Israel and Turkey: How Changing Demographics Are Affecting International Relations in the Middle East

Years ago, when I was earning my master’s degree at the London School of Economics, I had a memorable conversation with a classmate of mine from Istanbul named Deniz. Over a couple beers at the Three Tuns, Deniz explained Turkey’s two most pressing problems—the rise of political Islam and the Kurdish separatist movement—and he tied both to one primary factor: demographics. (The Three Tuns is one of the few bars in the world where young men talk equally about normal bar topics, such as sports and the attractive young female at the next table, and topics as arcane as Turkish demographics.)

“When Atatürk founded Turkey, there was no Kurdish problem,” Deniz explained, “because there were practically no Kurds. But because the Kurds have had larger families for decades, they’ve become a larger percentage of the population. The next thing you know, they’re wanting independence and we have a problem. Ocalan, the leader of the PKK (Kurdish separatist group), is said to have suggested that every Kurd must either grab his gun every morning…or grab his wife every night.”

The rise of political Islam follows a similar storyline. Turkey is constitutionally secular. In fact, the separation of church (or mosque) and state in Turkey is in some ways significantly stricter than in the United States or in virtually any European country but France. (Atatürk used secular France as a model when he founded the Turkish Republic).

Turkey has become distinctly more Islamic in recent years, and this is largely a demographic phenomenon. Naturally, some formerly secular Turks have decided to grow out their beards and observe Ramadan. But much of the shift has been due to the simple fact that devoutly Islamic Turkish women have more babies and at younger ages than their secular sisters.

I recollected this conversation years later after reading Tobias Buck’s May 22, 2010 article in the Financial Times: “Secular Israel senses threat in rise of the ultra-orthodox.”

Ultra-orthodox Jews are easy to spot in a crowd. They wear wide-brimmed black hats, full beards, and distinctive side locks of hair that nearly stretch to their chins. To the casual gentile observer, they look a lot like the Amish or Mennonites. And they are becoming an increasingly large and restive percentage of the Israeli population.

Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, the ultra-orthodox are in the State of Israel but not of it.

As Buck describes the situation, “The ultra-orthodox have always had a troubled relationship with Israel. A minority reject the secular Jewish state as a religious abomination and refuse to vote or pay taxes…. Mostly, however, the two sides [secular/moderately religious and ultra-orthodox] have kept to an intricate set of live-and-let-live agreements. Crucially, the ultra-orthodox have their own stream of schools, and those in a yeshiva, of Jewish seminary, are exempt from military service.

“But that deal is starting to unravel because of the sharp increase in the ultra-orthodox population. Once a tiny minority, the community now accounts for at least 8 per cent of the Israeli adult population. It is forecast to double every 16 years.”

This is becoming an economic problem for Israel. Two thirds of ultra-orthodox men do not work, and for good reason. They learn no marketable skills in their religious schools. The only thing they are qualified to do is sit in a synagogue and read. So, ultra-orthodox families are becoming larger and larger burden to Israel’s welfare state.

By now, you might be legitimately wondering why any of this matters. I assure you that it does.

Turkey and Israel have had one of the strongest alliances in the greater Middle East for over two decades. The made sense for a number of reasons: Turkey and Israel were both secular, Western-oriented countries with world-class armies and dynamic economies. And perhaps more critically, both have a deeply-rooted fear and dislike of their Arab and Persian neighbors. (As another old LSE classmate, a Turkish Cypriot from Nicosia, explained it, “We Turks have never forgiven the Arabs for siding with the British in World War I. It’s their fault that we lost the Ottoman Empire.”)

In the days when nationality trumped religion, the Turkish-Israeli alliance was natural. But with religion increasingly filling the identity void once filled by the state, many Turks are starting to question why they are allied with Jews against their fellow Muslims.  The recent incident in which Israeli soldiers clashed with a group of Turkish pro-Palestinian activists at sea vividly illustrates how badly relations have deteriorated.  In protest over the clash, in which at least nine activists were killed, Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan labeled Israel’s actions “inhuman state terror” against unarmed civilians while Israel defended the actions as being in legitimate self defense against armed agents provocateurs who were anything but innocent.  I suspect that once investigations are done, the Israeli explanation will prove to be closer to the truth (Israel has already released footage of its soldiers being severely beaten by the pro-Palestinian mob), but in the end it doesn’t matter.  The damage to the relationship between the two countries is done.

Of course, any war of words in the Middle East has to be viewed in a broader context. Some of Erdogan’s rhetoric is no doubt aimed at pleasing the core of his electoral support, Turkey’s devout Muslims. Some is likely aimed at buying other friends in the region.  But no small part of Erdogan’s motivation is his desire to assert a Turkish foreign policy in his own image.  By bashing Israel, Erdogan is asserting his independence both from Turkey’s traditional Western allies and from its own recent past.

Turkish-American relations in the wake of the Iraq War are at the lowest point since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Turkish-European relations are likewise rather strained by the EU’s stonewalling of Turkey’s negotiations for membership in the bloc. It could be that the recent Turkish antagonism towards Israel is more of a blowback against the West in general than an attack on Israel in particular. But from the Israeli perspective it is disturbing nonetheless.

For Israel, losing Turkey as an ally would be a major strategic setback. It would leave Israel increasingly dependent on the United States and Europe for diplomatic, financial, and military support, and Europe has proven over the years to be an unreliable ally when allies are actually needed.

That leaves the United States. While both the Republicans and the Democrats are currently staunch supporters of Israel, the country is still taking an enormous risk by depending so heavily on one foreign ally. It reduces Israel to the status of a client state and reduces its room to maneuver. Should there come a time when the strategic goals of the United States and Israel diverge, Israel could find itself isolated. Given the country’s precarious existence in a hostile neighborhood, this could literally mean the difference between life and death.

All of this is speculation, of course. Demographics, however, are cold, hard facts. And the facts show that the Middle East is changing. The decline of the Lebanese Christians over the past three decades was one of the first major shifts (see “Changing Global Demographics: Christians and Muslims in the Mideast” ). Today, we see Turkey and Israel becoming distinctly more Muslim and more Jewish, respectively. This subtle shift away from their secular identities will make it increasingly harder for these two nations to cooperate in the future.

This is not to say that I am necessarily bearish on the economic prospects for either country. In fact, I’m actually quite bullish. Both have world-class companies and increasingly open and competitive economies, and I see both prospering in the years ahead. I’ve even recommended Turkish stocks in the recent past.

The changing demographic picture does, however, add an interesting wrinkle. And understanding this wrinkle will go a long way to helping understand the mystery and intrigue of Middle Eastern international relations.

Changing Global Demographics: Christians and Muslims in the Middle East

“Across the Middle East, where Christianity was born and its followers once made up a sizable portion of the population, Christians are now tiny minorities,” writes Kristen Chick. “Driven by different factors — the search for better opportunities abroad, their status as targets of Iraq’s sectarian conflict, a low birth rate, and discrimination — the trend largely holds true across a region where Christians have maintained a presence for two millenniums.” — From “The Wane of Christians in the Mideast,” Christian Science Monitor print edition, January 24, 2010.

The demographic changes happening in the Middle East have interesting implications for the economic development of the region, not to mention the geopolitics as well. We’ll cover some of these trends today.

Ms. Chick’s article reminded me of several long conversations I’ve had with a Jordanian friend, a doctor from that country’s small Christian minority. Not to play on stereotypes, but many of these conversations were had over the requisite hookah (a water pipe used for smoking flavored tobacco for those unfamiliar with the word).

His life story is typical of his coreligionists across the region. His name, “Ala’a,” is an old Arabic name that predates the rise of Islam (“Aladdin,” from the Arabian Nights, is a more recent Islamic variation of the name). But to untrained Western ears, “Ala’a” is indistinguishable from the Muslim name for God, “Allah.” It’s hard enough to explain to a layman that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not the same thing without your Christian name sounding like Muslim God.

At any rate, Ala’a was one of those Middle Eastern Christians who left, in Chick’s words, for “better opportunities abroad” and he’s not alone. He has several cousins scattered across the United States and elsewhere, virtually all of which are male. This leads us to one of Chick’s second points — the low birthrate among Middle Eastern Christians.

For a variety of reasons, including, among others, a higher level of education than the general population and the legacy of the relationship between the old European colonial masters and the Christian Arabs, the Christians in the region have birthrates that are close to European lows, while their Muslim countrymen have birthrates that are significantly higher. You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that this means that the Christian subpopulation will become an increasingly smaller minority over time. Add to this the issue that, in some countries, it is legal (and convenient) for a Christian to convert to Islam but illegal (or functionally impossible without putting yourself at serious risk) for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, and you can quickly see that the odds do not favor the Arab Christians.

Emigration is another serious issue. With better opportunities elsewhere, the young men often leave. Some return years or decades later, but the problem remains that there are many young women of marriage age who are competing for a shrinking pool of eligible bachelors. “This wouldn’t be a problem” jokes Ala’a (at least I think he was joking; I never really know with this guy…), “if we could all have multiple wives like the Muslims. But you could never put two Christian Arab women under the same roof. They’d kill each other…and probably kill me too in the process.”

All joking aside, perhaps some of these women should learn Mandarin Chinese — China has its own gender imbalance issues, as we’ve written before.

Meanwhile, the numbers continue to get worse, as you can see in the chart below.

In the early 20th century, Christians made up about 20% of the population of the Middle East. As a point of reference, that is roughly equal to the combined percentage of Asians and Hispanics in the United States today. One out of five people walking the street was a Christian Arab. Outside of Lebanon, the percentage is quickly shrinking to the point of irrelevance; across the region it has shrunk to less than 5%.

What are the implications of these trends? There are many, and none are good. The existence of Christian Arabs creates a point of commonality between the West and the Islamic world; without them, the “us vs. them” mentality becomes all the stronger. As Chick states in her article, “As Christians leave the Middle East, some worry they will leave behind an increasingly polarized society. When members of different religions or sects live side by side, they are more likely to see each other as people and not adversaries.”

The Arab Christians also offer a liberalizing influence. Unless forced to veil themselves out of concern for their safety — a growing problem in Egypt, for example — Christian Arab women wear western clothes and would appear indistinguishable from Greek women to most outside observers.

But perhaps the biggest loss would be economic. When Queen Isabel expelled the Muslims and Jews from Spain in the 15th century, the chief beneficiary was the Ottoman Empire. Spain lost some of its best craftsmen and traders, many of whom were Jewish. Until the advent of Turkish nationalism in the late 1800s / early 1900s, the Ottomans benefited handsomely from the skills these refugees brought from Spain and from the skills of their own minorities, mostly Greek Orthodox Christians. When the Ottoman Empire was dismembered after World War I, the rump of the empire became a Turkish nation state — and it sorely missed the commercial ties and professional expertise of its former minority subjects.

Might the same be happening in the Arab world today? You bet. Even as educational standards are improving in the region, it takes years to develop networks and business relationships. “Good ol’ boy” connections, as we call them in the South, require the presence of good ol’ boys — the established power brokers and gatekeepers — and these connections are slowly getting dismantled.

I’m speaking in vague generalities, of course. But I do believe that these demographic trends will make a real difference in the continued development of the region. Unfortunately, this isn’t a testable hypothesis because we can never know what might have been. At the very least, we can consider this one of several significant factors that will affect the future of the Middle East.