Word out of Turkey is that Roketsan—Turkey’s domestic missile manufacture—has just concluded a nearly $200 million deal with the United Arab Emirates. Turkey has made no secret of its desire to build up its arms industry. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, for example, beseeched the Obama administration to provide Turkey with drones at the same time that a Turkish armament company was trying to develop Turkish drones for export.
Turkey has taken an increasingly activist approach to the Middle East. It has supported the radical al-Nusra Front, designated a terror group by the Obama administration, because it prefers violent jihadists over secular Kurds. (Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu dismissed those who labeled the al-Qaeda affiliate “Jihadists” as little more than “American neo-cons and Israelis.” The fact that Turkey is willing to arm radical Islamists at odds with U.S. strategic interests certainly marks a new era.
Last week, I noted that Turkey may soon find itself on the Financial Action Task Force’s black list alongside Iran and North Korea because of its failure to take action against terrorist financing. Adam Marx, an avid reader of COMMENTARY and an informal student of Turkey, was kind enough to point out that a new law on Turkey’s books may not be enough, given Turkey’s recent trend not only to finance terrorists in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, but also to arm radical Islamists. If everyone—Chuck Hagel and Obama’s CIA pick John Brennan—agrees that Hamas and Mohamed Morsi represent the worst, most bigoted aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood, then there should no longer be any illusion regarding Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose political roots are in the same movement. Eric Trager’s essay asking why so many Western analysts got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong and addressing the myths which so many still grasp is a must read. But while there is a reckoning with regard to Egypt, Erdoğan and his Western supporters have gotten away with murder.
Greece, for example, last month intercepted a Turkish ship that apparently was part of an effort to arm either Libyan jihadists or, even worse, transit weaponry to al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Mali. Likewise, Yemeni authorities twice last month reportedly seized Turkish arms bound for al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen. Syrian Kurds regularly complain that Turkey is shipping weaponry to the al-Qaeda elements in Syria like the Nusra Front, because Erdoğan would rather have a radical Islamist entity on Turkey’s border than a secular Kurdish canton.
Far from being a model “Muslim democracy,” Turkey has grown progressively more illiberal under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government. A bit over a year ago, the Turkish government blocked a website discussing Darwin in an Internet children’s filter. At the time, the head of Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council downplayed the incident, telling Hürriyet that the ban was not against the theory of evolution. “If that was the case,” he said, “every website that used to word would have been banned. This one may have been banned for containing harmful material to children.”
Evidently, his downplaying of the incident was just nonsense for the gullible masses. Now, the Council is banning books which discuss Darwin. According to Hürriyet Daily News:
Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.
Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.
For both COMMENTARY MAGAZINE and here at Contentions, I’ve written a lot about Turkey in recent years. The reason is two-fold: First, Turkey is an important country, and its support was crucial to the United States during the Cold War; and, second, as an ostensibly democratic, Muslim-majority country spanning continents, Turkey is often upheld as a model for the region.
Alas, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is accelerating Turkey’s backslide from democracy. His target now is separation of power. There were earlier hints of this, for example the 2005 threat by Bülent Arınç, at the time speaker of the parliament, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional. Erdoğan subsequently promoted Arınç to be his chief deputy, but he still had plausible deniability since it was his proxy rather than himself who uttered the threat.
Now, however, Erdoğan is attacking separation of power directly. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:
Another brick is falling in the fiction that Turkey seeks to remain a democratic, pluralistic, Western-leaning society: The head of the Turkish body which oversees placement tests and university admissions has announced that it will soon include religious questions in its placement tests. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has previously reconfigured the exam formula to benefit those who had attended Imam Hatip schools—Turkey’s equivalent of a madrassa—over those who had had a traditional, liberal arts education. While religion is in the state curriculum, there has been recent controversy over forcing non-Sunnis (20 percent of Turkey’s Muslims are Alevis, not Sunnis) into religious classes which indoctrinated Sunnism.
Turkey, despite its problems, thrived in comparison to the non-oil rich Middle East over the decades precisely because it refused to allow religious populism to become the basis of government. Alas, Erdoğan seems intent not only on becoming a Vladimir Putin-style autocrat but also radicalizing society and the bureaucracy for the long-term. None of this should surprise. It has been less than a year since Erdoğan himself declared his goal to be to Islamize a generation. How unfortunate it is that so many in the U.S. Congress lend their blanket endorsement to Erdoğan’s agenda.
Earlier this month, I highlighted that the Turkish broadcasting board had fined CNBC-E, a Turkish television station which broadcasts financial reports during the day and subtitled sitcoms in the evening, because it had aired a “Simpsons” episode which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government deemed insulting to religion. To paraphrase the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo, Bart had become a blasphemer. Anyone who doubts that parody and humor have deep roots in the Middle East need only read Bernard Lewis’s primary source book, Islam, From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Vol. II: Religion and Society. Political Islamism—especially the variety which arises out of Saudi Arabia and which the Turkish government increasingly embraces—is largely unable to handle satire.
It now seems that the Simpsons were only the first victim of Erdoğan’s broadcasting bureau. Now it’s going after talk shows which say the wrong thing or advocate too strongly for the primacy of free speech. From the Hürriyet Daily News:
One characteristic that Islamists share around the world is that they have no sense of humor. As I had recounted in my October COMMENTARY essay on the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than tackle Egypt’s housing crisis or move to jump start the Egyptian economy, one of the first actions of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was to seek revenge against the famous Egyptian comic actor Adel Emam, who in the 1990s appeared in several films lampooning Islamic fundamentalists; an Egyptian court sentenced him to three months in prison for insulting Islam.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likewise suffers a humor deficit. When, early in his government, a cartoonist depicted him as a cat tangled in a ball of string, Erdoğan sued the cartoonist. Alas, that was not the exception but the rule in Turkey today. Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) has just fined a Turkish television channel for broadcasting “The Simpsons”. The problem?
How far our once secular, Western-oriented NATO ally Turkey has fallen in the past decade. Whereas once Turkey could be counted on as a democratic bulwark against terrorism, now the country’s leaders orient themselves not only in the Islamist camp, but increasingly in the extremist one as well. It’s hard to understand why congressmen remain in the Congressional Turkey Caucus when they are, in effect, lending their moral support to Turkey’s gradually more erratic and extremist prime minister.
Perhaps these congressmen would like to get a hold of a copy of Islam Dünyası, a Turkish jihadi magazine. Here’s their website. The current issue features Defne Bayrak, wife of the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan, in which she calls for more attacks on America. Certainly, not all Turks are this extreme. Indeed, only a small minority are. The problem, however, is that the current government encourages such extremism. Perhaps it is time for the Obama administration and State Department to stop ignoring the changes underway in Turkey.
President Obama has now fought his last election and no longer needs to submit himself and his accomplishments to the voters. Accordingly, all bets are off as to how far the president will push his foreign policy agenda on Iran, Russia, the Palestinians and Israel, and Islamist regimes in general. Perhaps there will be even more open U.S. outreach to Hamas, and perhaps American diplomats will soon get their wish to sit-down with Hezbollah.
Today, Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, announced that Obama’s first trip of his second term will be to Turkey, a country which has witnessed under its increasingly Islamist government an unprecedented roll back of basic freedoms. The Turks are looking at Obama’s choice as an endorsement. They are probably right. On top of this, Ricciardone’s announcement comes right after Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he would soon travel to Gaza, in recognition and support of Hamas.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made no secret of his religious and, frankly, sectarian agenda. “We will raise a religious generation,” he told parliament. With the military under Erdoğan’s boot—one-in-five Turkish generals are now imprisoned for offenses emanating from Erdoğan’s fevered imagination—the prime minister is now pushing a transformative social agenda even harder.
Last month, Hürriyet Daily News reported that the government was forcing students seeking vocational education to instead enroll in religious academies. Adding insult to injury is the fact that many of the students forced to enter the schools which are, in effect, Sunni indoctrination centers are members of the Alevi religious minority. Just as Pakistani Islamists, for example, target the Ahmadi sect, so too does NATO member Turkey now target its Alevis.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has embraced often crude anti-Semitism and religious incitement. Erdoğan, whom President Obama has identified as one of is his closest foreign friends, has not changed much since he delivered this anti-American and anti-Semitic rant almost 20 years ago.
Now, it seems that Turkish Airlines—Turkey’s state carrier and a member of the Star Alliance—is getting in on the action. While American Muslims for Palestine’s list of sponsors is not online, according to literature at the group’s booth at the recent Islamic Society for North America conference, Turkish Airlines is a major corporate sponsor of American Muslims for Palestine’s forthcoming conference, in addition to which it is encouraging attendance by announcing that the “first 200 Registrants will be entered into a raffle to win an international airline ticket from Turkish Airlines.”
It’s all well and good to condemn the film clippings that precipitated the attacks—I myself find them noxious—but neither anger at United States policy nor at the insensitivity or insults of one’s speech ever excuses an attack on an embassy or diplomatic personnel. Diplomats are meant to be representatives and problem-solvers stationed abroad for the convenience of both the United States and the host government; they are not meant to be hostages against which to retaliate.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are eulogizing the slain American ambassador and staff members, as they should. The question of what comes next is trickier.
Almost two weeks ago, Pakistani authorities imprisoned Rimsha Masih, an 11-year-old Christian girl reportedly with Down’s Syndrome, accusing her of burning a few pages from the Noorani Qaida, a beginner’s guide to Koranic recitation. Her case is now the subject of debate in the Pakistani press. The Express Tribune Online featured a member of the provincial assembly criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law. A commentary in The Daily Times, an English-language Lahore paper, declared, “Mentally ill are those who charge an 11-year-old, illiterate girl of blasphemy and then enjoy the sport of watching humans killed just as the Romans used to do in the times of gladiators. The police officials that arrested the little slum dweller and the judges that sent her to jail need to be examined for symptoms of mental derangement.” The Urdu-language press—for example, Karachi’s Ummat Online—however, are rallying to protect the blasphemy laws regardless of their abuse.
The embrace of radical Islamism has been a cynical strategy in Pakistan. In 1971, after Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) won its independence, the Pakistani military made a fateful decision to promote radical Islamism as the glue to hold the country apart. After all, Pakistan was founded as a “land for the Muslims,” but in practice it is impossible to boil identity down to a single variable. Pakistan may have been overwhelmingly Muslim, but Pakistanis were as likely to see themselves as Pastun, Baluch, Bengali, or Punjabi (among others). When the Bengalis went their own way, Islamabad could no longer consider Pashtun and Baluch nationalism to be a mere irritant: It posed an existential threat.
Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, has been in the news recently as her husband, the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, tries to worm his way back into the public eye. Weiner paraded Abedin and their six-month-old infant before the cameras of People magazine this week as part of a not-so-subtle campaign to rehabilitate himself. But Abedin has other worries besides those associated with her husband. She was singled out in a letter sent by Rep. Michele Bachmann and four members of Congress that highlighted the ties between her family and the Muslim Brotherhood. The letter asked for the State Department’s Inspector General to conduct an investigation into whether Abedin and others had wrongly influenced American policy to show favor to the Islamist group that is battling for power in Egypt. That prompted a furious response from Sen. John McCain, who blasted Bachmann on the floor of the Senate. McCain described Abedin as a friend and said attacks on her “character, reputation and patriotism” were unwarranted and unfair.
McCain’s counterattack on behalf of Abedin is being echoed throughout the mainstream press. The New York Times editorial page today described Bachmann’s charges as a “crackpot allegation of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to infiltrate the government.” The Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayeem wrote in a column that the mention of Abedin’s mother was a new take on an old theme, a “Manchurian Mom.” While McCain’s speech centered on a defense of Abedin, both pieces poured scorn on the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was worth worrying about or whether a discussion of the State Department’s conduct vis-à-vis the organization was worthy of scrutiny. The whole thing, they said, was merely a new front in an effort to single out Muslim-Americans and subject them to discrimination.
Prejudice against Muslims is wrong, and conspiracy theories are a noxious weed in political discourse. Those who think the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the State Department are probably wrong, as there is no shortage of diplomats and consultants who foolishly think the United States should be engaging with the Islamist group without any of them being part of a plot. But if the Bachmann letter is used as an excuse to brand as McCarthyism any effort to discuss a possible shift in U.S. policy toward appeasing Islamist groups, that would be a mistake.
It is certainly good news, as I have previously noted, that Mahmoud Jibril’s secular National Forces Alliance is the big winner in the recent Libyan legislative election–better news certainly than the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has dominated Egypt’s elections or that the more moderate Islamist party Ennahda has taken taken power in Tunisia. It suggests that free elections in the Middle East need not be synonymous with an Islamist takeover; indeed, Libyan voters seemed to recoil from the Islamists’ message that they were somehow better Muslims than anyone else.
But we must not lose sight of the big picture: We are talking about one election only in each country. No matter which path they set down–Islamist or secular–their ultimate destination remains very much unknown. Much will be determined by the success or failure of the new governments, of whatever ideological stripe, in addressing the basic pocketbook issues that people everywhere care about.
According to Raymond Ibrahim, calls are starting among a more radical fringe of Islamists to destroy the Pyramids:
According to several reports in the Arabic media, prominent Muslim clerics have begun to call for the demolition of Egypt’s Great Pyramids—or, in the words of Saudi Sheikh Ali bin Said al-Rabi’i, those “symbols of paganism,” which Egypt’s Salafi party has long planned to cover with wax. Most recently, Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sunni Sheikhs” and President of National Unity, Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, called on Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Morsi, to “destroy the Pyramids and accomplish what [Muslim conqueror of Egypt] Amr bin al-As could not.”
The calls to destroy the Pyramids are certainly fringe, and do not represent the vast majority of the Egyptian public or the Egyptian leadership, even amongst the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, that such a fringe and wacky idea gains any voice in Arabic media or on Islamist websites should be cause for concern, given precedent.
The reclusive Islamic philosopher Fethullah Gülen has been in the limelight recently. Last month, CBS’s “60 Minutes” did a report on his movement’s growing network charter schools in the United States. While some describe Gülen as a modernist dedicated to peace and tolerance, others suspect darker motives about his outreach. There is evidence enough to support both viewpoints. There is absolutely no doubt that many of Gülen’s schools—especially in the developing world—offer the best available education. In recent months, however, the Turkish government sought to confiscate a book manuscript which alleged that Gülen’s followers had created cells within the Turkish police. While I recognize the sincerity of many Gülen movement members, as I have explained to some followers who have asked me, I remain suspicious of any movement that shrouds itself in such secrecy and troubled by the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which seem to permeate many of his news outlets, especially in Turkish.
As reports increase that Gülen is unwell—his aides often use his health to excuse his refusal to speak at any length to those invited to his compound—one question which remains unanswered both among Gülen’s admirers and his detractors is what happens when the aging movement’s leader dies? The movement’s website says the Gülen movement is not a Sufi tariqa. In most Sufi orders, the sheikh will nominate his successor, but if Gülen does not envision himself as a Sufi master then the tradition of naming the successor while still living is moot.
During the last few days, I’ve been highlighting the undeniable social changes Turkey’s Islamist government is imposing. The situation is fast going from bad to worse, as the Turkish government transforms the country from one which upholds liberalism (beyond the Kurdish issue, that is) to one which now seems to be following the self-destructive path Pakistan forged in the early 1970s, when Islamabad pushed a more radical interpretation of Islam as its chief national identity.
The most recent outrage against tolerance in Turkey involves pianist Fazıl Say, who shared a tweet reading: “Wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?” That sentiment may not be my cup of tea, but the basis of democracy is tolerance. Not so in Turkey. On June 1, an Istanbul court handed down an indictment charging Say with “insulting the religious values of a section of society.” He now faces 1.5 years in prison.
As the Obama administration and many Western officials persist in suggesting the Turkish experience might be a model for the Arab Middle East, it is worth considering whether the model about which American diplomats speak is the same one that Turkey’s Islamist prime minister considers.
After the AKP’s 2002 election victory, the party rightly focused on economics, and after the party’s second victory, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accelerated reforms to diminish the power of Turkey’s military. With the AKP victory in Turkey’s June 2011 general election, however, Erdoğan felt entrenched enough to implement his social agenda. Some of his agenda is bizarre: The prime minister, for example, now rants about the evil scourge of Caesarean sections. He has waged a war on beer. And now, the state-controlled media seeks to ensure that Lebanese pop singers dress more conservatively than they do back home. From Hürriyet Daily News:
Lebanese singer Jehan Barbur refused to attend a TRT show after she was asked to be careful about her clothes, daily Sabah reported. The singer complained of the incident on her Twitter account, saying: “I was asked to be a guest on one of TRT’s channels. But I was asked to be careful about my clothes. Who do you think you are dominating…?” The agent also told reporters that a similar warning was made for guitarist Kemal Evrim Aslan’s vocalist. “They put a table cloth over her because her shoulders were showing,” the agent said.