June 13, 2009
Talking Turkey: My Own Speech in a Muslim CountryBy Joel J. Sprayregen
Last week, I gave my own provocative speech in a Muslim country. The occasion was a conference of the Turkish think tank ARI (Movement for Civil Society) in Istanbul, that fabulous city straddling two continents plus countless centuries. The topic was: "The Security and Diplomacy Role of NATO in the 21st Century." Readers understand that I am long on security and short on diplomacy. I was blunt in what I told the assembled diplomats, officials, academics and journalists from many countries, joined in the auditorium by members of the Turkish public.
Lobbying for a Key U.S. Ally
I made it clear that I spoke as a friend of Turkey, one of few Muslim countries practicing a form of democracy. I paid tribute to Turkish defense of democracy dating back to the Korean and Cold Wars, as well as its NATO roles in the Balkans and (non-combatant) in Afghanistan. I reminded that I lobbied for Turkey in such matters as procurement of Apache helicopters to fight PKK terrorists (more than 36,000 people have been killed in southeast Turkey, a region I have visited, though most of my well-traveled Turkish friends have not), as well as in resisting Armenian Genocide Resolutions in our Congress (not because Armenians had not been brutalized but because passage would gravely damage U.S. relations with an important. ally which is essential, e.g., to supplying our troops in Iraq). Recalling that NATO is based on shared democratic values proclaimed by Roosevelt and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter, I cited three areas where Turkey's adherence to democracy is currently menaced:
Omnipresent Surveillance and Official Witch-Hunt
Recently, I noted that Turkish friends no longer respond candidly to me in e-mails or phone conversations. I asserted that the shadow of surveillance is inconsistent with the values of a free society. I acknowledged that this is related to a widening investigation called Ergenekon, which originally targeted a suspected coup, but threatens to become a witch-hunt to silence secularists, e.g., arrests in April of 12 middle-aged women working for an NGO providing scholarships for poor girls.
Do not Choose Your Friends from the Rogues' Gallery
Acknowledging Turkey's traditional hospitableness, I asked why its Government "repeatedly treats as honored guests an international rogues' gallery consisting of Hamas Chieftain Khalid Meshaal, Sudanese President al-Bashir--for whom the International Court of Criminal Justice has issued an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur--and (3) Iraqi Warlord al-Sadr." I recalled that when Syria and other countries hosted PKK Chief Abdullah Ocalan, friends of Turkey demanded his rendition. He now sits for life in a Turkish prison because the European Union pressured Turkey not to implement the well-merited death sentence.
A Shameful Surge of Anti-Semitism
I recalled tense days last January when I was in daily contact with leaders of Turkey's Jewish community of 22,000 members--living among 71 million Muslims--concerning fears resulting from threats against Jews (see my article of Feb. 8, 2008, Turkey's Prime Minister Leads His Country Down a Destructive Path). My decibels rising for emphasis, I reminded that "Turkish Jews were targeted by officials, political parties and media, including billboards, depicting the strife in Gaza as a struggle between religions. Turkish Jews were made to fear for their safety, e.g, a sign in a store proclaimed "Dogs are welcome, but not Jews and Armenians.'" Jewish doctors took down signs showing their names. A placard in a demonstration of the ruling AK Party said: "Now I understand the value of Hitler." A school in a large Anatolian city distributed sweets on Hitler's birthday. Turkish Jews were vilified as barely tolerated guests in a country they have lived in as loyal citizens for 500 years. While Turkey's top officials at times cautioned against anti-Semitism and the storm has subsided, I wondered aloud: "Have the germs of anti-Semitism been cleansed, or are they incubating until the next storm?" Polls published while I was in Turkey revealed widespread anti-Semitism, e.g., a majority of Turks do not want to live next to a Jewish family. Anti-Semitism is spewed in the government-allied Islamist press, as well as by extreme nationalists and political extremists on the left and right. A subsidized version of Mein Kampf is a best-seller. I saw it widely displayed in the Booksellers' Bazaar, a place I nerdily frequent in obstinate idiosyncratic preference to the better known Grand Bazaar.
Concurrence from Turks
I harbored residual concern for reactions of my Turkish friends, who are justifiably proud of their republic. Ex-Ambassador Onur Oymen immediately took the floor. A member of Parliament from the CHP Opposition (Ataturk's party) and former permanent Turkish Representative to NATO, he emphatically said he agreed with my remarks, and it was important for Turks to hear this. When Vahit Erdem, member of Parliament from the AK Party and head of Turkey's delegation to the NATO Assembly, asked for the microphone, I was apprehensive. He advised leaving Ergenekon to the Turkish judiciary. He said he personally had opposed contact with Hamas, which he frankly called a "terrorist" organization, but Turkey had to consider that Hamas had won an election. He said the Hamas leader had been hosted not by the Government but by the deputy head of his party. Erdem allowed that the Gaza war had drawn hostile sentiments against Turkish Jews but cautioned about generalizing from single cases. His remarks confirmed for me that the Government is presently embarrassed, at least for foreign consumption, by the anti-Semitism it instigated and abetted. But the bigotry continues in Government-aligned newspapers, including what Fouad Ajami, the great scholar of Islam, calls "the most malignant fantasies of anti-Americanism."
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador, said I had spoken "courageously" and that Turkey should use its prestige to test Iran and Hamas. The last word belonged to the moderator, my friend Kemal Koprulu, founder of ARI and scion of an eminent Turkish family. He said ARI had criticized Turkey for inviting Meshaal before Hamas showed how it would govern and concluded: "Turkey should be holding Hamas accountable."
Whither Turkey: East or West?
I don't presume these discussions momentously settled anything. They comprised part of hours of concerned debate about daunting challenges of trans-Atlantic security and diplomacy. Noteworthy were concerns of participants from ex-Soviet dominated states about Russian bullying in the light of Turkey's lessened concerns about Russian hegemonism. The Islamist policies of Turkey's government are a continuing cause for alarm, as is the perception that Turkey's increasing coziness with neighbors like Iran and Syria weakens solidarity against state sponsors of terror. I came away with more questions than answers, particularly after young Turkish intellectuals expressed frustration that they felt excluded from meaningful political activity.
Watching Turkey's young people (65% of the population is under age 35) enjoy late spring nights in cafes along the Bosporus, it is difficult to picture this country going fundamentalist. But a visit to the new Panorama 1453 Museum, located near the point at which the Ottomans breached the old city walls, left me less confident. The Museum colorfully recounts the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in Islamic terms, citing a hadith of Mohamed as calling for the conquest. The Museum is strongly endorsed by Prime Minister Erodogan and was commissioned while he was Istanbul's Mayor. The explanations are only in Turkish, though English headphones are available. The Sunday visitors were mostly Muslim fundamentalists, with almost no foreigners. There are no new museums to honor Kemal Ataturk, the visionary but tough founder of the Turkish secular republic.
The call of religious tradition
This is increasingly powerful, and AKP shrewdly uses control of the economy and patronage to further Islamist power. "Reforms" demanded by the European Union have weakened the power of the Turkish armed forces to enforce secularism, but Europe's citizens are ambivalent if not hostile to Turkish accession to the E..U., risking a bitter backlash in Turkey if after years of haggling it is rejected for full membership. No one can tell exactly where Turkey is going, nor to what extent its domestic Islamist politics will alter its foreign policy.
Joel J. Sprayregen, a Chicago lawyer, is associated with JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) and other think tanks dealing with international security issues.