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Turks are not Arabs

Turks are not Arabs

04.06.2013 • Turkey •

This seems self-evident, but it sometimes seems a lot of people forget it. Nonetheless, after years of complicated relations, the rapprochement between Turks and Arabs has begun.

For a good ten years Turkey has regularly made the headlines of French newspapers, but us French have still not understood who the Turks are, or rather what they are not. This is what I told myself while listening to the tale of a young researcher, Jean-Baptiste Le Moulec, who moved to Istanbul more than three years ago. Before that this thirty-three year old Breton had worked and lived in Qatar, and then, in Saudi Arabia. Fluent in Arabic he is preparing a thesis in sociology on the relations between the Turks and the Arabs. However, as he explained to me, ‘when I said in France that I was going to work in Turkey, most people told me that was great for me since I already spoke the language’. In other words: ‘Thanks to your command of Arabic you will have no problem speaking to those Turks who are basically Arabs’. At that point I felt a certain amount of discouragement: clearly the French have still not realized that Turks are not Arabs. And they have not understood that the former hate being confused with the latter. The blunder which Jean-Baptiste Le Moulec was confronted to made me think that nothing has really changed since the misfortune, Sirin a young Turkish student, experienced ten years ago. Preparing to become a journalist, she had landed an internship in a French newspaper. She had just arrived when the editor in chief put her to work, giving her a pile of newspapers, asking her to translate them. The problem was these newspapers were in Arabic, a language Sirin did not understand a word of. ‘I was edified, she would then tell me, in shock, startled and dismayed.’ As for me, I discovered the importance of the difference between Turks and their southern neighbours while shopping at the covered market of Istiklal street.

There are Turkish delights, and then, there are real Turkish delights

I had just moved to Istanbul after having lived in and moved around Arab countries quite a lot, and I had taken a strong, and questionable health wise, taste for Turkish delights. A fact I immediately told Feridun and Altug Dörtler, the heart-warming owners, father and son, of the ‘Uç Yildiz’ (Three stars) candyshop. ‘Oh, be careful, Altug immediately scolded me, our Turkish delights do not have anything to do with the Arab ones. Ours are smaller and more tender than the Arab ones. It makes the whole difference.’ I stood corrected. It is in 1923, date of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey that the Turks’ perception of Arabs changes. The new creed is basically the following: ‘Us Turks want a modern country, so it is out of the question for us to inspire ourselves from the Arabs, who by the way stabbed us in the back us during the First World War by becoming the allies of the Western powers that wanted to share the spoils of the Ottoman Empire among themselves.’ This shift is confirmed when Turkey becomes part of NATO in 1952, on the front line to defend the West against the Soviet Union whereas the Arab countries are considered satellite states of the communist enemy.  This explains why a couple years ago a retired Turkish general had disclosed ‘you cannot trust the Arabs because they are not really trustworthy’.

The influence of the AKP (Justice and Development Party)

Most of the Arab countries lived under Ottoman occupation for four centuries. However, ‘in Arabic historiography it is on the contrary, the Turkish, the ex-Ottomans, who are considered responsible for the Arab downfall’ according to Jean-Baptiste Le Moulec. ‘Furthermore, Turkey was also until 2003 a Muslim country which wanted to erase its Islamic identity and went so far as to treat and trade with Israel.’ Etienne Copeaux, a historian and researcher linked to GREMMO (Study and Research Group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East), has studied the representation of Arabs in Turkish textbooks. ‘There is no Turkish hatred for Arabs, he explains, but only a condescending pity towards these under-developed people “who dress like women”, and who owe everything to the Turks. A very subtle position which without ever being against Arabs introduces almost unconsciously the idea of a Turkish cultural and political superiority over the Arabs.’ Nonetheless, the lines have moved in the past few years with the arrival of the Islamic Conservative government to power in 2002 and the vast diplomatic and economic offensive it launched towards the Arab countries. While the republican, nationalist and secular elites have often been trained in European and American universities, the new Islamic conservative elite includes a number of people who went to study in Egypt, and even more often in Jordan. Theorist of opening towards the world in general, and the Arab and Muslim world in particular, having played a pivotal role in its coming about, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, a courteous and considerate man, ‘feels culturally a lot more comfortable in the Arab world or Muslim world of the Balkans than in Europe and the United States’, says the professor of international relations Beril Dedeoglu. Since 2003, the Tubitak (Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) gives scholarships to Humanities students who wish to work on the Arab world. By contrast, the teaching of Arabic remains by contrast very incomplete.

Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran

At the time of the ‘postmodern’ military coup of 1997, the military clearly expressed its wish that Arabic classes, which had begun to take place here and there in mosques, religious foundations, and universities during the 90s, be closed. ‘However, since 2003 numerous universities have opened Arabic courses, comments Jean-Baptiste Le Moulec, unfortunately the Turkish professors are often theologians who learnt religious Arabic, the Arabic of the mosque, and look down on the Arabic dialects.’ As a result, Arabic in Turkey continues to be perceived as the language of the Holy Quran. Utku, 34 years old, recounts how as a child he did not dare ‘to throw away the crisps packet because it had Arabic written on it, both the sacred language of the Quran and that of my grandparents (the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic alphabet in Turkey in 1928, editor’s note)’. In this way, some Turkish Muslims, pious or culturalists, can be convinced they are better suited to understand Arabs than a French Christian for example, how ever good the latter might be at Arabic. As though Muslim fraternity allowed to cross borders. ‘There is towards Arabs a subtle mix of identity and otherness. Identity for everything which concerns Islam. Otherness for the rest’, analyses Etienne Copeaux. After a trip to the Arab world, young Turks’ perception changes like Necati, 25 years old, gone to do business who discovered both a ‘certain proximity, and yet, a real gap’. They find Arab Islam attractive because Arab, and thus, close to the origins, and at the same time excessively rigorist and arid, describes Jean-Baptiste Le Moulec, whereas Saudi Arabians frown upon all these Turkish brotherhoods, this syncretism, this impiety which characterises Turkish Islam according to them.

What shocks the Arabs

The many tourists from the Gulf in Istanbul discover for their part a relaxed attitude towards dress codes and behaviour to which they are not accustomed. Like this Saudi couple: the man walking with big steps in front of his wife, hidden from head to toe by a black hijab who is surprised, even shocked, to see a young Turkish couple sitting lovingly in a park. The young woman wears jeans and a tight T-shirt. Holding a cigarette, she bends her head covered by a colourful scarf towards her boyfriend’s shoulder. Since the Arab Spring, Turks’ view of Arabs is changing. Even the old elites that a strong European and American inclination, which distracts them from their Middle-Eastern neighbours watch with a lot more respect these Arabs ‘taking their destiny into their own hands’. Neither are they against the neo-Ottoman overture of Ahmet Davutoğlu especially since it enables Turkey to receive many contracts. Big groups like Koç, Sabanci, Cukurova or Dogus have invested in all the countries of the region, from Jordan to Iran and including Syria, making Turkish brands visible’, states the Ph.D. Franco-Turk student Tarik Yildiz. However, with the revolution and then the civil war in Syria, the support the Turkish government gives to the Free Syrian Army and to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the stand it has taken towards Bachar el-Assad which is considered extreme, all this is reducing the initial enthusiasm. There are numerous critics in Turkish public opinion. And in North Africa, the welcome of Erdogan the idol has suddenly gotten colder.  The Turkish Prime Minister’s visit there in the beginning of June while thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of his country ended unsuccessfully. Yet, the rapprochement between Turks and Arabs has begun. It is very likely that even if the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were to lose power, its successors would pursue the same policy, begun by the Islamic Conservatives with a certain degree of success of diplomatic, cultural and mostly economic overture towards the Arabs.

Ariane Bonzon
Translation: Suzanne Compagnon
Photo: DR

Original french version: Les Turcs ne sont pas des arabes

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