From The Economist print edition
The visionary behind Turkey's newly assertive foreign policy
SHIMON PERES became the first Israeli president to address the parliament of a Muslim country when he spoke to Turkish deputies on November 13th. “We may be saying different prayers, but our eyes are turned toward the same sky and toward the same vision for the Middle East,” he told an audience that included both the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Turkish one, Abdullah Gul.
For Turkey, this was an historic moment, a chance to reclaim the muscle of its Ottoman forebears as a force in the Middle East. Until a few years ago, Turkey, with its intimate ties with America and Israel, was scorned by its Arab neighbours as a Western stooge. The suppression of public expressions of Muslim piety decreed by Ataturk merely reinforced the canard that Turkey was run by crypto-Jews.
But this image has faded since the mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party came to power five years ago. Even as it pursued the goal of European Union membership, AK started to revive long-dormant ties with the Muslim world. Driving this multi-pronged vision is Ahmet Davutoglu, the self-effacing chief adviser on foreign policy to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Disgruntled foreign-ministry officials discount Mr Davutoglu's behind-the-scenes influence, but it is unquestionably huge. Both Mr Erdogan and Mr Gul call him Hodja, or teacher. The former academic drew their attention in the mid-1980s with essays on Islam and the West. Ali Babacan, Turkey's young foreign minister, whom Mr Erdogan is rumoured to be grooming as his successor, takes Mr Davutoglu with him wherever he goes.
Critics accuse Mr Davutoglu of pulling away from the West. Never more so than when Turkey invited Hamas's leader, Khaled Meshal, just as Condoleezza Rice, America's secretary of state, was flying to the Middle East to tell Arab governments not to deal with Hamas after its Palestine election win in January 2006. Many see this as the biggest foreign-policy blunder of the Erdogan era. Sitting in his office in the Ottoman sultan's last palace, Dolmabahce, Mr Davutoglu disagrees. Was it not America that exhorted Hamas to take part in the election, he asks. “So why refuse to recognise its results?” Turkey's aim was to persuade Hamas to recognise Israel. Yet the affair had a toxic effect on Turkey's relations with America and Israel.
Born into a merchant family in the conservative city of Konya, Mr Davutoglu is unabashedly pious. He clawed his way into an elite Istanbul lycée, where he was educated in German. Mr Davutoglu rankled at having to read Western classics before touching Turkish ones. Why were Turkey's ideas imported from the West? Where was the great Turkish thinker?
Mr Davutoglu's desire to transform Turkey into a pivotal country in the region lies at the heart of his vision. Turkey was long perceived, he told a conference, “as having strong muscles, a weak stomach, a troubled heart and a mediocre brain.” Getting away from this means creating strong economic ties across Turkey's borders. Even as the Turks threaten separatist PKK rebels inside northern Iraq, business ties with the Iraqi Kurds flourish. Hawks who called for the expulsion of Armenian migrants when an American congressional committee passed a bill calling the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians “genocide” were overruled. At the same time Mr Davutoglu is an avid proponent of Turkey's membership of the EU. “Turkey can be European in Europe and eastern in the East, because we are both,” he insists.
The chaos in Iraq and the escalation of PKK attacks remain Turkey's biggest headaches. Yet here too Turkey is taking the initiative. On November 5th it hosted a conference of Iraq's neighbours that was attended by Ms Rice. A day later Mr Davutoglu flew to Washington with Mr Erdogan. He was one of a handful of Turks present at Mr Erdogan's talks with George Bush. Dealing with Turkish foreign policy means dealing with Mr Davutoglu.