Erdogan's Idea of 'Tolerance'

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) began its Fifth Global Forum in Vienna, Austria, on February 27, 2013. Addresses from various international leaders and policymakers such as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer opened the conference. This speaker list also included Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan's speech, video of which with an interpreter's English translation is available online along with the other speeches, contains certain fleeting disturbing comments amidst platitudes about universal human dignity and diplomatic pleasantries. Erdoğan's comments call into question just what visions of cross-civilizational tolerance are at work at the UN today.

After decrying what Erdoğan saw as a rise in racist incidents and terrorism, he demanded (mark 8:15) that the world "consider, just like Zionism or anti-Semitism or fascism, Islamophobia as a crime against humanity." Erdoğan's conjunction of Zionism, the nationalist movement seeking Jewish security and self-determination in a modern state of Israel, with anti-Semitism and "fascism", a term often conceived as encompassing the Nazism that did so much to motivate Zionism, is troubling in a variety of ways. Criticism and/or condemnation of Zionist Jewish nationalism, for example, are often indistinguishable from prejudice against Jews as persons. Zionism's equation with movements such as Nazism, meanwhile, not only damns Zionism as a horrific injustice, but also grotesquely suggests that the Jewish people once victimized by genocidal Nazism has become its new perpetrators.

Such an analogy recalls the discredited UN Resolution 3379 of November 10, 1975, declaring that "zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" analogous to South Africa's then existing apartheid. Speaking unsuccessfully against the resolution's adoption by the UN General Assembly, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Chaim Herzog, considered the date especially ominous, as November 10 marked the anniversary of the Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass. On this night of November 9-10, 1938, Nazi mobs across Germany ransacked Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in a nationwide pogrom. UN Resolution 46/86 tersely revoked without explanation Resolution 3379 on December 16, 1991.

In contrast to Zionism, however, the November 29, 2012, UN recognition of Palestine as a "non-member observer state" appeared to Erdoğan as an "historic achievement." The presence of virulent anti-Semitism in the charter of Hamas, currently governing the Gaza Strip, and throughout the media of the Palestinian Authority (PA), still ruling the West Bank, apparently does not bother him. For that matter, Turkish Hamas supporters seeking in May 2010 to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza in the Mavi Marmara also expressed anti-Semitism as Israeli forces sought to interdict the transit (e.g. "Go back to Auschwitz" and references to the seventh-century Muslim massacre of Jews at Khaibar in the Arabian Peninsula).

Erdoğan's reference to "Islamophobia" as a "crime against humanity", meanwhile, raised once again longstanding concerns about Muslim efforts to suppress criticism of Islam. As David Horowitz and Robert Spencer have documented in the pamphlet Islamophobia: Thought Crime of the Totalitarian Future available online, Erdoğan's "Islamophobia is a coinage of the Muslim Brotherhood" forming a "dagger aimed at the heart of free speech and also at the heart of our national security." According to Erdoğan's September 2012 comments previously defining "Islamophobia as a crime against humanity," in his view "[f]reedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start. You can say anything about your thoughts and beliefs, but you will have to stop when you are at the border of others' freedoms." Thus "Islamophobia" encompasses not just hostility towards Muslim individuals, but also opposition to Islam as an idea. Horowitz, Spencer, and this author, among others, have also analyzed how the campaign against "Islamophobia" has found international support in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a grouping of 57 Muslim-majority states (including Turkey and "Palestine") led by Erdoğan's Turkish compatriot, Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

Erdoğan's Vienna comments contained familiar motifs of the "Islamophobia" narrative. For him, this "crime against humanity" included members of the media and politicians "sometimes... provoking sensitivities" and thereby increasing a "lack of understanding." That debate and discussion in free societies often occurs at the price of being provocative or not enlightened seemed lost on Erdoğan.

In contrast to speech deemed "Islamophobic" by Erdoğan, he could find no fault with Islam itself. Ignoring Arabic etymology suggesting that the word "Islam" derives from "submission", Erdoğan argued that this "word comes from the word peace." He then made the assertion, repeated innumerable times since September 11, 2001, that "Islam is a religion of peace." Accordingly, Erdoğan considered it "unacceptable" to link terrorism with Islam in places like Mali.

Erdoğan thus presented a picture of Muslims victimized by non-Muslim perpetrators inflicting heinous atrocities such as Zionism. Such a black/white view of the world absent any critical self-reflection, though, is hardly conducive to UNAOC's professed goals, particularly coming from a person like Erdoğan with a long history of anti-Semitic statements. These goals are, to wit, "improving cross-cultural understanding and cooperation" and opposing "forces that fuel polarisation and extremism." The "particular focus" thereby is "on improving relations within and between Western and Muslim societies." Yet the assembled dignitaries listening to Erdoğan in Vienna's Imperial Palace (Hofburg) appeared unconcerned with his statements and politely applauded.

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