Why Turkey Matters
The riots in Turkey can turn our world upside-down fast. Turkey's geographical position as a European and an Asian nation which commands the natural straits into the Black Sea are important as long as sea lanes have value. The history of this land -- the home of Troy, the place where Constantine founded his great city and empire, the marches across which Achaemenid emperors sent their polyglot hordes against the fledging city-states of Greece, the center of much of the early Christian church -- makes Turkey as important in atlases of the past as Rome or Persia.
The Ottoman Empire, the "sick man of Europe" in its last days, threatened the gates of Vienna and the heart of Europe a few decades before the American colonies won independence. It was not so nearly "sick" then. But for us today, Turkey holds a special place as the first overwhelmingly Muslim nation to become a thoroughly non-Islamic, secular government.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not a nice man. He was, in fact, a ruthless strongman, but he believed passionately in a Turkey which could enter into the company of modern industrial nations, as Japan had done. Atatürk and his followers revolutionized Turkey, creating a state in which women had equality before the law, in which all religions were tolerated and no state religion reigned, and in which Turkey would become a "rational actor" among the family of nations.
This meant that Turkey wisely sat out the Second World War, although Muslims around the world overwhelmingly yearned for Nazi victory. This pretty strict Turkish neutrality not only spared the Turkish people all the horrors of war, but also prevented the Nazis from overrunning the Middle East or, in the event of a Nazi defeat, prevented Stalin from occupying Turkey. The cautious Turkish government played the diplomatic game perfectly and tilted, to the extent that it titled at all, in favor of the British, who hated both totalitarianism and world war.
During the Cold War, Turkey became one of the earliest converts to containing communism, and its membership in NATO was vitally important to the security of the West. More than that, as the other nations of the world which were Muslim gained independence, Turkey became an important model for Muslim nations of how to enter the Western world.
Iran followed this model, becoming a close ally of America and the West, a Muslim land in which other faiths were welcome, a nation in which the lands of the mullahs were redistributed to peasants and the status of women was elevated, as in Turkey. Much of the nightmare we face with global Islam today is the product of the overthrow of the shah and his replacement by a blatantly theocratic and anti-Western clique.
Iran, like Turkey, is not an Arab nation. Most Muslims are not Arabs. What happens to this non-Arab Muslim world in places like Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan matters to us...a lot. If these people and these lands behave like Turkish Muslims have behaved over the last sixty years, then George W. Bush's rather silly statement about Islam being a "religion of peace" won't matter much.
When Iran was lost to the West, it not only affected the Cold War and condemned millions of Afghans to the nightmare of the Taliban, but it also meant that a nation which had normal diplomatic and trade relations with Israel suddenly condemned Israel to its present tag as the "Little Satan." Turkey, unlike the Arab Muslim world, has had normal relations with Israel.
If Turkey becomes another Iran, if the belt of non-Arab Muslims from Kazakhstan to Malaysia become viscerally and inalterably hostile to the existence of Israel, if these nations do what seemed four decades ago unthinkable in Iran, then we may be quickly faced with two very powerful forces: the hatred of Israel, which could propel conventional war and more against the Jewish state, and the absolute determination of the vast majority of Israelis to survive in the nation they made.
Watch Turkey. It matters.