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Reporting from Turkey: Your Move, Erdogan

Posted on February 22 2011 2:00 pm
Seth Mandel is the former managing editor of four New Jersey-based newspapers, where he won awards for his coverage of the Middle East and Russia. He has appeared on Shalom TV's current affairs roundtable. He is currently based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SethAMandel
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If you’ve been wondering about the lighter posting from me here, it’s because I’m currently in Istanbul on the eve of a conference organized by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the ostensible aim of combating extremism.

It is, of course, fairly ironic coming from Erdogan, who categorically rejected the “moderate Islam” label for his country when it was offered by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.

“It is unacceptable for us to agree with such a definition,” Erdogan responded. “Turkey has never been a country to represent such a concept.”

He continued:

“The animosity, unfortunately, strengthens the scenarios that there is a so-called clash of civilizations in the world. Those, who defend such speculations, may go further to identify the terrorism with Islam which is based on peace.

“It should be known that adopting a malicious and offending approach toward the sensitive issues of Islamic world by hiding behind some democratic freedoms like freedom of speech and right of free publication is unacceptable.”

As Turkey watches the recent string of populist uprisings in the Arab East, it has been routinely held up as an example of what Egypt could become—and usually a positive one at that (though Lebanese media are understandably more skeptical).

Turkey has one distinct advantage in this argument—it can use Iran as a foil. Though both have Islamist governments, even with Erdogan’s recent excesses Iran looms as a worst-case scenario. Still, Erdogan’s increasingly hostile attitude toward Israel is a transparent attempt to play to the Arab “street,” as Turkey and Iran jostle for position as leader of the greater Middle East. That a Persian nation and a Turkish one are currently competing to hold the megaphone on behalf of the Arab world demonstrates just how significant a hole is left by Egypt’s departure as a regional power. (It may one day regain that role, but for now Egypt remains a picture of slightly-controlled chaos.)

But like most of the world right now, Turkey’s attention has turned to Libya, where it is desperately trying to evacuate the 25,000 Turkish citizens there.

We’ll see as the week progresses what Erdogan’s strategy is going to be. Does it pay for him to exploit the crisis in the Middle East in order to attempt to fill the vacuum, or will he show more caution toward an unstable and unpredictable situation in an already volatile region? His posturing on the subject of extremism this week should give us a clue.

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