A few months back, I was dining with a friend at an Armenian restaurant in Beirut, and at the end of the meal he gracefully sidestepped the Turkish question by ordering a “Byzantine” coffee. The waiter laughed grimly. “Aside from coffee and waterpipes,” asked my friend, “what did the Turks leave us? They were here for 500 years, and they didn’t even leave us their language. We speak Arabic, French, and English. No one speaks Turkish. Their most important political institutions were baksheesh and the khazouk.”
Baksheesh is bribery, and the khazouk is a spike driven through its victim’s rectum, which the Ottomans used to terrify locals and deter potential insurgents. The Ottomans were hated here and throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East, not only by the regional minorities (Christians, Jews, Shia, etc.) but also by their Sunni Arab coreligionists. All felt the heavy yoke of the Sublime Porte.
In the last few weeks, however, half a millennium’s worth of history has been conveniently forgotten, perhaps even forgiven, as Turkey has emerged as a regional power and the guarantor of Arab interests—against Israel, to be sure, but more importantly against Iran.
In truth, the wheels were in motion long before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government sponsored the Mavi Marmara’s cruise to Gaza, which left nine activists dead after they challenged an Israeli boarding party. Erdogan’s winter 2009 performance at Davos, when he confronted Israeli president Shimon Peres in the wake of the Gaza offensive, made the Turkish Islamist a regional celebrity. And while the Arab masses were thrilled to hear Israel denounced by a Muslim leader—and an ally of the Jewish state no less—the more important work was taking place behind the scenes. After Davos, high-level political sources in Beirut let on that there’d been a meeting in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak. “The Egyptians are very happy with Erdogan,” said one. “The Turks are trying to take the Palestinian file out of the hands of the Iranians and give it back to the Arabs.”
It’s not yet clear whether Ankara really means to restore the Arabs to their pride of place by handing over a Hamas scrubbed of Iranian influence, or, as is more likely, the Turks simply want to use the Palestinian cause to enhance its own regional credentials, as Tehran has been doing for the last three decades. But the Turkish gambit has induced a lot of willful self-delusion in the Arab states—and amnesia.
Long before Arab nationalism identified Israel and the United States (and before that the European powers) as the enemy, it was the Ottomans who were called to account for everything that was wrong in the Arabic-speaking regions. The Ottomans certainly encouraged Middle East sectarianism: playing up confessional differences, empowering some sects while weakening others, and balancing minorities against each other. Arab nationalism was inspired by Turkish nationalism, but it was a doctrine that asserted Arab independence from the Ottomans. There were no longer Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawi, etc., only Arabs, unified as one against the outsiders, the colonizers.
The Arab states that had been most directly oppressed by the Sublime Porte—and so those most divided along sectarian lines—were determined to illuminate the evils of Ottoman occupation. No Arab state was more anti-Turkish than Baathist Syria. The Syrian television serials that commonly promote the blood libel and feature other anti-Semitic caricatures at one time also cast Ottomans as villains. Indeed, Damascus went where even Washington fears to tread, producing serials that mention the Armenian genocide. And Syrian anti-Turkish sentiment wasn’t only about past affronts. Just as Damascus demands that Israel return the Golan Heights, there is a significant land dispute at the center of Syrian-Turkish relations. In 1939, the Turks conquered what is today known as Hatay province, but the Syrians call Iskenderun or Alexandretta, and which Damascus long claimed was occupied land. In 2005, the Syrians quietly relinquished their claims and thus opened a new chapter in the history of their two countries—which included a 1998 conflict in which Turkey was poised to invade its Arab neighbor until Hafez al-Assad handed over Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.