It has been a tumultuous week in Turkey since 31 May, when nine activists on board the Mavi Marmara were shot dead by Israeli forces. Precisely how this came to happen—the very heart of the crisis—is murky and contested. It is likely to remain so and we would all do well to refrain from ratcheting up the hyperbole as if the facts of the matter were entirely unambiguous.
It is clear that the raid on the Mavi Marmara was catastrophically mishandled by Israeli forces. But its bloody outcome owed much to incompetence rather than design. It was a grave failure of Israeli intelligence to have been so blind-sided by the violent resistance offered by some of those on board. This unpreparedness then led to the most morally disturbing (and politically destabilising) aspect of Israel’s response – the fact that Plan B when faced with a violent mob rather than a choir of candle-waving peaceniks was to resort immediately to overwhelmingly lethal force. (Autopsy reports in Turkey suggest that one of those killed, a 19-year-old, was shot five times from less than half a metre – twice in the head, once in the back and twice in the leg.)
The fact that some of the Turks on board the Mavi Marmara were prepared for—probably wished for—violent confrontation does not justify the manner of these killings. But it’s not an irrelevant detail. There are many ways of protesting, some of which overlap uncomfortably with simple up-for-it incitement. If increasing numbers of Turks are going to align themselves more strongly than before with the cause of Palestinians in Gaza, they will have to take a view as to which methods of protest are worthy of support. Their decisions may well have significant consequences.
In foreign policy terms, the crisis has raised considerably the stakes associated with the more assertive regional stance that Turkey has adopted in recent years. Fears that this so-called neo-Ottomanism amounts to a rejection of the West are overplayed. The idea of Turkey playing a more prominent role in its region didn’t originate with the AKP government. Nor has it become a recipe for untrammelled Islamism just because this government is pursuing it – it is likely that a competent Turkish government of any stripe would have sought to develop its regional policy options when faced with hardening opposition to Turkish accession in key EU member-states and the cack-handed management of the Cypriot accession.
But the events of the last week have given the geopolitical chessboard a nudge. Turkey finds itself, however temporarily, close to the centre of world affairs. This brings new risks. The cost of political misjudgements by prime minister Mr Erdoğan and foreign minister Mr Davutoğlu is now higher than it was a fortnight ago.
It is one thing for Turkey to seek to strengthen ties with its neighbouring states. It is quite another to allow (let alone encourage) the country to be thrust into the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a quagmire not renowned for delivering sustained returns on the political capital devoted to it. The image of Turkey as a bridge between east and west is a tired one, but it reflects a messy patchwork of inheritances that is real and valuable. Turkey has a story rich in political possibilities to tell the world (notwithstanding its own frequent uselessness at delivering on these possibilities at home). Pitching tent in the eye of the Arab-Israeli storm risks undermining all of that.
But it’s domestically that the prospect of Turkey immersing itself in Arab-Israeli affairs is most troubling. To proceed on such a course would risk importing a degree of volatility and anger that Turkey can ill afford. And it would complicate in dangerously unpredictable ways the already troubled relationship between religion and politics in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey has a young and deeply nationalist population, and a political culture that is quick to look for malign intentions and elaborate conspiracies. If the government’s stand-off with Israel persists, ugly incidents inside the country are possible.
It may be that considerations such as these informed one of the most interesting developments of the last week – the striking rebuke of Turkey’s Gaza protesters by one of the country’s most influential religious leaders, US-based imam Fethullah Gülen.
Mr Gülen, dismissed by some Turkish secularists as an Islamist wolf in sheep’s clothing, criticised the flotilla’s organisers for “defying” Israel’s authority, adding that their actions “will not lead to fruitful matters”. From a lesser figure, an intervention like this would have been dismissed out of hand. But Mr Gülen matters, and his decision to deliver such a jolt to conventional wisdom in Turkey regarding the Mavi Marmara deaths was unexpected, welcome and important. His words weren’t so much a contribution to the debate as a warning that the debate has been taking place on the other side of a line that Turkey should step back from. As Andrew Finkel puts it: “We are being invited to pause and take a deep breath“..