Turkey plays growing political role in Middle East

As Egypt erupted a few weeks ago, one fellow Muslim country insistently urged President Hosni Mubarak to respond to popular demands. That country was Turkey.

The call was a sign of Turkey's growing confidence and stature in the Middle East and beyond. Hobbled by economic and political chaos just a decade ago, Turkey is increasingly taking on the role of regional model, mediator and leader, with a solid economy and an evolving democracy. It has sought to balance many of the forces that shape, and shake, the region: The East and the West, Israel and Iran, religion and secularism.

As elections approach in June, results of a new Associated Press-GfK poll suggest that Turkey's government will pursue a path of relative pragmatism, despite fears of the influence of Islam on the state.

Turkey still aspires to join the European Union, but that once-strong vision appears to have faded. The poll shows that 52 percent of respondents want Turkey to stay in NATO, and 50 percent want to join the European Union. Yet 42 percent have an unfavorable view of the EU, reflecting frustration with a process that has stalled partly because of European opposition and the slow pace of Turkish reform.

Views of individual European nations are positively acid. Only 16 percent of respondents held a favorable view of Germany, and that was high. Other favorable views were at 12 percent for Italy, 11 percent for Spain, 9 percent for the Britain, 6 percent for France and just 5 percent for neighboring Greece, a traditional antagonist. European leaders fared just as badly, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy scoring a positive rating of 4 percent.

"This dream of a rosy-pink Europe, once so powerful that even our most anti-Western thinkers and politicians secretly believed in it, has now faded," Turkey's Nobel laureate, author Orhan Pamuk, wrote in an essay published in The Guardian newspaper in December. "This may be because Turkey is no longer as poor as it once was. Or it could be because it is no longer a peasant society ruled by its army, but a dynamic nation with a strong civil society."

(The AP-GfK Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications in November and December, and was based on interviews with 1,200 adults ages 18 and older. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.)

A key question is to what extent Islam will change a society with a strong secular tradition, imposed by war hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when he founded the country in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

For example, the government recently imposed new restrictions on the sale and advertisement of alcohol, forcing sports clubs to stop putting beer ads on the jerseys of their players and ending the sale of alcohol on highways. Alcohol is banned in Islam. But in facing a barrage of criticism from pro-secular circles, the government said the curbs protect young people and have nothing to do with religious sentiment.

The number of pro-Islamic television channels, which air programs praising the virtues of Islam, also is on the rise. According to the AP-GfK poll, 85 percent of respondents called religion an "extremely" or "very" important part of their lives.

A majority, 63 percent, said women should be free to wear the Islamic head scarf in universities. The head scarf is banned in schools and government offices, but the government has sought to scrap the ban, an explosive issue in the contest between government supporters and military-backed secular circles. Many universities already ignore the ban.

Yet for all the importance of religion in their lives, 65 percent of poll respondents said religious leaders should stay out of government. Only 17 percent said religious leaders should have a say in government, reflecting comfort with the idea of secular institutions.

Canan Sahin, 31, reflects the tightrope Turkey walks between the East and the West. Sahin's family migrated to Istanbul from the provinces in the 1970s, and lived for years on the outskirts. One of seven children, she graduated from an Islamic high school and wears an Islamic head scarf.

"Turkey is moving toward the East, and I approve it," Sahin said. Yet she also supports the European bid: "In terms of human rights and economics, it can propel Turkey forward."

Especially striking are views toward former ally Israel. The poll found that most respondents — 53 percent — wanted to cut diplomatic relations with Israel, especially after its deadly raid on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza last year. Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earn the most negative ratings in the poll, at 77 percent unfavorable and 69 percent unfavorable.

Yet the position against Israel does not come out of any love for the Palestinian Authority. Only 22 percent had a favorable opinion of it, compared to 37 percent unfavorable.

Nor do Turks support the claim of Israel's archenemy, Iran, that its nuclear program is peaceful. Half of poll respondents said they believe Tehran is developing atomic weapons.

Some commentators think Turkey, which is shedding military involvement in politics, should be a transition model for Egypt, where the military says it will rule until elections are held. In a Feb. 1 speech to ruling party lawmakers, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government had always stood up for democracy and urged Egypt's to do the same.

"We will all die and be questioned for what we left behind. We will all go into two square meters of land," he said, alluding to a burial plot. "Therefore, I'm asking you to listen to the people's voice and their uttermost humane demands. Welcome the will of the nation for change without any hesitation."

They were lofty words, but critics see inconsistency in Turkey's embrace of Iran, a major source of energy, despite its poor human rights record. On a visit to Iran a week ago, Turkey appeared to depart from its relative silence on Iran's repressive political system when Turkish President Abdullah Gul urged governments in the Middle East to listen to the demands of their people.

Turkey's democracy has other flaws. The Kurdish minority has long suffered discrimination, and Kurdish rebels still hold out after taking up arms in 1984. Even today, despite a government outreach, 51 percent of respondents oppose giving more legal and political rights to the Kurdish people in Turkey.

Also, activists complain of police abuse, long pretrial detention and the use of anti-terrorism laws to muzzle dissent. In January, Human Rights Watch said: "Turkey's foreign policy ambitions would be greatly reinforced by bold domestic reform on rights."

The poll suggests that more than half of Turks themselves believe they will get into trouble for saying some things in politics, or even just about anything in politics. However, a sizable minority of 29 percent said they feel completely free to speak their minds.

One test was the Jan. 15 inauguration of a 52,000-seat football stadium in Istanbul, meant to highlight Turkish know-how and spirit. Some fans heckled the prime minister, who left the state-funded arena in anger. Prosecutors opened an investigation, raising worries about threats to free expression.

"Since when is booing a prime minister a crime?" said Evrim Erdogus, a 30-year-old electrical engineer who plans to vote for the main opposition party. "I don't want to hear about how Turkey is becoming 'democratic.'"

Ekrem Gozenman, 29, an operational manager for a trading firm, studied in the United States and plans to vote for the ruling party, despite what he said were its shortcomings.

Gozenman said: "I still believe that they paved the way for democratic reform in Turkey."

Economic issues are far and away most often cited as the country's top problem, with 45 percent naming the economy or unemployment as the most pressing issue. About 69 percent called unemployment an extremely serious concern.

Turkey's economy grew nearly 7 percent in 2010, doubling its deficit as the country imported more raw material and fuel. But the majority of Turkey's 74 million people are young, and the unemployment rate in October for those between the ages of 15 and 24 was about 21 percent — more than 10 percentage points higher than the average jobless rate, according to the government.

However, Turkey is democratic enough, with enough opportunities and outlets, that an Egypt-style uprising of the discontented is almost unthinkable.

The United States does little better than Europe in the eyes of Turks - 55 percent hold an unfavorable view of the United States and 49 percent of President Barack Obama. Those negative views are likely due, at least in part, to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, viewed by many in the region as a neo-imperial war against Muslims. Turkey has since joined Washington in pushing for political stability in Iraq, and Turkish firms do brisk business in the Kurdish-dominated region of northern Iraq.

If Turks do not trust the United States or Europe, mankind does no better. About 84 percent of Turks say you "need to be very careful in dealing with" most people.

This prickliness may come out of a nationalism rooted long in the past. The carving up of the Ottoman Empire by foreign powers spawned mistrust, and historical enmities with Greece and Armenia have yet to be overcome.

For one e-commerce consultant, Turkey is even now emerging from the shadow of the empire, whose foundations lay in military might.

"Turkey is new to the idea of foreign policy," said Basar Baltas, whose father was once psychologist for the national football team. "It is now learning how to form strategies and alliances."

Turkey is a member of the G-20 group of major economies, and it recently had a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But a failed attempt with Brazil to broker an Iranian nuclear deal, a move that irked Washington, show the limits of its international brokering. Similarly, its unique role as a Muslim ally of Israel, and possible interlocutor with the Jewish state's Middle East foes, is on hold.

However, a 2010 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling website, concludes that the Islamic hue of the Turkish government does not entail rejection of the West.

"At the end of the day we will have to live with a Turkey whose population is propelling much of what we see," wrote James Jeffrey, then ambassador. "Turkey will remain a complicated blend of world class 'Western' institutions, competencies, and orientation, and Middle Eastern culture and religion."


Associated Press writers Erol Israfil and Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS poll accuracy to 3 percentage points, and restores dropped first names of Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. )