Talisman Gate

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Istanbul and Iraq

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 30, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 914 words

HEADLINE: Istanbul and Iraq

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Two diametrically opposed international conferences chose Istanbul as a venue last weekend. One dealt with democracy in the Middle East, and another wanted to put President Bush on trial for "crimes" committed in Iraq.

The democracy conference was organized by the ARI movement, a thoughtful and angst-ridden bunch of Turkish youths. It brought together American, Turkish, and European officials, journalists and academics, as well as political activists from all over the Middle East. The venue was one of Istanbul's plentiful five star hotels, and the conversation was elevated and pensive, but the most interesting stuff was being uttered by the ARI movement themselves, people who are worried about the state of affairs in Turkey and all around, and cannot afford the luxury of just wallowing in despair or rejectionism, but are rather trying to make sense out of all the contradictory messages from the participants and putting forward a coherent strategy for the Middle East. The ARI movement understands what is at stake for its country: What happens around them will touch upon their lives, and the consequences of a botched or halfhearted approach will wreak havoc in Turkey.

Across town, other Turkish youths, this time adorned with fuzzy beards and exposed navels, were wearing colorful T-shirts emblazoned with "Get Bush" in Turkish. This is the new Turkish left, which together with the grizzled remnants of the European and Middle Eastern left, huddled together in the labyrinthine and crumbling red brick walls of what used to be the Ottoman Imperial Mint. The walls were festooned with posters of Mr. Bush snacking on Iraqi babies: This basically summed up the rhetoric of the World Tribunal on Iraq, holding its final session in Istanbul, and where there was no mention of the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi people, a regime that actually killed Iraqi babies with poison gas.

Both conferences were about America's experiment in Iraq, and both chose to see it very differently; one as a process of democratization and the other as imperial hegemony.

A leading Turkish columnist called Cengiz Candar was one of the moderators at the ARI conference. He surprised me by speaking fluent Arabic, which he apparently picked up while fighting alongside Palestinian leftist radicals against Israel from the southern slopes of Lebanon in the 1970s. Today, his commentary has labeled him an American loving "neoconservative." Ironically, another Turkish journalist whispered in my ear that Mr. Candar was a doenme, a descendant of Turkish Jews. Here is a man who 30 years ago would be the ideal panelist for the "Get Bush" conference, yet he is making the case for engaging Mr. Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East because what is going on in Iraq touches directly on how Turkey's defines itself, and where its own national dialogue of either being Turkish or being from Turkey is heading.

However, Mr. Candar is in the minority, for don't you dare mention among a larger audience that Iraq may end up being a model for Turkey. "Iraq?! It isn't even functioning as a state! It is a mess! And how can we, the great Turks, draw lessons from what used to be a backward province of our once-great empire?" was the gist of the common objections.

Before Turkey can orient itself towards Europe, it needs to figure out a lot of its intrinsically Middle Eastern contradictions. The liberation of Iraq and the democratic experiment there is the single most significant historical event since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq is not just car bombs and mayhem, and Iraq is trying to re-invent itself, and also trying to find a coherent identity out of its tumultuous past and present and what it seeks to become in the future.

The contradictions of Turkey are mirrored in Iraq, and all these contradictions have a seat on the negotiating table: Kurdish nationalism versus staying within a united state, the societal and political role of Islam versus the functioning of a modern, secular state, sectarian disputes that have been unresolved for thousands of years versus the cultural and individual rights of every citizen, the monopoly of the corrupt few versus a transparent and equitable sharing of resources, and much, much more.

And all this needs to happen now with the drawing up of the constitution: The grand bargain between Iraq's past, present, and future is being struck, and the model could turn out to be the salvation for a country like Turkey, or the exact disastrous opposite.

Nowadays, Mr. Bush is making the case to the American people as to why their nation went to war in Iraq. Little did anyone realize when all this talk revolved around WMDs and a foggy concept of broader Middle Eastern reform that what was started in Iraq was a monumental undertaking to resolve the messy events that concluded World War I in the region. All the problems, including why the terrorists struck America on September 11, come back to this starting point, and the Middle East has been stuck in this quagmire for 80 years.

Even a country like Turkey, stable on the surface and tectonically grinding into itself on the inside, has yet to emerge from this mess. Iraq is the grand experiment where a grand bargain may be in the offing to finally bring about a peace that lasts, and America, whether derided by hippie lefties and fundamentalists or uneasily embraced by forward-looking elites, has the heft and staying power to make sure that the experiment succeeds.