries of broken fences, the Europeans continue to grind axes against both Russia and Turkey.
When it became clear that Europe would no longer be able to divide Russia and Turkey for their own strategic gain, an increasing amount of open contempt for both states became not only more commonplace but more respectable. While the European hatred against Russians makes headline news, the attacks on Turks and Turkishness remain increasingly hushed up.
Europe however is now a place where major governments including Europe’s strongest state, Germany, harbour terror groups including FETO and the PKK whose primary objective is to destroy Turkish statehood. At the same time, incidents of violence against Turks are rising throughout Europe and in Germany in particular, all the while the political class and the fifth estate look the other way. But it is not just among FETO, the PKK and white supremacists chanting “no kebab” as a means of exhibiting their hatred of Turks where one can sense the European hatred of Turks and Turkishness. The recent US instigated financial woes in Turkey have been reported by major liberal European newspapers in a manner that one would need to be forgiven for thinking that the leader writers and editors of such publications derive an almost giddy sense of joy at watching Turkey going through a period of monetary difficulty.
While Arab autocrats like Egypt’s President el-Sisi who won an election against no fundamentally genuine opponent is written about either not at all or with a measure of sympathy due to his tirelessly work in surrendering Palestinian land on behalf of Palestine’s impotent leadership, President Erdogan who maintains genuine popularity and who just won a major election is discussed as if he were some sort of tyrant.
The fundamental truth behind this dichotomy has little to due to the personalities of el-Sisi or Erdogan and has everything to do with the fact that Europe both fears Turkey while also holding Turksihness in contempt. While Arabs had little contact with Europeans in Europe from the 15th century up to the 20th, the might of the Ottoman Empire posed a direct challenge to the European empires competing for the same territory. Because of this, Europeans do not feel threatened by divided Arab states but they do feel threatened by a united Republic of Turkey which stands as a proud modern successor state to the Ottoman Empire.
But there is a crucial difference in how Turks understand their own history vis-a-vis how Europeans understand their history. Of the many features of Ataturk’s brilliance was the fact that he was able to draw a line under the past. Ataturk effectively told his nation that history should be viewed scholastically, philosophically and with composure and should not be the penultimate guide which suggests the future course a nation must take. Ataturk consequently pursued a policy of friendship with all and hostility towards none. However, this favour was scarcely returned.
By contrast, the history of Europe continues to act as a living and breathe organism capable of arousing the most hateful emotions among the European. For Turkey, 1683 was a date in time and a historical moment from the past. But for the European, the symbolism of the 1683 Battle of Vienna has become clarion call of hatred against Turks, Turkishness and anyone perceived to be Turkish.
Europe remains socially un-reformed much unlike Turkey. Where Turkey had a single towering figure who brought the country into the modern age while preserving the country’s national characteristics, the cultures of Europe have been caught between the emotional hysteria of those who have yet to draw an Ataturk style line under their own past and the anti-cultural liberals who seek to deprive all nations of their fundamental national characteristics. Thus one can say that not only are Europeans irrationally fearful of Turks because they have yet to apprehend that Turkey wishes no ill against Europe but they are also jealous of Turkey’s unity, its modernity and its vitality.
While Europeans have furiously exorcised the positive Turkish cultural influence on parts of Europe, Turkey’s neighbours to the east and south-east have had no such drive to exorcise historically derived elements of Turkishness from their lands. Thus, there is an unbroken chain of nations between Turkey and China, all of whom have an element of their culture that is Turkic in its origin and which will likely remain part of that culture for centuries to come.
This is not to say that win-win economic relationships are not possible between Turkey and both its eastern and western partners. But when it comes to looking at the formation of strategic partnerships, Turkish policy makers must not deceive themselves about the fundamental realities regarding how Europeans view Turks and Turkishness vis-a-vis how Turkey’s modern Asian partners do.
In the case of the United States, in spite of most American elites traditionally being of European racial descent, there once existed a goal among those policy makers to de-Europeanise America and create a new republic in a new world that would be free from many of the prejudices and violent tendencies that have seen much of European history written in blood. It was this which helped 20th century American policy makers to look upon Turkey as a virtuous nation and a trusted partner.
Today, the multiculturalism that once made the United States strong threatens to descend into European style sectarianism unless an American Ataturk can arise and revitalise Americanism before the nation sinks to the depths of European racialist civil strife. It is not a coincidence that the United States therefore has become more European in its views of Turkey in recent years at a time when American society Europeanises in terms of its readiness to descend into sectarian warfare.
Taken in totality, Turkey must understand that while it bears no fault for the way that some foreigners perceive it, that the minds of these foreigners are largely made up. There is only so much that pragmatic economic realities can do to moderate the views of people who are fundamentally fanatical in their approach to Turkey. Therefore, while Turkey must and should engage with its western partners, it must do so without neglecting to remember the inherent dangers in the process.