The ramifications of the recent Gaza flotilla incident are still unfolding. Yet it is already clear that Turkey’s government, in backing the flotilla organizers and lashing out at Israel’s interception of the hostile fleet, is steering that nation away from its alignment with Europe and the West back into the Islamic fold.

This shift was foreseen by some long before the flotilla set sail from Istanbul. Germans in particular have been sensitive to signs of change, due to their country’s relationship with Turkey going back to the Ottoman era and Germany’s alliance with Turkey in World War I.

In 2002, German political analyst Peter Scholl-Latour projected in his book Allah’s Shadow over Atatürk that secular Turkey might soon become a relic of the past. Fervent Islamic faith, he said, was no longer the religion of a small, backwards-looking fringe group but represented a burgeoning political movement. Today, it indeed has become mainstream in Turkish society, and the turn Eastward has been especially evident since Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power five years ago in the AKP faction that has governed Turkey for eight years now.

A decade ago, Erdogan became popular nationwide while serving as mayor of Istanbul. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison by the Kemalist generals because he had quoted from a Turkish poet during a campaign speech: “Our minarets are our lances, our cupolas are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks, our faithful are our army.” Western journalists criticized the verdict as arbitrary despotism. But the generals saw the secular character of their country threatened.

When Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey in 1923, he established a secular state inspired by the Swiss constitution. Islamic clergymen were not allowed to advance in the army that safeguarded the secular nature of the state. In some ways, Muslim Turks living in Germany could express their faith more freely than their compatriots back home.

Given this commitment to secularism and democracy, Turkey was a solid member of NATO and a promising aspirant to membership in the EU. It had tried to secure its place within the EU, mainly by adopting strict new economic guidelines demanded by Brussels. Yet as its application for membership was prolonged, Turkey began heading in the opposite direction, towards its Islamic past, which included 400 years of Ottoman Turk dominance over the Arab/Muslim heartland.

Eurocrats turned a blind eye to this development, hoping the fruits of growing prosperity would make the Islamic yearnings dissipate. But by the time of the IDF incursion into Gaza in January 2009, Erdogan was more outraged at Israel than most Arab leaders, accusing Israeli President Shimon Peres of knowing “how to kill.”

In 2008, Erdogan also stunned the German government during a state visit to Berlin. Addressing a crowd of 20,000 Turks living in Germany, France and Belgium, some for three generations, he insisted, “Assimilation is a crime against humanity.” He challenged his compatriots to adhere to their Turkish and Islamic heritage. His host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was not pleased.

Recently, Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, declared that Turkey is no longer content with its role as a bridge-builder between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Turkey, he demanded, must become again the center of gravity of the region. This harkened back to the nearly five centuries when the High Porte in Istanbul controlled a territory reaching from the Balkans through most of the Middle East and as far as Morocco. The Ottoman Empire was not only a political entity, but its Caliphate served as the highest spiritual authority for most of the Islamic world.

Is Turkey intent on returning to those Ottoman days? After the Gaza flotilla clash, it is clear that Israel and the West are confronting not just Iran but a resurgent Turkey. This represents a unique challenge to Europe due to Turkey’s proximity and its economic integration with the EU.

A leading German commentator recently suggested that the millions of Turks living in Germany and Holland may one day prove to be a “fifth column” of an ambitious Turkey.

Dr. Bühler is international director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (www.icej.org)

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