Turkey's Prime Minister Leads His Country Down a Destructive Path

It is dismaying to see a country I have admired and worked for propelling itself outside the mainstream of western civilization.  Epic statesman Kemal Ataturk,  founder of the Turkish republic,  replaced religiously ordered Ottoman society (the Sultan was caliph of all Sunni Moslems) with pride in Turkishness.  Secularism, protected by the army, became a core value of the Turkish state in modernizing a once great country which lagged behind European nations (Turkey straddles Europe and Middle East). 

Western-looking modernizations included replacing the Arabic alphabet with the Roman, separating mosque from state, and elevating the status of women.  The culmination of the innovations initiated by Ataturk (who died in 1938) was seen by many Turks in the late 1990s -- euphorically -- as Turkey's eventual entrance into the European Union.  But secular politicians in Turkey turned out to be corrupt and dysfunctional.   The country is now governed by the Islamist AKP (Justice and Welfare Party) whose leader, Prime Minister Recip Erdogan, is acting like the head of a Middle Eastern theocracy  rather than a secular republic.                     

A charter NATO member -- based on shared democratic values -- Turkey anchored Europe's southeast  defenses throughout the Cold War and sent troops to Korea and Afghanistan.  In marked contrast,  Erdogan  is pursuing an Islamic foreign policy featuring publicized meetings with  the most  radical leaders in the Muslim world, e.g., the chiefs of  Iran, Sudan, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Erdogan welcomed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Istanbul at a time when the International Criminal Court was seeking his arrest for mass murder in Darfur. 

Turkey chairs the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) a religious assembly currently promoting an international statute making it a worldwide crime to criticize Islam. Ataturk would have kept his distance from the OIC. Turkey's embrace of terrorists undermines its traditional close military-diplomatic-commercial-tourism ties with Israel, which made Turkey's 22,000 Jews -- living among 70 million Muslims -- feel more secure.
The Ottomans welcomed Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and for most of the succeeding five centuries, Jews have fared better in Turkey than in the heart of Europe.  I have heard Erdogan call Jews "part of the fabric of Turkish society."  Populist anti-Semitism  was  rare in Turkey. Today, "its seeds are being spread by the political leadership," according to Soner Cagaptay, prominent Turkish-American scholar.   

A mosaic of tolerance being  shattered 

This mosaic of tolerance is being shattered in the wake of Israel's offensive against Hamas.  Mass demonstrations and media vilification threaten violence against  Turkish Jews.  A Turkish store exhibited a sign proclaiming:  "Jews and Armenians not allowed.  Dogs are welcome."  A placard from AKP members proclaimed "I understand the value of Hitler."  Another said "Every Zionist is a target."  Demonstrators, including children, dress as Hamas gunmen and exhibit mock coffins which they tell Jews to prepare to use.  For the first time in 500 years, Turkish Jews -- as they tell me in direct communications -- live in fear. Jewish-owned businesses are told to close. Jewish physicians have removed nameplates from their offices.  The Jewish community issued a statement, revealing  palpable anxiety and unease: 

Anti-Israel rhetoric adopted by some local media as well as in mass demonstrations...has unfortunately been slickly transformed into anti-Semitism....We Turkish Jews are an inseparable part of the Turkish Republic and  are deeply distressed by the insulting, humiliating accusations being maliciously targeted by some national media.

The statement noted a recent speech in which Erdogan said he abhorred anti-Semitism.                        

Prominent psychologist Leyla Navarro -- whom I have seen on Turkish television calming her countrymen after a devastating earthquake -- published an article replying to Erdogan's   reference to 1492: 

Is it still a debt of mine that 500 years ago my ancestors were accepted by the Sultan?  Am I still regarded as a guest in this land where I was born and raised, in which I fulfill my responsibilities as a citizen and have actually contributed to its development?  Shall I walk with my head down?  Am I a candidate for being threatened?

Navarro, whose views about the Mideast  are dovish,  said she is scared, sad and anxious  Commendably, Turkish President Abdullah Gul (whose wisdom I praised  in a  newspaper column a year ago after meeting with him) telephoned Navarro and  reiterated  condemnation  of anti-Semitism.  But neither Gul nor Erdogan have called upon their political followers and the media they control to stop threatening Turkish Jews. 

Erdogan:  Hamas rockets are harmless

It is legitimate that Erdogan criticizes some Israeli actions, as European leaders -- and many Israelis -- do.  But Erdogan's rhetoric apocalyptically fuses religious fervor with false assertions, e.g., "Allah would punish Israel" and bring it "destruction," calling for Israel's suspension from the U.N. and insisting "Hamas rockets are not causing any casualties in Israel."  Citizens take their lead from their government concerning foreign affairs, thus there is a link between Erdogan's vilifications and the threats directed against Jews. 

The Prime Minister misses no opportunity to escalate tensions.  At the Davos Economic Forum last week, when Israeli President Shimon Peres-recipient of a Nobel Peace prize-responded to a blistering attack from Erdogan, the Prime Minister lost it.  He yelled "When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill" and stormed off the podium.  

Ataturk always manifested dignity in public.  Study  the photographs showing him fastidiously dressed, demonstrating Turkey's place among European nations.  It used to be said that Turkey constituted  a unique bridge between Europe and the Middle East as well as between Islam and Christianity.  Under Erdogan, Turkey is becoming a bridge to Iran, Syria and the Sudan.  Cagaptay questions whether Turkey should still be considered a western ally.                 

There are overlapping explanations for Erdogan's conduct.  When Muslims are killed, pain clouds his judgment.  I sat with him in a small meeting in Washington in 2004 and saw overflowing visceral anger leading him to characterize Palestinian suicide bombers as "boys throwing stones."  

But he is also a master politician conscious that Turkey holds local elections in March. Tip O'Neill famously observed that "All politics is local politics." Erdogan is agitating fervor among Islamists forming AKP's base.  He may have concluded that the E.U. will not admit Turkey and that he should vie for leadership of the Islamic world. Erdogan may feel invincible because "reforms" fecklessly demanded by the E.U. limit the power of the army to protect secularism.  He may see Turkey's commercial  relations with Russia and Iran as more important those with Europe.  This would be a major  economic mistake, but we will leave that for a separate article 

Turkish headline: ‘Erdogan's applause will not last long'

While Erdogan received plaudits from Iran's president and Islamists for his Davos tantrum, moderate Turkish press began to complain (one headline: "The applause will not last long") that Erdogan's behavior, reminiscent of Khrushchev banging his shoe at the U.N., harmed his country by diminishing its credentials as an E.U. aspirant and Mideast interlocutor.  Moderate Arab powers -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan -- are discomfited to see Endogen act in tandem with Iran. U.S. Special Envoy Mitchell cancelled his first visit to Ankara. 

Bigoted rhetoric from a Turkish Prime Minister invites recollection of the seamy underside of a great country, including Turkish treatment of Armenians, Kurds and Protestants (Google "Turkey and Christians" and you will be horrified). Current Turkish press tersely reports "700 PKK (i.e., Kurdish separatists) Killed in 2008" as if Kurds were not human beings. I acknowledge that the PKK is a terrorist organization, but so is Hamas, and Erdogan is enraged by every casualty among Hamas gunmen.                                  

Even in Arab countries and Iran, there have been no threats against tiny Jewish communities. The Dreyfuss trial led to Vichy, and Kristallnacht led to Auschwitz.  The decay of the Soviet Union became apparent when Soviet anti-Semitism was exposed.  We do not know what will follow from Erdogan's incendiary rhetoric (Cagaptay says it reaches "Islamist fever pitch"), but we can see it encourages dire threats from members of AKP and allied media.  Lethal bombings (condemned by Turkey's government) were directed against Istanbul synagogues as recently as 2004. Erdogan is crying fire in a crowded theater.  Tragically, he is simultaneously diminishing the stature of his country in the society of western nations.     
Joel J. Sprayregen is  a frequent visitor to Turkey where he has published articles and spoken at symposia, is associated with two Turkish think thanks.
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