Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

When motherlands go rogue

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Alper Ali Riza

In the recent tragic air crash of a German airliner one of the pilots deliberately crashed his plane into the French Alps killing all 150 passengers on board. In the jargon that haunts airline passengers the world over, the pilot had gone rogue! Going rogue occurs when the role of someone who protects from harm is perverted to that of someone who inflicts harm.

Like individuals, states can go rogue too, which is what happened in 1974 when the dictatorship in Greece forcibly removed the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, from power which in turn precipitated a Turkish military response. From a Greek Cypriot perspective, Greece had gone rogue and virtually destroyed Cyprus. It was all such a great pity because the Cyprus problem had nearly been sorted back then with only Archbishop Makarios stubbornly holding back in brinkmanship mode that was the hallmark of his negotiating style and the cause of his downfall.

Although Turkey purported to intervene as a guarantor power, her military response did not actually protect the Turkish Cypriots but rather caused them to be attacked and displaced from the south of Cyprus. If protecting the Turkish Cypriots were the true purpose there would have been military operations throughout the Island not just on a narrow beachhead in Kyrenia. The way the operation was planned and carried out resulted in the annihilation of most Turkish Cypriot enclaves in most districts in the south of Cyprus.

More recently, history repeated itself as farce when Greece became insolvent and her insolvency nearly sank Cyprus financially in 2013, and may yet do so if the Greek Cypriots do not persuade the world money markets they are determined to repay their debts and re-establish their reputation for sound economic management which they lost owing to their exposure to Greek sovereign debt. The banking system of Cyprus survived the 1974 war only to see depositors lose billions in 2013 because successive governments were, and still are, too sensitive about being branded as unpatriotic in their attitude to the Greek financial crisis. This was the reason why Cyprus foolishly exposed its banking system to the Greek sovereign bond market that lost billions of euros in the massive haircut of Greek sovereign debt that followed.

In Turkey there have been military takeovers aplenty, although none that significantly affected the Turkish Cypriots or Turkish foreign policy in the sense that the Turkish military did not overtly ever seek to overthrow the authorities in northern Cyprus, not least because there was no need to do so. Paradoxically, the only interference was when Mr Denktash was gently removed from power by Mr Erdogan’s civilian government in time for the referendum in 2004.

The more worrying question these days is, what would become of northern Cyprus if President Erdogan establishes a Caliphate in Turkey? Indeed what will become of the whole of Cyprus in such an eventuality? The question is real and must be food for thought for many thinking Turkish Cypriots as they go to the polls today.

Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1925 after the Sultan was stripped of political power and sent into exile. Ataturk actually turned down pleas from Asian Muslims to become Caliph himself, pointing out that the focus of his attention was to found the new secular Republic of Turkey that was to rise like the phoenix from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I. He was not interested in assuming the mantle of head of the Muslim world that would have included present day Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Arabia whose tribes fought a rogue-jihad on the side of Britain and France against the Ottoman Empire. In the event, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered, ostensibly to make way for Arab self-rule, but in truth to safeguard British and French oil interests that in turn was to facilitate the creation of the State of Israel.

President Erdogan is no Ataturk. He is oblivious to Ataturk’s firm rejection of the Caliphate and the reasons for its abolition. Apparently he does not appreciate that the Arab world is complex, unpredictable and not much enamoured by Turks, as indeed many Turks are not much enamoured by Arabs. By contrast, Mr Erdogan believes that there are no nationalities in Islam and that the Arab world would support a Turkish Caliph on the back of the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam. Of late he has even taken to wearing his Sunni faith on his sleeve and become obsessive in his hatred of the regimes in Syria and Egypt; slow to move against Islamic State; and fanatical in his support of Hamas in Palestine.

President Erdogan appears to wish to return Turkey to the days of the Caliphate when sharia law reigned supreme, women covered, and men drank nothing stronger than sherbet. And paradoxically, but very skilfully, he has used Turkey’s application to join the EU to bring the Turkish armed forces under political control, the better to move Turkey away from European values.

There is a sea change taking place in Turkey which should worry many Turkish Cypriots, most of whom are loyal to Ataturk’s secular legacy. Out of misguided loyalty and gratitude, the standard Turkish Cypriot attitude to governments in Turkey is to take them as they find them. However this attitude, understandable though it is, needs to change because President Erdogan is in the process of turning the clock back and dismantling Ataturk’s legacy back to religious obscurantism, which would be disastrous for Cyprus.

The problem has been around for some time. Mr Denktash told me in a television interview before he died that Mr Erdogan’s Islamist agenda was bad news for the Turkish Cypriots. More specifically, he was concerned about Mr Erdogan’s fierce support for Hamas in Palestine, which Mr Denktash felt was done at the expense of the Turkish Cypriots. Mr Denktash, with his customary acuity and prescience, spotted Mr Erdogan’s Islamist agenda early. As we saw recently, Turkey was oblivious to the plight of the Turkomans in Iraq in the hands of Islamic State, in contrast to his megaphone diplomacy against Israel when it attacked Hamas in Gaza last summer, which was legitimate but not as important as protecting kith and kin.

The crucial point about both motherlands is that things can go terribly wrong when they go rogue, and the lesson of history in Cyprus is that it is dangerous and irresponsible to allow a political problem in a small place between people with a history of hatred to fester so long with such unreliable motherlands. Turkey has not gone rogue yet in the sense that she has not yet become fundamentalist or undemocratic. No one doubts Mr Erdogan’s ability to win elections for himself and his party or the fact that the Turkish economy has improved enormously under his government since it came to power in 2002; and perhaps Turkey needed a one-dimensional pious man in power for a while as a necessary corrective. But he has a dictatorial streak that can become dangerous when coupled with religious fervour.

We love our little island. It is time for us to tell the bitter truth loudly and clearly, that our motherlands are unreliable and may yet destroy our paradise island if we let them. No one needs Greece to be Greek or Turkey to be Turkish. Turkey and Greece are just 20th Century constructs. As Ataturk said once about being Turkish, “all you need to be Turkish is to feel Turkish and speak the Turkish language.” In the case of being Greek, professor Peter Jones tells us in his book on Ancient Greek, that there was no nation state of Ancient Greece but an area around the Aegean that was inhabited by people who spoke Greek, often with different dialects.

But as they say, the Greek Cypriot dialect of today and its influence on the Greek Cypriot psyche is another story and the subject of an article in its own right.


Alper Ali Riza is a Queen’s Counsel and a part time judge in England

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