Commentary Magazine


Topic: Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey’s AKP Should Be Diplomatic Pariahs

The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

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The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

Many analysts, diplomats, and journalists privately recognized Turkey’s transformation, but whether because of a desire for access, cynical self-censorship as their think-tanks raised money from businessmen affiliated with the prime minister, or outright denial, many refused to declare publicly the change inside Turkey they privately acknowledged (the same holds true with Qatar, but no one has ever confused that state with a democracy). The ostrich-syndrome changed, of course, with the bombshell revelations of corruption and investigations that accompanied the divorce between Erdoğan and his one-time backer, powerful Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen.

Whatever the motivations for making public the Erdoğan administration’s corruption, there are few who doubt the evidence regarding corruption is truthful. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan in recent weeks has redoubled his efforts to block any public discussion of the topic. In recent days, Erdoğan’s political party, which dominates parliament, has passed a law requiring all Internet providers to obey the government-appointed president of the State Communications Board or his state-appointed deputies to shut down any website or webpage they find objectionable within four hours. Because there is no longer a judicial process to seek a shutdown, Turkey now finds itself in the same category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. So much for liberalizing and moving closer to Europe.

In addition, social media will be subject to bans based on keywords. Mention “bribery” or “corruption” on Facebook or Twitter, and the state will delete your entire account. To the State Department’s credit, it has expressed concern regarding the new Internet regulations, although the message from the U.S. embassy regarding recent events has been decidedly mixed.

Erdoğan has gone even farther in recent days. It has now emerged in Turkey that, while traveling in Morocco last June, he called the television station Habertürk to demand the manager remove coverage of an opposition leader. Alas, this has become a pattern. Last Tuesday, the official Turkish state broadcaster TRT cut its coverage of parliament during a speech by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As soon as Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech ended, live coverage of the parliamentary session resumed.

Then, in order to quash coverage of the corruption allegations against several of Erdoğan’s hand-picked ministers, he changed procedure to prevent the case going to parliament, which addresses issues-based ministers’ immunity. The AKP-dominated parliament would not have allowed the prosecutions to continue at any rate, but by bypassing parliament, Erdoğan prevented publication of the details of the charges.

Nevertheless, the stories of corruption keep pouring in. In order to save an ailing media company owned by a close friend of the prime minister, Erdoğan reportedly had his minister of transportation ask several contractors doing business with his government to donate a total of $630 million to a pool. An armored car circulated to pick up the cash. Several businessmen had to take out loans from Ziraat Bankası, a government bank, to pay their shares.

What can be done? What happens in Turkey has never stayed in Turkey. When Turkey was liberalizing and developing as a democracy, successive U.S. administrations treated it as a model. Now that Turkey is reverting to a dictatorship, and a terror-supporting one at that, it is important to criticize its trajectory with the same vehemence with which the United States once supported it. Rather than supplicate to Turkey or provide bully pulpits for Erdoğan and ministers involved in corruption, it is time to treat them—and their representatives in the United States—as pariahs. Rather than meet senior U.S. officials, they should be offered face time only with desk officers or lower-ranking diplomats. Congressmen should re-think their participation in the Congressional Turkey Caucus, unless they really wish to endorse that for which Turkey now stands. And institutions and think-tanks which seek to profit off their partnership with Turkey should be shamed in the same way that those soliciting money from Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, or the Kremlin would.

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Turkey: Between Deep State and Dictatorship

Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

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Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

I spent the past week in Paris and Brussels meeting with Turkish parliamentarians. We were initially going to meet in Istanbul and Ankara, but they all believed they would be more free to speak candidly outside of Turkey, given how Gülen’s followers in the security forces now monitor the phone calls, tap the offices, and monitor the conversations in restaurants of parliamentarians, journalists, and foreigners. One parliamentarian made a good point: as critical as Turks are about Erdoğan, at least the prime minister was elected and, in theory, can be ousted in an election. No one, in contrast, ever elected Gülen, although the shadowy cult leader aspires to wield as much power as the prime minister.

The real danger now, however, has been Erdoğan’s reaction to the scandal. Whereas he once depicted himself and his party as anti-corruption crusaders, he now seeks to protect the corrupt and punish those questioning such corruption. In the last couple weeks, he has reassigned or displaced more than 2,500 police officers, and effectively frozen the corruption cases against his son, associates, and his friends. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled legislature passed an urgent bill to place the judiciary under executive control, enabling the minister of justice to appoint and remove both prosecutors and judges. The constitutional court will likely overturn that law, but the way Turkish law works, should the court strike down the law, it will have no retroactive effect: Any judge or prosecutor removed or reassigned in the past few weeks will remain in their new positions and will not win their old jobs back.

Now the AKP-dominated legislature is considering another bill that will allow the government to shut down any website immediately. Should that bill pass, the power of Internet censorship will shift from the courts to the government.

Turks say they will take to the streets on Saturday. If that demonstration moves forward, the reaction of the government will be perhaps the best indicator of what Turkey has become.

Perhaps it is time for some reflection in the White House and State Department, not to mention several think tanks and universities, about how it was that they got Erdoğan and Gülen so wrong. Too many American universities have taken money from Gülen-related institutions to organize conferences or publish books attesting to Gülen’s moderation and wisdom. Many think tanks—including some of those normally skeptical of Islamist movements—consciously moderated their assessments of the AKP in order to preserve access to the State Department. If think-tanks are to retain their value, however, intellectual integrity should trump the willingness to be yes-men. Most importantly, it’s time Congress or others lead an independent assessment of the past decade of State Department reporting to determine who got the AKP right, who got it wrong and, most importantly, why assessments about Erdoğan, his character, and the AKP were so inaccurate.

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Europe Should Say No to Turkey for Good

Not only does Turkey dream about being a member of the European Union, but the future of Europe depends on it. At least that is the narrative put forward by both American officials and many European diplomats for quite some time. In 2009, for example, President Obama said that European Union membership would “firmly anchor” Turkey in Europe.

Whether out of conviction or a desire for access, some U.S.-based Turkey analysts also push the line, and suggest that EU membership will further Turkey’s reform and bolster Europe’s economy.

Such sentiments may be politically correct, but they are nonsense. Rather than become more democratic or truly reform, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into a banana republic. In recent days, he has not only fired police chiefs across the country to ensure that his own personal cronies take their place, but has moved to punish Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor once embraced for targeting Turkey’s generals, but who now is a pariah for questioning those in the prime minister’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Öz released a statement detailing the threats he received. “Soon after the first wave of warrants,” he wrote, “I was called to a meeting by two people from the high judiciary. We met in a hotel in Bursa. They told me that Erdoğan was very angry with me. They asked me to write an apology letter to Erdoğan and stop the investigations. Otherwise I would have to suffer the consequences ….” Despite the constant threats he now receives, Erdoğan has stripped him of security. He is, effectively, a dead man walking.

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Not only does Turkey dream about being a member of the European Union, but the future of Europe depends on it. At least that is the narrative put forward by both American officials and many European diplomats for quite some time. In 2009, for example, President Obama said that European Union membership would “firmly anchor” Turkey in Europe.

Whether out of conviction or a desire for access, some U.S.-based Turkey analysts also push the line, and suggest that EU membership will further Turkey’s reform and bolster Europe’s economy.

Such sentiments may be politically correct, but they are nonsense. Rather than become more democratic or truly reform, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into a banana republic. In recent days, he has not only fired police chiefs across the country to ensure that his own personal cronies take their place, but has moved to punish Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor once embraced for targeting Turkey’s generals, but who now is a pariah for questioning those in the prime minister’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Öz released a statement detailing the threats he received. “Soon after the first wave of warrants,” he wrote, “I was called to a meeting by two people from the high judiciary. We met in a hotel in Bursa. They told me that Erdoğan was very angry with me. They asked me to write an apology letter to Erdoğan and stop the investigations. Otherwise I would have to suffer the consequences ….” Despite the constant threats he now receives, Erdoğan has stripped him of security. He is, effectively, a dead man walking.

At its root, the reason for the corruption scandal targeting Erdoğan’s inner circle was the prime minister’s targeting of a network of lucrative test-prep centers run by adherent of Fethullah Gülen. That many Western-leaning Turks, diplomats, and journalists now place their hopes in Gülen, a shadowy religious cult leader whose about-face has been motivated not by democratic enlightenment but personal spite and greed, reinforces the notion that not only is Turkey not ready for Europe, but it never will be. Within Turkey, demography favors the conservative, Islamist-leaning followers of Erdoğan. Both Erdoğan and Gülen’s recent behavior show that real democratic culture has not accompanied the much-heralded reforms implemented by Erdoğan.

No matter who comes out in Turkey’s political struggle, it is time once and for all to put to rest the idea that Turkey will ever join Europe, nor should it. Enabling Turkish membership into the European Union would at this point be little different in effect than allowing Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, or Libyan accession. Policy must be based on reality, not wishful thinking. Erdoğan should go down in history as the man that ruined Turkey’s decade-long dream.

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No, Fethullah Gülen Isn’t a Savior

It’s hard not to applaud Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for apparently blowing the whistle on the massive corruption scandal that now touches several Turkish ministers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, and perhaps the prime minister himself. The prosecutor’s surprise raids have also shown light on financial dealings which—aside from enriching Erdoğan’s cronies—also apparently assisted Iranian sanctions evasion and helped al-Qaeda expand its network into Syria.

The problem is Gülen’s motive. Erdoğan is an arrogant man, and he has grown more arrogant with each election victory. He came to believe that he either no longer needed Gülen’s support or was strong enough to win a battle with Gülen and put the Hizmat movement leader in his place. Hence, his decision last November to close the Gülen movement’s test prep schools throughout Turkey. The schools are key to Gülen, not only because they are lucrative—and the Gülen movement is basically an international conglomerate—but also because they are useful for recruiting and indoctrination. They also fill a void and provide a useful service which Turks readily embrace.

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It’s hard not to applaud Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for apparently blowing the whistle on the massive corruption scandal that now touches several Turkish ministers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, and perhaps the prime minister himself. The prosecutor’s surprise raids have also shown light on financial dealings which—aside from enriching Erdoğan’s cronies—also apparently assisted Iranian sanctions evasion and helped al-Qaeda expand its network into Syria.

The problem is Gülen’s motive. Erdoğan is an arrogant man, and he has grown more arrogant with each election victory. He came to believe that he either no longer needed Gülen’s support or was strong enough to win a battle with Gülen and put the Hizmat movement leader in his place. Hence, his decision last November to close the Gülen movement’s test prep schools throughout Turkey. The schools are key to Gülen, not only because they are lucrative—and the Gülen movement is basically an international conglomerate—but also because they are useful for recruiting and indoctrination. They also fill a void and provide a useful service which Turks readily embrace.

While it is good that Gülen appears to bless a new transparency in Turkish politics, it is important to remember both that his about-face is based not in principle but self-interest and that Gülen enabled the tremendous corruption and abuses of power in which Erdoğan engaged.

Gülen’s followers dominate the security forces which Erdoğan wielded without mercy against his political opposition and the press. Gülen professes tolerance, but his own past is checkered. And while he has his own media network with the daily Zaman at is head, there is a disturbing difference in tone between Zaman and its English version, Today’s Zaman. Diplomats who only read the latter may not be aware that anti-Semitic conspiracies infect if not Gülen, then those around him and his top supporters.

Transparency is necessary in Turkey if there will be justice and reform. It is naïve to believe that the enemy of an enemy is a friend, or that Gülen’s apparent acquiescence to pursuit of the corruption allegations against Erdoğan means a fundamental difference in Turkey’s future. President Abdullah Gül has kept largely quiet, but has seemed more willing to accommodate Gülen and has taken many of his adherents into his inner circle. Gül is far more polished than Erdoğan, and presents a more professional face, but the difference in style masks a similar disdain for the separation of mosque and state that once marked Turkey’s imperfect democracy. Let us hope that reform continues, but there will never be any true and lasting reform until Gülen opens himself to the same sort of investigation which he once encouraged against Turkey’s so-called “Deep State,” and now seeks against Erdoğan and his inner circle.

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Release the Ergenekon and Balyoz Suspects

The current crisis in Turkey should be cause for reflection on a number of fronts. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted with umbrage that the security forces who he had wielded against his political enemies have now turned against him. The reason for that split lays in the growing antagonism between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader whose followers dominate the security forces and for years had worked hand-in-glove with Erdoğan in their shared desire to breakdown the separation between mosque and state in Turkey.

Putting the reasons for their split aside, the current crisis shines a spotlight on Erdoğan’s concept of justice and the role of courts. To put it bluntly, Erdoğan believes not in impartial justice, but rather vengeance. Or perhaps he believes that he personifies justice and so that he personifies right and wrong without regard to law. Hence, it should not surprise that Erdoğan’s reaction to the corruption probe was to fire the investigator and threaten a wholesale upheaval of the courts.

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The current crisis in Turkey should be cause for reflection on a number of fronts. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted with umbrage that the security forces who he had wielded against his political enemies have now turned against him. The reason for that split lays in the growing antagonism between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader whose followers dominate the security forces and for years had worked hand-in-glove with Erdoğan in their shared desire to breakdown the separation between mosque and state in Turkey.

Putting the reasons for their split aside, the current crisis shines a spotlight on Erdoğan’s concept of justice and the role of courts. To put it bluntly, Erdoğan believes not in impartial justice, but rather vengeance. Or perhaps he believes that he personifies justice and so that he personifies right and wrong without regard to law. Hence, it should not surprise that Erdoğan’s reaction to the corruption probe was to fire the investigator and threaten a wholesale upheaval of the courts.

Evidence of Erdoğan’s abuse of justice are multifold. Back in 2005, frustrated that Turkey’s constitutional court had deemed some of Erdoğan’s agenda unconstitutional, parliamentary speaker and Erdoğan confidant Bülent Arınç (since promoted to deputy prime minister) threatened to use the AKP dissolve the constitutional court if its judges kept allowing law to get in the way of agenda.

The real travesty has been with regard to two alleged coup plots—the Ergenekon and Balyoz conspiracies—in whose names Erdoğan has targeted journalists and political opponents. I had detailed the many problems involved in the Ergenekon case here, and most international analysts pointed out that the Balyoz evidence was not only fraudulent, but a sloppy fraud at that. It is a shame upon Western diplomats, human-rights organizations, and journalists that all were willing to turn a blind eye to the travesties of justice so long as the targets happened to be military or old guard politicians. Just because a figure is a general or a secularist does not make them automatically bad people.

There are dozens of former officials, journalists, and generals in prison right now, condemned to die behind bars simply because Erdoğan disagrees with their world view and seeks vengeance. Now that the emperor has no clothes, it is time for Western diplomats to pressure for Turkey to right its wrongs. It was a mistake ever to give Erdoğan the benefit of the doubt, or to provide the judiciary the benefit of the doubt based on its reputation after Erdoğan and former allies from the Gülenist movement had worked so tirelessly to undermine it. Every single Ergenekon and Balyoz convict should walk free, and should win millions of Turkish Lira in compensation. Perhaps the state might even pay them from the tens of millions of Turkish lira in ill-gotten wealth Erdoğan and his cronies have apparently amassed.

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The Problem of the Middle East’s First Sons

The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

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The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Moammar Gaddafi had Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, held by the new Libyan government and wanted by the International Criminal Court; and Hosni Mubarak had Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, both awaiting trial on various corruption charges (despite being acquitted in one case last week). Ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s eldest son Bafil is facing trial in Great Britain for defrauding investment partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, while younger son Qubad is neck deep in the family business. Iraqi Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour is, in theory, the intelligence chief for the autonomous Kurdish government. In practice, according to conversations with human-rights monitors, he uses his position and the security forces he has under his control to ensure businessmen understand that he and his family should get a piece of the pie. When Masud Barzani’s second son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million gambling in one of Dubai’s illegal casinos, the Kurdish leader quickly cut short an official visit and left the United Arab Emirates. The pattern continues: Iraqis resent the involvement of Ahmad Maliki, the son of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in businesses which benefit from his father’s position. Such business dealings and relationships go without saying in the monarchies of the Persian Gulf with the exception, of course, of Oman whose ruler Sultan Qaboos is unmarried and has no children.

It is true that such a pattern is not limited to the Middle East. While his father Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the United Nations, Kojo Annan sought to profit from UN deals. And both Africa’s dictatorships and its nascent democracies also see sons of presidents and rulers seeking to cash in on their fathers’ positions.

It may be fashionable to look the other way and pretend such corruption does not occur. Western universities go farther and happily welcome donations of questionable money to honor dictatorial dynasties. But building false images of such countries does no favors, nor does it reflect well on a new generation of rulers that they encourage their sons to accumulate as much money as possible rather than distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

Erdoğan has been fond of describing Turkey as a democracy and bragging for more than a decade about the reforms he claims to have implemented. If attorneys are allowed to question Bilal Erdoğan and, if warranted, force him to face justice as a man equal to any Turk or Kurd in Turkey, then he should be congratulated for standing on principle. If he wants his son to stand above justice, however, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirms the notion that Turkey is no democracy and  he himself is little more than yet one more self-important Middle Eastern potentate.

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Turkey’s Corruption Scandal Goes from Bad to Worse

Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

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Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

[Economy Minister Zafer] Çağlayan’s son was arrested during a corruption operation on Dec. 17, together with the sons of two other ministers;Environment and Urbanization Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar and Interior Minister Muammer Güler. The leaks, possibly from prosecutor’s office and police, to Turkish media claim that those ministers, plus Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış have been involved in facilitating the “business” of Reza Zarrab in Turkey by taking bribes and abusing their offices. The “business” is to transfer Zarrab’s money from gold trade over Turkey to Iran via the government-controlled Halkbank… the amount of the total bribery is reported in Turkish media to be as high as 142 million Turkish Liras, nearly $70 million….

Not mentioned in the Turkish press is the fact that the Obama administration issued sanctions waivers on Turkey’s business dealings with Iran because it concluded that the Turkish government was approaching the issue in good faith.

The wall of fear now seems to be breaking down. Newspapers journalists who once only whispered the truth about events in Turkey but whose employers would sanitize whatever they put in print, out of fear that the government might jail them or confiscate their newspaper, now publish what amounts to confessions about just how corrupt the AKP has become. Today’s Zaman, the English-language flagship paper of the Gülen movement, for example, wrote:

A foreign businessman who has been working in Turkey for over 10 years told me last week that he was not surprised at all by the allegations of corruption at the highest level. Without close connections in the ruling party and, apparently, big bribes, it was impossible to win any tender in the highly profitable energy sector, he explained.

The allegations of bribery and corruption are also starting to get too close to Erdoğan for his comfort. Supposedly, one element of the scandal is that the prime minister’s son, his wife, his in-laws, and some close friends set up a foundation last year for the “education of youth.” The foundation opened a residence for university students. Now it turns out the Foundation didn’t pay for the dormitory, but rather public money from the Fatih district municipality, which is headed by an AKP mayor now under detention. So what Erdoğan’s family did with the money they claimed was spent on the dormitory is an unanswered question.

The AKP has long claimed to have advanced Turkey’s democracy. If a core of democracy is rule of law, then Turkey now is put to the test.

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What Goes Around in Turkey…

Turkey has become a banana republic. It may sound harsh, but events of the last few days simply underline the point. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in November 2002, it promised clean government and democratic reform. The election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the premiership made a mockery of that promise, since the AKP leader had more than a dozen corruption cases pending against him, cases immediately suspended because of parliamentary immunity. Other senior AKP officials—Cuneyt Zapsu, Egemin Bağış (a contender to replace Namık Tan as ambassador early next year) among others—were accused even by AKP associates of corruption, according to U.S. documents published by WikiLeaks. All, however, like Erdoğan himself profited nicely in the new order.

The democratic reform rhetoric also turned out to be a joke played out both on the Turkish public and well-meaning American diplomats. Erdoğan consolidated his power and used it arbitrarily to target his opponents. He entered a marriage of convenience with Fethullah Gülen’s movement, an Islamist movement which had itself consolidated control over the security forces. These he used to great effect, targeting and arresting opponents, many of whom languished for years in prison without trial. Erdoğan and his allies then tried his opponents on fantastical conspiracies utilizing evidence which outside experts deemed anachronous and clearly fabricated. Never mind justice, Erdoğan and his sympathizers figured: the ends justify the means.

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Turkey has become a banana republic. It may sound harsh, but events of the last few days simply underline the point. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in November 2002, it promised clean government and democratic reform. The election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the premiership made a mockery of that promise, since the AKP leader had more than a dozen corruption cases pending against him, cases immediately suspended because of parliamentary immunity. Other senior AKP officials—Cuneyt Zapsu, Egemin Bağış (a contender to replace Namık Tan as ambassador early next year) among others—were accused even by AKP associates of corruption, according to U.S. documents published by WikiLeaks. All, however, like Erdoğan himself profited nicely in the new order.

The democratic reform rhetoric also turned out to be a joke played out both on the Turkish public and well-meaning American diplomats. Erdoğan consolidated his power and used it arbitrarily to target his opponents. He entered a marriage of convenience with Fethullah Gülen’s movement, an Islamist movement which had itself consolidated control over the security forces. These he used to great effect, targeting and arresting opponents, many of whom languished for years in prison without trial. Erdoğan and his allies then tried his opponents on fantastical conspiracies utilizing evidence which outside experts deemed anachronous and clearly fabricated. Never mind justice, Erdoğan and his sympathizers figured: the ends justify the means.

Alas, like so many tyrants before him, Erdoğan is now learning that what goes around comes around. After picking a fight with the Gülen movement by seeking the closure of its lucrative exam prep schools, Erdoğan and his allies found themselves on the opposite end of the Gülen-controlled security forces, who arrested family members of several AKP ministers, as well as prominent AKP supporters on charges of corruption. Erdoğan is now crying foul, but he wins little sympathy after engaging in the same shenanigans. The prime minister eviscerated the independence of the judiciary, and now he cries that it has fallen under a rival’s control.

Events in Turkey now are incredibly important. There is a real race for the mayor in Istanbul; if the opposition wins—the polls show the two candidates are neck-and-neck—then Turks will conclude that Erdoğan is vulnerable. The arrest of the prime minister’s allies simply underscores how the situation has changed since Erdoğan attacked his own people during this summer’s Gezi protests. Erdoğan may once have seen himself as invincible, a cross between Ottoman Sultan Selim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but as events unfold, the notion that Erdoğan will himself end his career in prison or in exile in Saudi Arabia a few years down the road becomes a welcome possibility. Let us just hope his successor will break Turkey’s tragic cycle and focus more on the future rather than on revenging past grievances.

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The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero-Problem” Foreign Policy

With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

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With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

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Turkey Gives Seized Media to Erdoğan Ally

Last spring, as President Obama stood beside his good friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the White House Rose Garden, Turkish officials were raiding the media assets of the Çukurova Group, one of the last business conglomerates whose media outlets maintained an independent rather than hagiographic take on Turkey’s prime minister. Obama, of course, was silent. Not only did Obama not speak up in defense of media freedom, but he chose Sabah, a once-independent paper seized by Erdoğan’s administration and transferred to Erdoğan’s son-in-law for an op-ed about Obama’s love for Turkey.

Alas, principles of freedom and liberty appear to count little when he picks friends and foes. Now, word comes from Turkey that the newspapers and television stations seized have been transferred to businessman Ethem Sancak:

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Last spring, as President Obama stood beside his good friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the White House Rose Garden, Turkish officials were raiding the media assets of the Çukurova Group, one of the last business conglomerates whose media outlets maintained an independent rather than hagiographic take on Turkey’s prime minister. Obama, of course, was silent. Not only did Obama not speak up in defense of media freedom, but he chose Sabah, a once-independent paper seized by Erdoğan’s administration and transferred to Erdoğan’s son-in-law for an op-ed about Obama’s love for Turkey.

Alas, principles of freedom and liberty appear to count little when he picks friends and foes. Now, word comes from Turkey that the newspapers and television stations seized have been transferred to businessman Ethem Sancak:

“Negotiations between Çukurova Holding and businessman Ethem Sancak, an experienced individual who has achieved success in the media sector, have been finalized with a deal,” the Turkmedya group, which operates the 11 sold assets, announced on Nov. 21 in a statement. The 11 Turkmedya assets, including  daily newspapers Akşam and Güneş, digital pay-TV operator Digiturk and news broadcaster SkyTurk 360, were initially agreed to be sold to companies Cengiz, Kolin and Limak, all of which operate mostly in the construction sector. However, the three companies, who recently successfully made a joint tender bid for Istanbul’s third airport, had decided to withdraw their offer.

What the article does not report is that Sancak is a close Erdoğan ally. So once again the Turkish government seizes independent newspapers and television and transfers it for a fire sale price to a staunch government supporter. The best that can be said about the deal is that at least Erdoğan is not simply giving away Turkey’s once independent media outlets to family members, but branching out to unrelated supporters as well. Simply put, independent voices—whether students at Gezi Park, politicians within his own party, or journalists—are no longer welcome in the new Turkey.

Given how Obama once expressed his love for Erdoğan, perhaps it’s time for a journalist to ask, “Mr. President, what do you see in this man?”

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Turkish Columnists Eulogize Democracy

I and many others have written for quite some time about the erosion of democracy, liberalism, tolerance, and constitutionalism inside Turkey. Many liberals and reformers inside Turkey, however, had little patience for such hang-wringing about the dangerous dismantling of checks and balances or for concern about the intentions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister.

No longer. In recent months—starting first with the crackdown on protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, continuing to Erdoğan’s subsequent efforts to stir the hornet’s nest, and most recently his efforts to segregate the sexes—have led many Turkish intellectuals—liberals and moderate Islamists both—to realize they have been had. There is no more doubt inside Turkey Erdoğan cares an iota for democracy or for individual rights.

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I and many others have written for quite some time about the erosion of democracy, liberalism, tolerance, and constitutionalism inside Turkey. Many liberals and reformers inside Turkey, however, had little patience for such hang-wringing about the dangerous dismantling of checks and balances or for concern about the intentions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister.

No longer. In recent months—starting first with the crackdown on protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, continuing to Erdoğan’s subsequent efforts to stir the hornet’s nest, and most recently his efforts to segregate the sexes—have led many Turkish intellectuals—liberals and moderate Islamists both—to realize they have been had. There is no more doubt inside Turkey Erdoğan cares an iota for democracy or for individual rights.

In recent days, there have been two important columns eulogizing the end of democracy, or at least hopes for true democracy written by once-close aides and supporters. First, Ahmet Hakan, once very close to Erdoğan, has now published an important column declaring just how dangerous Erdoğan has become. Asking “Why is he [Erdoğan] doing this?” he answers with a list describing Erdoğan’s dictatorial mentality and his desire for a police state:

  • “Believes that his own idea of morality should be adopted by everyone;
  • Does not even regard it as possible that there may be other moral concepts…
  • Thinks he has the right to interfere in other people’s lives and thinks he is doing this for the happiness of the people;
  • Assumes that he can arrange Turkey as if it his own house;
  • Believes that he is obliged to prevent the committing of sin…
  • Divides the lives of his citizens into “legitimate” and “illegitimate” lives;
  • Sees no harm in openly expressing that “illegitimate” lives could be raided with the police;
  • Thinks that citizens who are not controlled by the state will pursue all kinds of malice in their private lives;
  • Believes there are parents who want police to monitor the lives of their children;
  • Is convinced that he could solve issues by assigning police to every household;
  • Has over-expanded the archaic mentality of “I am responsible for the decency of the neighborhood” to “the decency of Turkey is my responsibility;” 
  • Is not even aware of the difference between “crime” and “sin;” 
  • Is able to plan bans, crimes and punishments based on sin;
  • Embraces the opinion that even houses can be breached to prevent sin;
  • Does not consider such interference as an intervention into people’s private lives if it is done to prevent sin;
  • Is not even aware that what he is doing is simply social engineering; 
  • Sees social engineering as bad when it is Kemalists who do it; regards it as wonderful if he is doing it;
  • Has totally discarded the issue of individual rights and freedoms from his personal agenda.
  • Well, this prime minister has plunged into this matter with all his sincerity, without acting or pretending, without considering any strategy, without any doubt that what he is doing is right, without any tactics. And, this is the “worst” and the “most dangerous” side of the thing.
  • But even worse and more dangerous is that there is not a single person left around the prime minister who has the courage to say, “What you are doing is wrong; you can’t do it like this,” even though they do think that what the prime minister is doing is wrong. 

Likewise, in Today’s Zaman, the newspaper of Islamist cult leader Fethullah Gülen, columnist Bülent Keneş laments the end of democracy in Turkey:

The men of the nation have been involved in a strong, bitter struggle against the Kemalist/militarist state, dominated by a minority, for the sake of natural rights and freedoms. Of course, this was not a bloody or violent struggle. It was a struggle for democracy, the rule of law and rights and freedoms. It was a justified struggle and because it was just, the struggle was actually won for the most part… As these men of the nation had overcome every difficulty and obstacle as well as instances of victimization thanks to the support and prayers of the people, they had become stronger. They were both morally and legally right in this struggle and, as a result, they were winning. And as they have continued to win, they have become stronger. And as they have become stronger, they have changed. Imagine this vicious cycle: as they have changed, they have lost the ethical and moral ground they held as their major asset.

The irony is that even as Erdoğan’s aides come clean, President Obama, the State Department, and a succession of U.S. ambassadors to Turkey have refused to recognize Turkey’s dictatorship for what it is. There can be no democracy when the government refuses to recognize the importance of individual rights and liberty. Never again should an Islamist leader be blessed as a democrat by the State Department unless that leader subscribes to the notion that individuals have rights that transcend communal religious dictates.

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Is Turkey Supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria?

Perhaps the most dangerous group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front. The group does not hide its sympathy for al-Qaeda and targets more moderate Syrian opposition groups alongside the Syrian regime. While Syrians comprise most Syrian opposition groups, the Nusra Front counts Libyans, Saudis, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Germans, and Turks among its fighters. Around Syria, it is an open secret that Turkey supports—or at least has supported—the Nusra Front.

Not only has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the Nusra Front are terrorists—more like honorable jihadists, he suggested in the face of questions from an opposition leader—but Turkish forces have also apparently used al-Nusra as a proxy against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party linked to Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which remains overwhelmingly popular among Syria’s Kurdish population. If it comes to a choice between an al-Qaeda affiliate and a secular Kurdish party controlling territory, Erdoğan sides with al-Qaeda.

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Perhaps the most dangerous group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front. The group does not hide its sympathy for al-Qaeda and targets more moderate Syrian opposition groups alongside the Syrian regime. While Syrians comprise most Syrian opposition groups, the Nusra Front counts Libyans, Saudis, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Germans, and Turks among its fighters. Around Syria, it is an open secret that Turkey supports—or at least has supported—the Nusra Front.

Not only has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the Nusra Front are terrorists—more like honorable jihadists, he suggested in the face of questions from an opposition leader—but Turkish forces have also apparently used al-Nusra as a proxy against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party linked to Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which remains overwhelmingly popular among Syria’s Kurdish population. If it comes to a choice between an al-Qaeda affiliate and a secular Kurdish party controlling territory, Erdoğan sides with al-Qaeda.

When I asked Iraqi counterterrorism officials who monitor the transit of al-Qaeda last summer about the Turkish relationship with the Nusra Front, they were careful. “Let’s just say that whenever the Nusra Front wants to have a meeting, they know they can do so inside Turkey and won’t be bothered,” one official told me. While diplomatic tension between Iraq and Turkey remains strong, the official was able to give very specific examples that suggest he was not simply trying to tar Turkey.

Erdoğan, himself, however has bristled at any suggestion Turkey provides safe haven or even free passage to the Nusra Front. Now, however, there is video evidence. CNN International has an excellent video report on the transit of jihadis through the Hatay airport in Turkey and into Syria. Perhaps it is time for officials to question the judgment of President Obama for his friendship with and personal endorsement of Erdoğan, who appears not only to sympathize with the most radical elements in Syria’s civil war, but also to be a liar.

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Turkey Seeks More Gender Segregation

While Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) depicts itself to the West as committed to democratic reforms, increasingly it has moved to impose its conservative religious vision upon Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has instructed women to have at least three children, and promised lawmakers that his goal was to raise a religious generation of youth in Turkey. Now, he has gone further, and spoken out against university dormitories which house both men and women. According to a Hürriyet Daily News report:

“This is against our conservative, democratic character,” the prime minister said during a closed-door meeting Nov. 3 with Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies at a key party meeting in Ankara’s Kızılcahamam district. “We witnessed this in the province of Denizli. The insufficiency of dormitories causes problems. Male and female university students are staying in the same house. This is not being checked,” Erdoğan said, voicing his displeasure with the situation.

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While Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) depicts itself to the West as committed to democratic reforms, increasingly it has moved to impose its conservative religious vision upon Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has instructed women to have at least three children, and promised lawmakers that his goal was to raise a religious generation of youth in Turkey. Now, he has gone further, and spoken out against university dormitories which house both men and women. According to a Hürriyet Daily News report:

“This is against our conservative, democratic character,” the prime minister said during a closed-door meeting Nov. 3 with Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies at a key party meeting in Ankara’s Kızılcahamam district. “We witnessed this in the province of Denizli. The insufficiency of dormitories causes problems. Male and female university students are staying in the same house. This is not being checked,” Erdoğan said, voicing his displeasure with the situation.

While the more politically savvy AKP officials serve in Ankara and Istanbul and so show a more cosmopolitan face to Western interlocutors, the true face of the AKP is in the provinces. Here, some officials are even more extreme. As Hürriyet continued, “Last August, a provincial education director in Trabzon had caused public outrage after lamenting that female and male students were using the same sets of stairs on the way to their rooms.”

Many Turkish liberals are placing hopes that upcoming mayoral elections in Istanbul might reverse the past decade of remarkable AKP success. Alas, even if the opposition wins Istanbul, Turkey may already be too far gone for it to matter, as the birthrates among Kurds and the more conservative Anatolians remain higher than those of more Middle Class, Western-leaning Turks.

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Turkish Jews Begin to Leave

Turkish Jews have long had a secure position in Turkish society. Jews were one of the few peoples who had not rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, and so Turks—and Turkish school books—always treated them as far more loyal citizens than others. It was no wonder, therefore, that Turkey retained a relatively large Jewish community—probably the second-largest in the Middle East, as Iran’s Jewish population has continued to decline. The stability of the Turkish Jewish community has been one straw upon which those in denial about the change in Turkey have grasped. It’s time to stop the denial. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Anti-Semitism, triggered by harsh statements from the Turkish government, has led to the migration of hundreds of Jewish youngsters from Turkey to the U.S. or Europe, Nesim Güveniş, deputy chairman the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel, told the Hürriyet Daily News on Oct. 21. This unease went before the Mavi Marmara incident, and was aggravated by the notorious “one minute” spat between the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, according to Güveniş.

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Turkish Jews have long had a secure position in Turkish society. Jews were one of the few peoples who had not rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, and so Turks—and Turkish school books—always treated them as far more loyal citizens than others. It was no wonder, therefore, that Turkey retained a relatively large Jewish community—probably the second-largest in the Middle East, as Iran’s Jewish population has continued to decline. The stability of the Turkish Jewish community has been one straw upon which those in denial about the change in Turkey have grasped. It’s time to stop the denial. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Anti-Semitism, triggered by harsh statements from the Turkish government, has led to the migration of hundreds of Jewish youngsters from Turkey to the U.S. or Europe, Nesim Güveniş, deputy chairman the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel, told the Hürriyet Daily News on Oct. 21. This unease went before the Mavi Marmara incident, and was aggravated by the notorious “one minute” spat between the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, according to Güveniş.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used religious incitement to reinforce his domestic political constituency, and anti-Semitism has permeated the Turkish bureaucracy. Rather than a bastion of tolerance, Turkey is a country in which the prime minister’s political allies can finance a movie featuring a subplot about Jews smuggling organs and then the prime minister’s wife can urge everyone to see it.

That the emigration occurs against the backdrop of Turkey’s economic boom of the past decade suggests that Turkish Jews aren’t simply taking advantage of their minority status to seek better economic opportunities. Rather, they are leaving because they are afraid of what Turkey is becoming. More liberal Turks and Turkish tour guides still like to point out the religious diversity of Istanbul society. They may need to change their talking points. Emigration often starts slowly, but it is a tide difficult to reverse. Within a decade or two, Turkey’s Jewish community might much more resemble Egypt’s. Unfortunately, that is a result Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu would probably call success.

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Turkey Shops Israeli Agents to Iran

If anyone still believes President Barack Obama’s vow to keep Iran from going nuclear, today’s bombshell from the Washington Post’s David Ignatius ought to dispel this illusion. According to Ignatius, Turkey deliberately gave Tehran the identities of up to 10 Iranians working as informants for Israel, resulting in a “significant” loss of intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally approved this decision, and it followed several other incidents in which Erdoğan’s handpicked spy chief gave Iran “sensitive intelligence collected by the U.S. and Israel.” Yet not only did Washington refuse to even lodge a protest with Ankara, it warmed relations with Turkey even further, to the point that “Erdoğan was among Obama’s key confidants.”

Needless to say, someone serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear program would be raging over the loss of “significant” intelligence about it, not rewarding the person responsible for this loss by elevating him to the role of key confidant. By this behavior, Obama signaled Tehran that he’s quite content to remain in ignorance about its race toward the bomb. Someone serious about stopping this program would also stop sharing “sensitive” intelligence about it with a person who known to have passed it on to Tehran, rather than continuing to treat him as a confidant.

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If anyone still believes President Barack Obama’s vow to keep Iran from going nuclear, today’s bombshell from the Washington Post’s David Ignatius ought to dispel this illusion. According to Ignatius, Turkey deliberately gave Tehran the identities of up to 10 Iranians working as informants for Israel, resulting in a “significant” loss of intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally approved this decision, and it followed several other incidents in which Erdoğan’s handpicked spy chief gave Iran “sensitive intelligence collected by the U.S. and Israel.” Yet not only did Washington refuse to even lodge a protest with Ankara, it warmed relations with Turkey even further, to the point that “Erdoğan was among Obama’s key confidants.”

Needless to say, someone serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear program would be raging over the loss of “significant” intelligence about it, not rewarding the person responsible for this loss by elevating him to the role of key confidant. By this behavior, Obama signaled Tehran that he’s quite content to remain in ignorance about its race toward the bomb. Someone serious about stopping this program would also stop sharing “sensitive” intelligence about it with a person who known to have passed it on to Tehran, rather than continuing to treat him as a confidant.

But even without the Ignatius bombshell (which should also lead to mass resignations from the Congressional Turkey Caucus, if Congress is as serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear program as it has hitherto shown itself to be), the contrast between this week’s negotiating session with Iran and Obama’s meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu last month provided pretty clear evidence of Obama’s attitudes. According to Haaretz, Obama complained to the Israeli premier that Israeli-Palestinian talks were progressing too slowly and demanded that they be accelerated, saying otherwise, the nine-month deadline wouldn’t be met. Nothing irreversible is likely to happen that would make a deal impossible if this deadline were missed, yet even so, Obama considered the once-a-week negotiating sessions insufficient.

On Iran, in contrast, time is really of the essence: Its nuclear program is continuing apace even during the negotiations, and experts predict that at this rate, it will reach “critical capability” – the ability to produce nuclear weapons undetected – by mid-2014 at the latest. Yet on this issue, Obama seems to have all the time in the world: Following this week’s opening session in Geneva, talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 will resume only in another three weeks’ time, on November 7.  The contrast between Obama’s impatience on the non-urgent Israeli-Palestinian issue and his seemingly inexhaustible patience on the urgent Iranian one is cogent proof of which issue he really cares about and which he doesn’t.

Last month, a poll found that two-thirds of Jewish Israelis no longer believe Obama’s promise to stop Iran from getting the bomb, and after Ignatius’ revelation sinks in, I’d expect the number to climb even higher. That’s precisely why, contrary to the New York Times’ fond delusion that Netanyahu is “increasingly alone abroad and at home,” the Israeli public is now solidly behind him: In another recent poll, fully two-thirds of Israelis said they would back a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, a sharp reversal from the 58% who opposed it just last year. Israelis, it seems, are starting to realize that nobody will stop Iran from getting nukes if they don’t. 

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Turkey Shifts Toward Autocracy

I’ve now spent almost a decade writing about the transformation in Turkey. A decade ago, Turkey was a Western-leaning democracy, however flawed, with a largely free even if cantankerous press. Now, Turkey leans firmly toward the Arab world and China, has a prime minister who seems a blend of Vladimir Putin and an Ottoman Sultan, and has not only cracked down on press freedom, but now also seems to be penalizing “thought crime.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, for example, Turkish police raided the home and office of Ahmet Şık in order to confiscate his unpublished manuscript in which he demonstrated penetration of the Turkish security forces by the followers of controversial Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Now, a Turkish writer is to be prosecuted for making a word play on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s middle name:

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I’ve now spent almost a decade writing about the transformation in Turkey. A decade ago, Turkey was a Western-leaning democracy, however flawed, with a largely free even if cantankerous press. Now, Turkey leans firmly toward the Arab world and China, has a prime minister who seems a blend of Vladimir Putin and an Ottoman Sultan, and has not only cracked down on press freedom, but now also seems to be penalizing “thought crime.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, for example, Turkish police raided the home and office of Ahmet Şık in order to confiscate his unpublished manuscript in which he demonstrated penetration of the Turkish security forces by the followers of controversial Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Now, a Turkish writer is to be prosecuted for making a word play on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s middle name:

[Emrah] Serbes had made a pun in a TV show by changing the prime minister’s middle name “Tayyip” to “Tazyik,” a word meaning pressurized water in reference to the police’s excessive use of water cannons and tear gas against protesters during the most recent May Day.

Serbes could serve up to 12 years in prison.

It gets worse: Earlier this year, Turkey was rocked by protests against the destruction of one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. The protests shook Erdoğan, who is unaccustomed to public criticism. Indeed, at a recent rally in Adana, photographers spotted gas masks under the chairs of Erdoğan and his wife, just in case. Well, now even thinking about protesting is a crime in Turkey. The Justice and Interior Ministry, both controlled by Erdoğan’s political party, has issued new regulations authorizing without any judicial action the detention for up to one day of anyone at “risk of conducting a protest.”

The lesson learned? Both Bush and Obama let Turkey slip away with a series of ambassadors more prone to sycophancy than hard talk and with political correctness blunting observation of Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda. In the short run, however, I guess the lesson learned is simply not to think bad thoughts about the Tazyik-in-chief next time anyone should pass through Istanbul.

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Erdoğan Embraces “Separate but Equal”

Millions of Turks have migrated to Europe; Turks comprise the largest minority in Germany. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that: Many of the Turks living in Germany work hard and seek to integrate into German society. In the most recent German elections, Cemile Giousouf, a 35-year old daughter of a Turkish immigrant, was elected to the Bundestag as a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. That is good news. For too long, Europe has been a pot in which little has melted.

Alas, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now seeks to keep it that way. He has now demanded that European countries teach the children of the Turkish Diaspora in Turkish, rather than the language of the land:

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Millions of Turks have migrated to Europe; Turks comprise the largest minority in Germany. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that: Many of the Turks living in Germany work hard and seek to integrate into German society. In the most recent German elections, Cemile Giousouf, a 35-year old daughter of a Turkish immigrant, was elected to the Bundestag as a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. That is good news. For too long, Europe has been a pot in which little has melted.

Alas, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now seeks to keep it that way. He has now demanded that European countries teach the children of the Turkish Diaspora in Turkish, rather than the language of the land:

“Those people who contribute to the economy of the country they reside in by working and [turn an honest penny] for more than half of a century have become, to a great extent, permanently settled. However, a large part of those [Turkish] citizens have not been granted education in their mother tongue despite their great efforts and demands,” Erdoğan told European education ministers.

Erdoğan would essentially promote a system of separate but equal in which Turkish emigrants would attend Turkish schools while other German, Danish, Dutch, and Swedish students attended their own separate schools in the language of the land. In effect, the man caricatured as a would-be sultan back home now seeks to impose a modified version of the Ottoman millet system. His demands also reflect the bigotry at the heart of the Turkish leader, who categorizes citizens on the basis of religion and ethnicity rather than in terms of national citizenship. Erdoğan’s demands follow revelations that the Turkish government has maintained secret race codes for use by its own education ministry.  

Immigration can enrich societies, but not at the expense of the embrace of common values which underlays citizenship. How sad it is that the religious and ethnic lens trumps all else in 21st century Turkey, as Turkish liberalism and secularism continues to slide backward. Let us hope that European leaders will be confident enough in their own societies to ignore Erdoğan and his backward demands.

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Turkey Undercuts Anti-Terror Fight

Against the backdrop of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a meeting from which the Obama administration still excludes Israel at Turkey’s insistence, the United States and Turkey have agreed to create a $200 million fund to counter extremism. What a waste of money. The problem is not that countering extremism is bad—it’s not, although so many of the counter-extremism programs out there are unproven or ineffective. Rather, it’s that the program is poisoned from the start with the inclusion of Turkey.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack at a Nairobi mall and a Pakistani church, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a Turkish audience, according to some Turkish interlocutors, “No one can make me say that there are Muslim terrorists.” This builds on previous statements denying that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had any responsibility for the massacres in Darfur and his refusal to acknowledge that the Nusra Front, which Turkey supports and which the United States government considers an al-Qaeda affiliate, is a terrorist group. Erdoğan has even gone so far as to endorse an al-Qaeda financier.

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Against the backdrop of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a meeting from which the Obama administration still excludes Israel at Turkey’s insistence, the United States and Turkey have agreed to create a $200 million fund to counter extremism. What a waste of money. The problem is not that countering extremism is bad—it’s not, although so many of the counter-extremism programs out there are unproven or ineffective. Rather, it’s that the program is poisoned from the start with the inclusion of Turkey.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack at a Nairobi mall and a Pakistani church, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a Turkish audience, according to some Turkish interlocutors, “No one can make me say that there are Muslim terrorists.” This builds on previous statements denying that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had any responsibility for the massacres in Darfur and his refusal to acknowledge that the Nusra Front, which Turkey supports and which the United States government considers an al-Qaeda affiliate, is a terrorist group. Erdoğan has even gone so far as to endorse an al-Qaeda financier.

Nor is it just Islamist terrorism on which the United States and Turkey diverge: While the United States still considers the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group at Turkey’s insistence, Erdoğan has launched talks with the group and acceded to a truce. This creates an irony in which Turkey supports an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria to fight a secular group which controls key territory but which the United States isolates because it is an offshoot of the PKK.

While Erdoğan excuses and actually encourages terrorism, he is acerbic toward free speech. He has identified “Western Islamophobia”—in which he includes criticism not only of Islam but also its more extremist manifestations—as a greater threat than terrorism. And, as he has moved to Islamize the classroom, we find items like this in Turkey’s 2nd grade classrooms: “Look at your jihadist brothers fighting in distant lands, see what you can do to help them.”

How sad it is that Obama isolates states that suffer terrorism, but unites with leaders who promote it. And, of course, what a dereliction of duty it is that so many U.S. congressmen still lend their names to a blanket endorsement of Turkey and Erdoğan’s desire to exclude Israel and excuse terror.

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Turkish Pianist Sentenced for Blasphemy

Just over four months ago, President Obama stood beside Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and spoke warmly of the relations between the two countries and his personal friendship with Turkey’s leader. While they stood together, Erdoğan’s security forces were seizing yet another independent media company; it would soon be transferred to his political allies.

Alas, the situation is going from bad to worse in Turkey. From today’s Hürriyet Daily News:

World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy in April, was again sentenced to 10 months by an Istanbul court today in a retrial. Say had received a suspended 10-month prison sentence on charges of “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society,” for re-tweeting several lines, which are attributed to poet Omar Khayyam… Say was convicted after tweeting the following lines: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?”

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Just over four months ago, President Obama stood beside Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and spoke warmly of the relations between the two countries and his personal friendship with Turkey’s leader. While they stood together, Erdoğan’s security forces were seizing yet another independent media company; it would soon be transferred to his political allies.

Alas, the situation is going from bad to worse in Turkey. From today’s Hürriyet Daily News:

World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy in April, was again sentenced to 10 months by an Istanbul court today in a retrial. Say had received a suspended 10-month prison sentence on charges of “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society,” for re-tweeting several lines, which are attributed to poet Omar Khayyam… Say was convicted after tweeting the following lines: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?”

Perhaps senior diplomats—some former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and men like Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried, who downplayed Erdoğan’s Islamism and suggested his party was nothing more than the Turkish equivalent of a European Christian Democratic Party—might want to consider how they got Turkey so wrong. 

For Turkish liberals, businessmen, students, and secularists who are striving for a constitutional order where rule-of-law trumps any prime minister’s personal orders and an independent judiciary reigns supreme, the worst aspect of American behavior is that so many American figures are lending their endorsement not to Turkish-American relations but rather to Erdoğan’s agenda. Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, has made it clear that the Turkish government interprets membership in the Congressional Turkish Caucus as a sign of endorsement of Turkey’s anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-secularist, and anti-free speech agenda. And yet, despite everything, more than 130 members of Congress, continue to effectively endorse a government which engages in blasphemy trials with a frequency now rivaling Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Turkey’s Double-Speak on Al-Qaeda

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, released a statement remembering that day and condemning terrorism:

The cowardly acts committed twelve years ago today will always remain as a solemn and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the scourge of terrorism. No cause can justify terrorism, for nothing is more valuable than human life and dignity.

Actions are louder than words and, alas, it seems Tan’s words are empty given the approach the government he represents has taken toward al-Qaeda in recent years.

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, released a statement remembering that day and condemning terrorism:

The cowardly acts committed twelve years ago today will always remain as a solemn and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the scourge of terrorism. No cause can justify terrorism, for nothing is more valuable than human life and dignity.

Actions are louder than words and, alas, it seems Tan’s words are empty given the approach the government he represents has taken toward al-Qaeda in recent years.

  • Ahmet Kavas, like Tan a Turkish ambassador, raised eyebrows earlier this year when against the backdrop of al-Qaeda fighting in Mali, he declared, “Al-Qaeda is very different from terror” and that “The word ‘terror’ is a French invention. Not the work of Muslims.”
  • Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man for whom Tan works, has embraced and continues to support Yasin al-Qadi, designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be terror financier, having channeled money to al-Qaeda. After it came out that Cuneyt Zapsu, a top Erdoğan adviser, had donated money to Yasin al-Qadi, Erdoğan defended both his aide and Qadi himself. “I know Yasin, I believe in him as I do in myself. He is a charitable person who loves Turkey,” Erdogan told Turkish television.
  • Turkey has in recent years embraced Hamas, and Tan himself has gone above and beyond to defend the flotilla meant to support the terrorist group. The head of the flotilla that Tan defended? Apparently, he has also been involved in channeling money to al-Qaeda.

Tan likes to be all things to all people, but if he’s serious that Turkey stands against terrorism, perhaps he might want to explain the support he, his colleagues, and the government he represents provide toward terrorists.

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