The US wants to have the Islamic world on its side as it needs new markets to compete with China and wants a bigger trade volume with the Middle East, which will in turn benefit this region economically and politically, according to Süleyman Kızıltoprak, a professor of history at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts.
Kızıltoprak, one of Turkey’s most renowned historians, has shared with Sunday’s Zaman readers his perspective on recent developments in the Middle East and other parts of the world, offering a historical analysis of the events that shape the region.
I had the chance to interview Professor Kızıltoprak when he arrived in New York to do some research. We talked about developments unfolding in both Egypt and throughout the Middle East. In fact, the conversation ranged from the background of the Muslim Brotherhood to some of the dangers facing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the result of the Israeli attack on Gaza, the US’s Arab Spring vision, what the geopolitical struggle between China and the US really indicates and where exactly the British stand in the collective memory of the Middle East.
How are the closer relations that emerged between Turkey and Egypt in the wake of the Israeli attack on Gaza likely to affect general balances in the Middle East?
The Israeli attack on Gaza was a confirmation of a shift in balances in the Middle East. Within the Middle East, Iran, the Shiite factor and, naturally enough, the Hezbollah factor in Lebanon have been left in the background. The Israeli attack pushed Egypt, Turkey and Hamas into more prominence. In Palestine, Fatah has left leadership to Hamas.
For the past 200 years, Turkey and Egypt have never had this much of a shared and close political groundwork as they do now. For the first time, Egypt wants to be in a cooperative relationship with Turkey. Egypt applauds the many successes of Turkey in different arenas and does not view Turkey as competition. This is a development that could herald some very important results for regional peace and the peoples of the region. In the meantime, through Egypt, Turkey finds before it a very easy gateway into all of Africa. As for Egypt, it could benefit from all the economic, socio-political and democratic experience Turkey has. If, however, there are not some very swift reforms made and economic development triggered, things could become very difficult for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. From this perspective, Morsi really has to start taking some courageous steps for his country’s economy, for example, in the area of tourism. On this topic, one could compare Turkey during the years of [Prime Minister and later President Turgut] Özal and the Egypt of today. Had Özal not brought to Turkey a liberal economic system, social liberalism would not have developed nearly as much as we find it has today. And the middle class would not have become as strong as it has. The Egyptian economy must grow. The collective demands of the Egyptian people are for a better life, better health and education services, better job opportunities and higher incomes. A Morsi who fights the excessively conservative elements among his supporters could garner the support of other segments such as the Copts, the leftists and the liberals. The economic relations developing between Turkey and Egypt would, in the meantime, support this and would quickly be reflected onto other arenas as well.
You lived in Egypt for many years. Was the political transformation that came to Egypt one that you expected? Just how key has the Muslim Brotherhood been to these changes?
The changes that came to Egypt were expected. After being elected president of the US in 2008, the first trip made by [Barack] Obama was to Egypt. But Obama was not welcomed to Egypt by [Hosni] Mubarak.
In fact, there was not a single photo published of Mubarak and Obama together. What people remember of Obama’s arrival in Egypt on Air Force One is the welcome given to him by the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, as Obama was hosted by Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, and his speech at Al-Azhar stressed democracy. He said that in the Middle East, support should only be given to political regimes that have come to power through democratic means. In a sense then, he was lending support to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the most organized societal structure there is the Muslim Brotherhood. When free democratic elections took place, the strongest candidate wound up being from the Muslim Brotherhood. The important thing for Obama and the US was that whatever party came to power in Egypt would cooperate with the US, and of course that along with democracy, a free market economy would also be implemented. In this way, the anti-US stance in the Arab public would decline, and American companies would be able to comfortably enter the Middle Eastern and Islamic markets. Not only this, but the increasingly negative perceptions of US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq -- perceptions that are a reality from Africa to the Far East -- would shift to more positive perceptions. From this angle then, Obama’s desire to see a Middle East composed of more democratic regimes is no surprise. So in this sense, yes, I was expecting change in Egypt. And it was no surprise that a key role in this change was played by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Do you believe that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a carrier of democratization or Islamization in this region?
The Muslim Brotherhood has only just newly arrived in power. But throughout the history of modern Egypt, this group has always been around. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood came into being after the formation of modern Egypt, as sort of an “ulema” (group of the learned) movement that opposed some of the political and social structures brought to Egypt by the British. And in fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had always taken a role in political changes in Egypt. They gave their support in 1952 to the Free Officers and [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser against King Faruk. After Nasser, President [Anwar] Sadat had the need for the political strength and support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and at the start of the 1970s, they thus moved together. Later, these two camps grew apart in the wake of the Camp David agreements. When Mubarak came to power, after Sadat, he tried to get along with the Muslim Brotherhood. He even allowed the Muslim Brotherhood’s independent MPs to enter parliament. When the Muslim Brotherhood started getting larger, it began lending its support to the Salafi group. During all the wars with Israel, though, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the administration. In the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, the Muslim Brotherhood was an organization from whom support could be expected. What can be expected from the Muslim Brotherhood today is -- as a political movement that shares the same values and emotional stance as the Egyptian people -- to go ahead with the democratization of Egypt, without carrying on Islamicism, nationalism or political factionalism. And actually, expectations go beyond this -- that the Muslim Brotherhood will provide solutions to some of the most basic problems of the most poverty-stricken segments of Egyptian society. This of course includes expanding work opportunities, bettering health and educational services throughout the country, preventing further poverty and overseeing a more equal distribution of income throughout the country.
Does British colonization play a role in the development of anti-American and anti-imperialist rhetoric in the Islamic movement in Egypt?
That is exactly right, in fact. The history of British colonization has a very profound effect on the region. But let us also not forget that the defeats inflicted by Israel as well as the far-from-sincere policies shown by the Western world towards Egypt led to a very serious level of opposition to the West among the Egyptian people. Some of the Egyptian groups who tried, post Camp David, to be friendly with Jewish society and America did not receive the support they expected from these entities.
So that the shared point for Egyptians belonging to different political streams really became over time anti-imperialist rhetoric.
Do you think that the view of the Ottomans among Egyptian intellectuals and in the Arab world has begun to change?
After the Ottoman state pulled out of the Arab world, the Arabs themselves became removed from their own history. What emerged was the lack of an objective view of Ottoman history and Islamic history. The past became an obscure memory when it was being remembered. And in fact, it was the Ottoman leadership that was blamed for later military, political and economic failures. And this stance actually became part of the official history in Arab countries. And interestingly, the cookie-cutter thoughts widespread in the Arab world when it comes to the Ottoman era in that world were largely shaped by Western historians themselves.
Thanks to increasingly close relations in recent years, the Arab public has begun to interpret Ottoman history more objectively. Playing an important and positive role in this change have been factors such as Turkish cinema, Turkish television, media, academia and even sports clubs. Not to mention of course Turkish foreign policy and the improved economic signs. Not only has there been a great deal of direct interest in the Arab world for the political, military and economic development of Turkey lately, but it has also given the Arab world a more sympathetic approach to Turkey, too. Also, Turkish historians have begun to draw attention to theses concerning the Ottoman state, and these theses have begun to gain acceptance. In fact, historians like Muhammed Harb, who have shared some very objective views of the Ottoman state, have become very popular with large crowds in the Arab world.
When you look at the whole picture as a historian, how do you think the US and the Western powers want to see the Islamic world and Turkey?
The US, today, wishes to have the Islamic world on its side. The US has a need for new markets, and it wishes to push ahead of China in that area of competition. The future vision for the US is to cooperate with a power that does not directly threaten its own strength, a power that has global competitiveness as well. The US would like to partner with Turkey and the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries to be more competitive. The Far East markets are currently controlled by China and India. It really wants to be selling more US goods to the Middle East. As for the cheap cost of production in China, it would like to see this transferred to Middle Eastern and African countries. This is why there is a need for more democratic governments in the Middle East. The middle classes need to swell in numbers, and the purchasing power held by people in these classes needs to rise in order for there to be a market for US goods. How will the middle classes in the Middle East begin to strengthen and spread? Resources currently held in the hands of a few will be spread around by way of new and democratic structures, and it will be the middle class that benefits largely from this… The textile and service sectors as well as small and mid-sized enterprises will be strengthened and multiply. In short, the work force of the Middle East will be working for global production. And thus, both China and India will face a new region of competition. For the US, the strengthening of Turkey has value within the framework of a balancing factor against a strengthening China. If the 1.5 billion in the Islamic world, with Turkey at the helm, were to cooperate with the US, this would definitely be to the benefit of the US on a global scale. The world population of Muslims, which represents around 20 percent of the global population, has a share of world trade that is around 9 percent. What this means is around $12 trillion in trade volume annually. In the year 2050, Muslims will be around 30 percent of the world population, or one out of every three people. In short, in making calculations based on all this for the future, the US wants close ties with the Islamic world so that it can continue to be a dominant power.
The calculations we see being made today are all based on economic power. The US, which wants to retain its hold on the global market and global capital, bases its calculations on this point. As the world leader, the US has entered into a trend of declining gross domestic product (GDP). While the US had a 22.95 percent share of the global economy in 1985, this dropped in 2009 to 20.02 percent and then to 19.59 percent in 2010.
According to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Germany -- as one of the countries that is key in shaping world policies -- saw its own share in the global economy drop from 5.64 percent in 1985 to 4.47 percent in 2005. At the same time, the rising star in the world economy, China, continues to see its share in global production rise. While it was at 2.89 percent in 1985, this share rose to 12.72 percent in 2010.
As for Turkey, while it is not seeing its weight in the world economy grow by leaps and bounds, it does continue to be able to increase its share. While its share was 1.02 percent in 1985, this rose to 1.35 percent in 2010.
When one looks at all this data, one notes that all of the Islamic countries combined hold the economic power of one China. Thus, efforts made by the US in competing with China economically to get the Islamic countries as allies are no surprise. As for the peoples of these Islamic countries, they will see political and economic benefits from this cooperation. Of course, these are analyses that are based on the conditions of today; as conditions change, so do US policies.
Kızıltoprak is a professor in Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University’s department of history. His doctorate, titled “Mısır’da İngiliz İşgali: Osmanlı’nın. Diplomasi Savaşı (1882-1887) (British Occupation in Egypt: the Ottoman’s Diplomatic War 1882-1887) was published by the History Foundation. In addition, the well-known professor is the author of many books on the foreign policies of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II, as well as the final century of the Ottomans in Egypt. His areas of expertise include, in addition to the Middle East, the administrative system of the Mamluks and the modern age.