Commentary Magazine


Topic: Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Will Recep Erdoğan’s Turkish Election Defeat Save Democracy?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who brokers no dissent, went into Sunday’s elections hoping to win enough of a majority so that he could ram through a new constitution that would enhance the power of the president, now largely symbolic, over that of the prime minister and parliament. He was disappointed. But Westerners hoping that this signals an end to Erdoğan’s anti-democratic rule may also be disappointed.

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who brokers no dissent, went into Sunday’s elections hoping to win enough of a majority so that he could ram through a new constitution that would enhance the power of the president, now largely symbolic, over that of the prime minister and parliament. He was disappointed. But Westerners hoping that this signals an end to Erdoğan’s anti-democratic rule may also be disappointed.

While Erdoğan’s Islamist-oriented “Justice and Development Party,” best known by its Turkish acronym AKP, has dominated Turkish politics since November 2002, he was expecting 330 seats in the new parliament but received only 258.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 132 seats, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 81 seats, and the ethnic Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 79 seats.

Because the AKP lost its majority, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu — who is to Erdoğan what Dmitry Medvedev is to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — will need to resign so that a new government can be formed. Since the AKP won the plurality, Davutoğlu — presuming Erdoğan gives him authority — will have 15 days to form a new government. But, if the CHP, HDP, and MHP hold firm on their pledges not to work with the AKP, then the AKP will fail.

The CHP and MHP, while on opposite sides of the spectrum, have worked together before — most recently fielding a joint presidential candidate for the 2014 presidential election — and they could in theory put together a minority government, with the HDP not joining in but tacitly supporting. This also may not occur, since animosity between the HDP and the Kemalist parties runs deep.

If no government can be formed, then there will be new elections in 45 days.

While some diplomats may say that the elections prove that democracy can overcome autocracy, even if a new government forms — whether or not the AKP is part of it — optimism that the damage done by more than 12 years of one-party AKP rule can be overcome may be misplaced. On key issues of concern to the United States — for example, Turkey’s indirect and even direct support for radical Islamist terrorist groups in Syria — Erdoğan has delegated authority to organizations like the Turkish intelligence service (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) which do not answer to any democratic authority.

Erdoğan has also permanently altered the bureaucracy by maneuvering religious school graduates into key positions and even Turkey’s military, purged and cowed so that it is a shadow of its former self. Add into the mix a steady diet of anti-Americanism and conspiratorial incitement, and Turkey will remain one of the most anti-American countries on earth.

If the elections lead to gridlock and new elections, expect the would-be sultan to take his gloves off. There has been a bizarre undercurrent in recent weeks in Turkey threatening war with Syria. No one believes it, but it presents a useful excuse to suspend elections and rule by fiat. In new elections, he might also provoke extreme violence to keep the HDP below the threshold in any new election. Kurds will not believe the results should he do so, and tremendous violence would result, but if Erdoğan cannot rule without dissent, then he will be willing to send Turkey into the morass.

Turks are at the precipice. To suggest smooth sailing from here would be naivete of the same sort that brought us the “reset” with Russia, the notion that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, or, for that matter, the idea that Iran could be a trusted partner.

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Reconsidering Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic thinker, has long been the subject of controversy in both American and Turkish policy circles. Born in Erzurum, Turkey, he taught and preached in Turkey for decades. His writings have focused on the interplay between religion, modernism, and interfaith tolerance, though his critics have suggested that his public and private statements were often at odds with each other. He came to the United States in 1999 seeking medical treatment for diabetes, among other ailments. While in the United States, videotapes surfaced which apparently showed Gülen suggesting his goal was to change Turkey’s system to make it more religious. Gülen and his supporters say the tapes were manipulated and his remarks twisted and taken out of context, but others suspected a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Gülen chose to stay in the United States rather than face prosecution in Turkey. After all, then as now justice was not the highest priority for the Turkish judicial system. He has since lived in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos town of Saylorsburg, at a small forested compound with houses and a meeting hall overlooking a small pond.

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Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic thinker, has long been the subject of controversy in both American and Turkish policy circles. Born in Erzurum, Turkey, he taught and preached in Turkey for decades. His writings have focused on the interplay between religion, modernism, and interfaith tolerance, though his critics have suggested that his public and private statements were often at odds with each other. He came to the United States in 1999 seeking medical treatment for diabetes, among other ailments. While in the United States, videotapes surfaced which apparently showed Gülen suggesting his goal was to change Turkey’s system to make it more religious. Gülen and his supporters say the tapes were manipulated and his remarks twisted and taken out of context, but others suspected a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Gülen chose to stay in the United States rather than face prosecution in Turkey. After all, then as now justice was not the highest priority for the Turkish judicial system. He has since lived in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos town of Saylorsburg, at a small forested compound with houses and a meeting hall overlooking a small pond.

Back in 2009, the Middle East Quarterly, a policy journal which I used to edit, published an article by Turkey expert and translator Rachel Sharon-Krespin about Gülen. The article ascribed malevolent motives to Gülen’s work. John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, in contrast, embraces Gülen’s work and teaching and affirmed his sincerity. Several years ago, the New York Times reported on the controversy over assessments of Gülen, as has Der Spiegel.

In my own writing, I have often been suspicious of the Gülen movement, although as I reflect, I realize I may have been misread the movement. While this post will be lengthy, the topic remains relevant and may be interesting to those focused on Islam and reform, and so I hope to address why I was suspicious, and why I have slowly been changing my mind. Over time, the basis for my suspicion of the movement has been multifold, although much of it had little to do with Gülen himself.

My Ph.D. work was in Iranian history, and while my dissertation did not involve Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, I had long studied his life and writing. Whereas Khomeini today is remembered for his revolutionary radicalism both in the United States and Iran, many Americans forget how Khomeini and his supporters sold the ayatollah to the West. In the U.S.-based, Persian language journal Iranshenasi, Jalal Matini, the chancellor of Ferdowsi University in Mashhad between 1975 and 1978, chronicled some of Khomeini’s quotes about his philosophy and vision for the future. In short, Khomeini told Westerners what they wanted to hear about his disinterest in personal power or the imposition of religious rule, and gullible reporters and diplomats ate it up. There were no shortage of useful idiots. Here, for example, is Richard Falk, at the time a professor of international law at Princeton who had the ear of Jimmy Carter, singing Khomeini’s praises in the New York Times.

Khomeini was not alone in fooling the West. The Muslim Brotherhood co-opted the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. They promised young Egyptians democracy, and there were many Western journalists, diplomats, and analysts who believed them. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a strictly hierarchical organization that does not tolerate internal debate and discussion. Their management philosophy is “listen and repeat.” Once in power, Mohamed Morsi like Khomeini eschewed his promises and any rhetoric of democracy and compromise and began to transform Egypt into an authoritarian, religious state. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may not be a panacea to Egypt’s ills, and it may be impossible to gauge his true popularity given the repression that continues to exist in Egypt, but there is little doubt that his coup was extremely popular among Egyptians, including many disenfranchised youth who had once taken the Muslim Brotherhood at their word.

Perhaps nowhere has deception been as great as with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Diplomats and many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey—Mark Parris, Morton Abramowitz, Ross Wilson, Robert Pearson, Marc Grossman—swore by Erdoğan and his alleged commitment to democracy (only Eric Edelman was an exception; he alone called Erdoğan correctly from the beginning as Wikileaks shows). They were not alone. President George W. Bush also praised the Turkish leader. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom,” he said. Erdoğan, of course, was no democrat. Rather, he was and is a bigot and a despot. Neither the White House nor any serious diplomat carry his water anymore; they recognize him for what he is.

So, the West has gotten burnt at least three times by embracing Islamists who preached democracy, only to see their rhetoric was empty. That does not mean, however, that all clerics and others who hold Islam dear are so cynical. To dismiss all such clerics or would-be reformers is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the West finds no partners nor can Muslims find leaders who can push a path which rolls back the hatred and radical interpretations spread by decades of Saudi and Iranian oil money.

That said, my suspicious understanding of Fethullah Gülen was driven by other considerations. Gülen has always emphasized education. This is laudable. The best schools in Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Africa, and elsewhere are affiliated with his movements. These schools do not proselytize, although they do embrace religious values. Regardless, they regularly turn out the best and brightest in their societies. These men and women in turn form networks, help each other with entry into governments or business, and often give back to the movement. Such networks can be secretive, and that secrecy can also breed suspicion. Suspicion can be justified, but it is not always so.

Another litmus test I use to judge movements is how forthright they are. Take the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO): It regularly spins off front groups to try to entrap the greedy or naïve. If the MKO was open and honest, they would just say who they are instead of trying to launder their history the way they do. Now, every Gülenist movement I know does not hide its ideology or its belief in the teachings of Gülen, but the ever expanding network of names and groups created a whiff of confusion. Turkey-watchers knew what each group was, but many others who became involved had no idea they were working with a Gülenist group. Sometimes, Gülenist groups seemed to try to co-opt individuals in organizations that did not know Turkey or who wanted a free trip, in order to suggest some institutional links where none existed.

Also contributing to my suspicion has been the fact that so much of the outside scholarship dedicated to Gülen’s work has been funded by Gülen’s charities. Over the years, I have known a number of his followers, and too often came to interpret his views by their actions. One Turkish diplomat, for example, tweeted favorably about University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt’s book The Israel Lobby, which basically argued that Jewish Americans who disagreed with Walt and Mearsheimer held dual loyalty, an anti-Semitic attitude which has found a following among some intellectuals.

Likewise, some writers for Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with the movement, also used terminology and cast aspersions with regard to U.S. policymakers that sometimes crossed the line into anti-Semitism, and other columnists close to the movement sometimes falsified quotations although, to be fair, they apologized. Also coloring my assessment were the frequent discrepancies between the manner in which Zaman covered stories versus how its English language edition, Today’s Zaman, sanitized the same stories to make them more palatable to the Western ear. Some of Gülen’s followers may be anti-Semitic or prone to conspiracy, but is it fair to judge a whole movement by a few bad apples? After all, while no political movement in the United States is as cohesive as those in Turkey, there are men and women among both the right and the left in the United States who engage in conspiracy, are cynically political and are frankly embarrassing to their political allies. Guilt by association is a favorite past time of some politicos, but engaging in it is unfortunate when it becomes a way to side step more serious debate. That said, even while there are some followers who are bigoted and unrepentant, what is also true of the movement is that whatever differences they have, political or religious, they do not hesitate to sit down and discuss them openly and with civility. At the height of my political spat with the Gülenists, their door was never closed to me (they were for a long time housed in the same building as my American Enterprise Institute office). That shows self-confidence and principle, something that, for example, Erdoğan’s followers don’t have. During a recent visit to Turkey, for example, a former AKP member who once headed the German Marshall Fund’s office in Turkey worked to ensure that AKP members not accept meetings with myself and others whom he considered critical; likewise, the Kurdistan Regional Government also regularly seeks to handpick audiences in order to ensure that every question is a softball. Such strategies reflect a political culture that stresses sycophancy and dictatorial control rather than one that embraces inclusion.

The major basis for my suspicion about Gülen and his movement, however, was how his followers appeared to carry water for Erdoğan. And, indeed, it long appeared to me and others that followers of Gülen were working in an unholy alliance with Erdoğan in order to transform Turkish society fundamentally away from its Kemalist past and to blur the line between mosque and state. And perhaps they were, although, I also recognize it is equally possible that Erdoğan fooled Gülen’s followers by depicting his ultimate goals as far more moderate and democratic than reality has now shown them to be. Many Turks also suspect the Gülenists as contributing to the false evidence used to purge secularists, military officers, and nationalists.

What cannot be disputed is that, approximately a year-and-a-half ago, Erdoğan turned on Gülen and his followers. He launched a purge throughout the bureaucracy which, while not bloody, would nevertheless make Stalin proud. Any one even suspected of supporting Gülen or his myriad charities and schools—thousands and thousands of people—could and did find themselves out of a job without due process and, in some cases, could find themselves in prison. These are men and women who are sometimes responsible for feeding and clothing numerous children and parents, all of whom are now cut off. Erdoğan now demands that Gülen be extradited to Turkey where, perhaps, it would be easier to serve Gülen some figurative or literal polonium tea. Extradition would be wrong. Under no circumstances should the United States give any credence to Erdoğan, an increasingly unhinged and unrestrained dictator.

One of the more interesting debates right now in Turkey involves when Erdoğan changed. I have treated Erdoğan and his inner circle with suspicion almost from the beginning, and was once in a small minority, even among so-called neoconservatives. Many others have come around, whether it was because of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas, his conspiratorial ravings, his increasing anti-Americanism, his corruption, his response to the Gezi protests, or now the crackdown on Gülen and his followers. A question which many liberals, businessmen, and one-time supporters of Erdoğan now consider is whether or not they should have spoken up sooner against Erdoğan. Then again, the important thing is that they have recognized Erdoğan for what he is. And the fact that Gülen is now critical of Erdoğan gives pause for thought.

But just as Erdoğan has changed with time—even if his ideology has been consistent, his tactics have become far less nuanced—so too might Gülen have changed. Sixteen years is a long time to live in the United States, and Gülen is not isolated. He has seen both the American judiciary at work as well as hospitals. It may sound trite, but seeing how Americans treat each other as equals in contrast to how Erdoğan acts as a sultan can wear off. And, movements learn from their mistakes. Even if Gülen’s followers once collaborated with Erdoğan and caused a lot of damage when they did so, now that they find themselves on the opposite end of Erdoğan’s wrath provides a lesson which many have learned.

Was I right to be suspicious of the Fethullah Gülen and his movement? To some extent, yes. But was I at times unfair to the group? Absolutely. I regret that I once speculated that Gülen’s return to Turkey could mirror Khomeini’s return to Tehran, a comparison which became headline news in the often polemical Turkish press. Indeed, for that comparison, I apologize. Would I want to be judged by the same standards by which I judged the movement? Probably not. Does that mean I endorse the movement? No, I do not. But I am willing to listen to them.

That said, I do believe that while Gülenists and myself have followed radically different paths, when it comes to Turkey today, Erdoğan’s radicalism, the importance of the free market and business, and well as the importance of tolerance in society, and education, there is room for consensus.

Aside from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Republican Peoples Party (CHP), no political party dominated by a charismatic leader in Turkey has survived that leader’s death. After Adnan Menderes was executed after the 1960 coup, his Democrat Party disappeared. Likewise, the Motherland Party did not survive Turgut Özal death in 1993. While Erdoğan, as president, should theoretically be above Turkish politics, he remains as partisan today as when he was prime minister. He also remains as domineering of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) over which he is an authoritarian lord. When Erdoğan is gone—and he knows that if he ever steps down, he will likely die in prison or in exile in Saudi Arabia—then the AKP will not survive. It will fracture and fragment, and the politics of compromise amidst coalitions may return. In that future, the followers of Fethullah Gülen will likely play a positive role and they undo the system of fear and the cynical use of religion that defines the Erdoğan era.

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Erdoğan Versus Carmina Burana

Among the most popular classical music vocal performance pieces today is Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The cantata—a vocal arrangement with instruments sung by a choir—was written in 1935 and 1936, Carmina Burana’s roots are actually much deeper: it is based on a manuscript of 11th and 12th century poetry. Its sound is distinctive as it is sung mostly in Latin, and not Italian like so many other operas. Here, for example, is “O Fortuna,” although almost every song from the opera is well-known. “O Fortuna” has also worked its way into popular culture, played in the background of everything from the South Park movie to Glee to Cheaper by the Dozen to Jackass: The Movie. That’s not Orff’s fault, of course, and shouldn’t detract from the Carmina Burana as a musical masterpiece. Alas, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s mercurial strongman has now directed his animus toward Orff and his work. Working through his proxies, Erdogan  forced it off the stage in Izmir after Turkish pianist Fazil Say said that the opera mentioned sex and wine. Fazil Say is no prude; he has long opposed Turkey’s growing Islamism even at a time when U.S. ambassadors to Turkey were still denying Erdoğan’s true agenda, and so was simply goading a reaction out of the government to show how ridiculous Turkey’s politicization of the arts scene has become.

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Among the most popular classical music vocal performance pieces today is Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The cantata—a vocal arrangement with instruments sung by a choir—was written in 1935 and 1936, Carmina Burana’s roots are actually much deeper: it is based on a manuscript of 11th and 12th century poetry. Its sound is distinctive as it is sung mostly in Latin, and not Italian like so many other operas. Here, for example, is “O Fortuna,” although almost every song from the opera is well-known. “O Fortuna” has also worked its way into popular culture, played in the background of everything from the South Park movie to Glee to Cheaper by the Dozen to Jackass: The Movie. That’s not Orff’s fault, of course, and shouldn’t detract from the Carmina Burana as a musical masterpiece. Alas, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s mercurial strongman has now directed his animus toward Orff and his work. Working through his proxies, Erdogan  forced it off the stage in Izmir after Turkish pianist Fazil Say said that the opera mentioned sex and wine. Fazil Say is no prude; he has long opposed Turkey’s growing Islamism even at a time when U.S. ambassadors to Turkey were still denying Erdoğan’s true agenda, and so was simply goading a reaction out of the government to show how ridiculous Turkey’s politicization of the arts scene has become.

The irony, here, is that the Sufis who once called the Ottoman Empire home also talked about the same themes. Like many Islamists, Erdoğan is ignorant of Islamic history, transposing backwards his Saudi-inspired, Muslim Brotherhood-style radicalism without ever realizing how arbitrary and ahistorical they can be. Mention of wine can also be found in Shakespeare and pretty much every classic of western literature as well. The fact that this happened in the western city of Izmir is significant. Too many Turks have rationalized the rise of Erdoğan by suggesting that the Islamism which he has imposed throughout Anatolia, would be limited to rural Turkey and the more conservative cities of that region. In this there are parallels to the Pakistani intellectual, urban elite’s denial of just how expansive Islamism had permeated Pakistan, as the upper crust of Pakistani society, like ostriches with their head in the sand, continued to deny that Islamist radicalism was anything but a lower-class, rural phenomenon.  At any rate, even if Istanbul fell to Erdoğan’s brand of Islamism, Turkish liberals and traditional Kemalists convinced themselves they could always have refuge in the more European-oriented western part of Turkey. Well, the fact that Erdoğan’s Islamist censorship has now reached Izmir shows just how Erdoğan’s Islamist hold has consolidated over even those areas not traditionally part of his core constituency. Perhaps the Mediterranean resort of Bodrum–the last oasis for many traditional Turkish elites–will be next on Erdoğan’s hit list.

Erdoğan is as much a dictator as Vladimir Putin. Let there be no mistake: Turkey is no longer a bridge between East and West; it is a stronghold of the east, at least in its embrace of corruption and autocracy, and increasingly intolerant if not inimical to the West. Some diplomats and head-in-the-sand Turkish liberals may say ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ but, in modern Turkey, the fat lady would be lucky to be alive and, if she is, should be at home raising at least three children. Erdoğan may not be a fat lady, and he certainly disapproves of singing, so perhaps the Turkish version of the adage should be, “It’s not over until the small-minded dictator censors.” Alas, in Turkey, it’s been over for years.

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Turkey into the Press Freedom Abyss

Much has been written here at COMMENTARY about the slow unraveling of Turkey’s democratic hopes as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and then as president, has consolidated power and rolled back press freedom. Against the backdrop events in Iran, Yemen, and Syria, however, how much of a self-parody Turkey has become has passed largely unnoticed in the West.

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Much has been written here at COMMENTARY about the slow unraveling of Turkey’s democratic hopes as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and then as president, has consolidated power and rolled back press freedom. Against the backdrop events in Iran, Yemen, and Syria, however, how much of a self-parody Turkey has become has passed largely unnoticed in the West.

Turkey, of course, isn’t North Korea and never will be, but the aftermath of the Kabataş incident might give pause. Basically, the background was that during the 2013 Gezi protests, a pro-regime journalist tweeted that he had witnessed more than one hundred men dressed in leather fetish outfits harassing a conservatively dressed religious woman in the central Istanbul district of Kabataş. This became a rallying call for Erdoğan, who proceeded to depict everyone protesting for their rights and against dictatorship as hooligans and terrorists.

The only problem with such a narrative, however, was it rested on a complete fabrication. Turkey is a police state. There are closed circuit cameras everywhere. And a review of the footage showed the veiled woman crossing the street completely unmolested. No one accosts her. And, for that matter, no one in the neighborhood appears to be dressed in leather, sadomasochistic gear. That seems simply to have been a homoerotic fantasy dreamed up by Erdoğan, but the president’s psyche will be a topic for another day.

What is truly striking—and, credit where credit is due, what the Turkish blogger “The Radical Democrat” pointed out to me—is that Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan columnists not only rallied around a complete falsehood, but also did so utilizing almost the exact same headlines on the exact same day. Does Turkey have a free press? If the behavior of these 14 columnists and newspapers means anything, then the answer is no, although perhaps the incident does reveal why so many relatively young and new commentators suddenly find themselves hosting talk shows on state-run TV and buying multimillion dollar villas on the Bosporus.

Then again, this is just the tip of the iceberg in what is now occurring inside Turkey and its media environment. A Turkish court recently sentenced two journalists to prison for satirizing Erdoğan’s animus toward journalists; apparently, Erdoğan was so busy worrying about leather-clad, whip-wielding gangs that he missed the irony. But don’t expect to read any of this in Turkey soon, as the Erdoğan regime—which has already blocked 100,000 Internet sites—moves to shut down any political discussion which does not conform to Erdoğan’s narrow view.

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The Roots of ‘Crazy’ in the Middle East

When it comes to bizarre and buffoonish behavior among leaders in the world, Kim Jong-un might be the leader of the pack, but the talent is deep in Middle East: Muammar Gaddafi would rant and rave. His UN speeches were feats of endurance for the audience as much as for Gaddafi himself. He surrounded himself with female bodyguards and his physical transformation rivaled only Michael Jackson. Gaddafi’s son Hannibal was a chip off the old block: After he and his wife beat two servants in a Swiss hotel, they arrested him. The resulting vendetta culminated with Gaddafi calling for a jihad against Switzerland.

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When it comes to bizarre and buffoonish behavior among leaders in the world, Kim Jong-un might be the leader of the pack, but the talent is deep in Middle East: Muammar Gaddafi would rant and rave. His UN speeches were feats of endurance for the audience as much as for Gaddafi himself. He surrounded himself with female bodyguards and his physical transformation rivaled only Michael Jackson. Gaddafi’s son Hannibal was a chip off the old block: After he and his wife beat two servants in a Swiss hotel, they arrested him. The resulting vendetta culminated with Gaddafi calling for a jihad against Switzerland.

Qaddafi, of course, was not alone. Saddam Hussein might have been evil, but he was not crazy: he was cold, calculating, and ruthless, but he was positively sane next to his eldest son Uday Hussein. Uday’s exploits are well-known: He was a rapist, murderer, and psychopath. When Iraq’s national soccer team lost a game, he would beat them. Torture was for him an amusing game.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has inherited Gaddafi’s mantle for the flamboyant and bizarre. He is unrepentantly corrupt, thinskinned, and conspiratorial. Whereas many rulers can be dictatorial and/or adversarial, Erdoğan increasingly seems simply unhinged.

The Saudi royal family is notoriously cloistered, but some of the princes are hardly bastions of virtue behind the scenes. A single Saudi prince killed 2,100 endangered birds while on vacation in Pakistan. Heck, taking a vacation to Pakistan is hardly evidence of sound mind. And other Saudi royals stand accused of worse.

Even in Iraqi Kurdistan, normally thought of as an oasis of stability, there is quite a lot of crazy. Former President Jalal Talabani effectively exiled his eldest son Bafil to London as his behavior grew erratic, and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s eldest sons Masrour and Mansour are giving Uday’s reputation a run for its money. Not everyone would consider attacking a family rival in a Virginia dentist’s office wise, and even fewer would act on their impulse.

Why is it that the Middle East has become not only a region of dictatorships, but also a region of crazy? Under Saddam there was a joke about the sycophancy and the infallibility of rulers: Tariq Aziz was giving a press conference in which a reporter asked him whether elephants could fly. He answered “Of course not,” but then another journalist pointed out that Saddam said elephants could fly. Without missing a beat, Aziz said, “Ah, yes, but only very slowly.” In such a situation, Erdoğan has become Saddam’s successor as the master of flying elephants; no journalist would tell the sultan he has no clothes lest his newspaper be closed and he or his family imprisoned.

There are other reasons as well, especially when it comes to the children. As open and democratic as some leaders claim their countries to be, family remains paramount. Rulers surround themselves with sycophants who affirm their every move. To have been a Gaddafi, Barzani, or Saudi from the right line was to never have to say sorry. There were two sets of rules, mutually exclusive: That of the country and society and that of the family. Countries were mere playgrounds where even the most horrific abuse could be covered up with money. Money, power, and fame can be a volatile combination when mixed.

Leaders like Gaddafi and Barzani might consider themselves great thinkers or statesmen, but they tend to be poor fathers, allowing their children to grow up surrounded by servants who cater to their children’s every need and confuse respect for the leader with absolute deference to the child. Limits are arbitrary and ephemeral, and morality optional.

There is no hard-and-fast rule, and of course the individual matters. Qusay may have been bad, but he was not Uday; Qubad has not followed in Bafil’s footprints; and for every Saudi prince who becomes a psychopath, there are dozens who are merely massively spoiled.

An oddity of the odious is an obsession with Hollywood. Kim Jong-un, for example, is famously obsessed with Hollywood. First Lady Asma al-Assad pow-wowed with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. King Abdullah II of Jordan doesn’t fit the same moral mold, but he is a dictator—and a notorious trekkie. Perhaps, then, a good analogy to the crazy infusing the Middle East are Hollywood’s child stars. Being famous young and surrounded by sycophants has famously taken its toll on some child stars but not all. For every Lindsay Lohan there is a Mayim Bialik; and for every Macaulay Culkin there is a Ron Howard. Culture, upbringing, and values matter.

How tragic it is then that beyond war, terrorism, and potential recession, so much sycophancy, corruption, and impunity has transformed so many current and next generation leaders in the Middle East to the political equivalent of the cast of Different Strokes.

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Lynch Mob Attacks Turkish Newspaper

Over the years, I’ve chronicled the rapid decline in press freedom in Turkey.

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Over the years, I’ve chronicled the rapid decline in press freedom in Turkey.

For example:

I wish this was an exhaustive list, but alas it’s not and there’s far more available in the pages of COMMENTARY, easily accessible if you follow the tags “press freedom” and “Turkey.”

Alas, it seems that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist Brownshirts are now willing to take the battle against the press and free expression to a new level. The Turkish broadsheet Cumhuriyet, traditionally a center-left newspaper, decided to reprint a four-page selection of Charlie Hebdo’s post-massacre edition. In response, Turkish police—firmly under Erdoğan’s control—earlier today raided the Istanbul offices of the paper. That’s bad enough, but par for the course in Erdoğan’s police state. Nor was it unpredictable that Erdoğan would take such a hard line against Charlie Hebdo and its drawings. After all, the assailants were still on the run when senior ministers in Erdoğan’s government and the Islamist press in Turkey—the only press which Erdoğan allows to operate freely—began to rationalize the murders in Paris.

Now, however, as I write this, interlocutors in Turkey tell me a mob has gathered in front of Cumhuriyet and is calling, quite literally, for blood, chanting, “Be prepared, death is coming all around.” They are also reportedly chanting their allegiance to the Kouachi brothers who carried out the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. This Twitter feed is worth watching as the situation develops.

Let us hope and pray that the journalists at Cumhuriyet remain safe, and that the international community makes clear to Erdoğan that he will personally be held responsible for their lives and safety. Meanwhile, it is worth reflecting just how bold is not only Cumhuriyet but also the Iranian newspaper Shargh which tweeted out some of the cartoons. Meanwhile, the New York Times refuses for fear of insulting someone. (That didn’t stop Dean Baquet from insulting those who pressed him on his decision to self-censor.) The lesson? Perhaps it’s true that people don’t appreciate their freedoms until they are taken away. Nevertheless, it’s about time we start recognizing the fragility of freedom and liberty.

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In Turkey, Will Corruption Kill?

Turkey has never been a particularly clean country when it comes to economic transparency and rule of law. One of the reasons why mainstream voters chose Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 elections was widespread disgust with the corruption of the established parties. Turkish voters basically gambled on the devil they didn’t know instead of the devils they did.

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Turkey has never been a particularly clean country when it comes to economic transparency and rule of law. One of the reasons why mainstream voters chose Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 elections was widespread disgust with the corruption of the established parties. Turkish voters basically gambled on the devil they didn’t know instead of the devils they did.

In hindsight it is clear they made the wrong decision. When Erdoğan became prime minister, he immediately set out to hijack the Turkish financial system, reportedly building a large slush fund with the assistance of oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates like Qatar. Over the course of his premiership, Erdoğan also became fabulously wealthy. Erdoğan explained his sudden good fortune as the result of wedding gifts sent to his son by his many friends and admirers. Still, U.S. diplomats privately suggested that Erdoğan has siphoned money off into eight different Swiss bank accounts. It is impossible to know for sure in the absence of transparency, but Erdoğan may very well be the most corrupt leader in Turkey’s history, and that’s a distinction for which the competition has been fierce.

The fact that Erdoğan is effectively above the law has led him to double down on opponents and answer corruption charges with impunity. A year ago, after a dispute erupted between Erdoğan and exiled Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen, the Gülenists in the security services apparently leaked recordings allegedly depicting corruption in Erdoğan’s household and among senior ministers and advisors, like former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış. In the recordings, Erdoğan purportedly asks his son to dispose of $1 billion stashed in various family members’ homes. The next day, Turks say that the Erdoğans bought several luxury villas, paying with cash. Meanwhile, police had seized millions of dollars from the homes of Bağış and colleagues. Bağış defended himself by calling such gifts a Turkish tradition. And so they have become.

A parliamentary commission charged with investigating corruption and bribery charges against four Erdoğan ministers decided, however, not to send the ministers to a Supreme Court trial. This outcome surprised no one because Erdoğan’s party enjoys a parliamentary majority and maintains authoritarian control over his party and its affairs. What is surprising, however, is that the AKP went further; the parliamentary commission handling the graft investigation decided to destroy all evidence. This is to ensure that no future government or independent court would have original evidence at its disposal. While recordings of the phone calls are all over YouTube and other Internet sites, under Turkish law copies are not admissible in court. The lesson? In Turkey, corruption occurs with impunity. That may be tragic for Turkey itself, the Turkish middle class, and foreign investors unwilling to pony up cash; but embezzlement, bribes, and kickbacks don’t necessarily take lives.

Alas, corruption has become endemic in other ways that can have devastating consequences. In his efforts to depict Turkey as a great, emerging power, Erdoğan decided to go nuclear. In 2010, he signed a $22 billion agreement with Russia—not exactly the industry standard of nuclear safety—to build a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu along Turkey’s southern coast. (In 2013, Erdoğan finalized another $22 billion agreement with a Japanese and French concern to build a second nuclear plant in Sinop, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast). Now it’s emerging that signatures on the engineering assessment of the plant’s environmental impact were forged. But, why worry? It’s only a nuclear plant in an active earthquake zone. Alas, the right people might have benefited in the short term, but the long-term impact of such fraud can be devastating and impact not only Turkey, but southeastern Europe, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Israel as well.

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Erdoğan’s Willing Enablers

Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

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Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

Erdoğan and his supporters, both within his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and among the followers of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, crafted a false choice: To support Erdoğan and his agenda was to support democracy; to question Erdoğan was to support military fascism. Among diplomats, intellectuals, and academics, anti-military bias was a major factor: Certainly, no aspiring democracy should have such a prominent domestic political role for the military as pre-Erdoğan Turkey did. But to turn a blind eye toward persecution of officers simply because they served their country and abided by their mandate to protect the constitution was wrong. So too was the rush by Erdoğan’s external supporters to cheer his dis-empowerment of the military without first creating an alternate system of checks and balances to the constitutional order. Erdoğan had ambition, and took advantage of the naivete of Western diplomats, Turkish liberals, and businessmen who just wanted quiet while Turkey’s economy boomed.

Criticism of Erdoğan brought with it a flood of bile, if not ad hominem demonization. This itself should have been an indicator, for the ad hominem attack is often the strategy of choice for those unable to counter arguments on fact. At times, however, libel seemed to be a deliberate strategy. Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News, often wrote favorably toward Erdoğan’s early agenda and criticized those raising questions about it. Here, for example, he suggested that I had labeled Erdoğan’s government as an “example of so-called Islamo-fascism.” I had done nothing of the sort and when I challenged Akyol or the Hürriyet Daily News to show any instance where I used that term, I got neither response nor correction. Akyol apparently wanted to dismiss criticism as rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry rather than have to address criticism head-on. He has since come around, but his writing is influential and the damage he did by holding water for the AKP helped blind Washington-area policymakers toward Erdoğan’s true agenda until it was too late.

Another prime example of Turkish journalists publishing outright propaganda in order to win access and privilege was this beauty, by Cengiz Çandar, a Turkish journalist who has a reputation for trading praise for access across Turkish administrations. Here, for example, is Çandar taking umbrage in The Guardian about criticism of Turkey’s crackdown on his fellow journalists. In the years since Çandar’s ad hominem response, press freedom organizations have declared Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Had Çandar used his pen to stand up for freedom and liberty rather than sweep abuses under the rug, Turkish civil society might not be in such a lamentable state today. Alas, no amount of indignation in papers like The Guardian can change reality. Even those on the far left care about imprisoned journalists and don’t buy into the notion that Erdoğan only punishes criminals.

Those spreading hate to ingratiate themselves to Erdoğan also paved the way for the West to turn a blind eye. Former Ambassador Mark Parris—while working at two Washington-area think tanks—started a whispering campaign accusing me and a number of Jewish Americans critical of Erdoğan of plotting a coup against him, a plot which his interlocutor, columnist Fehmi Koru (who also writes under the pseudonym Taha Kıvanç), unfurled in a series of Yeni Şafak columns reminiscent of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Parris subsequently became a non-executive director in one of Turkey’s top oil companies. Parris’s colleague at Brookings was Omer Taspinar who would write with a moderate tone in English, but would lose all semblance of balance or scholarly detachment in Turkish. Here, for example, was Taspinar ranting in the Turkish press (Google translation here) about supposed “neocon” plots and unfair criticism of the Turkish leader. Qatar was not the only country to try to corrupt Brookings; such articles apparently came against the backdrop of fundraising inside Turkey for Brookings’ Turkey program.

There are others, of course, who helped Erdoğan complete his mission. Against the backdrop of a court case accusing Erdoğan of violating the law and breaching the constitution—a case that might have ended in the dissolution of his party—rumors swirled that a businessman seeking favor with Erdoğan and relief from constant AKP-led tax investigations against him allegedly bribed a judge who switched his vote which at the last minute, enabling Erdoğan and the AKP to survive.

Fethullah Gülen may now find himself the target of Erdoğan’s irrational anger, but Gülen and his allies also have much to answer for. After all, while allied with Erdoğan, they used their perch in the security services to spy on and sometimes frame their secularist adversaries. Years before the cases of imprisoned generals, professors, and civil society leaders were dismissed, Harvard scholar Dani Rodrik showed conclusively how the evidence upon which they were convicted was based on forgery. Why European or American diplomats treated Turkish proceedings as anything more than a farce is inexcusable and, if not intentional due to ideological hatred of Turkey’s generals, demonstrates complete incompetence on the part of journalists and diplomats both. To the credit of the Gülenists, they now acknowledge the error of their ways. The question is whether they ever would have come to terms with what they had done to their adversaries if they had not found themselves on the wrong side of Erdoğan’s animus.

Clearly, with so many critics of Turkey ending up in prison or facing charges (full disclosure: Erdoğan advisor Cuneyt Zapsu and disgraced European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış also filed papers against me in a Turkish court, a process which Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States apparently aided; I ignored the Turkish case), many Turks and analysts also shifted course to maintain their access. Some Washington-based scholars who were once clear-eyed and critical of Erdoğan now consciously mute their criticism, either for fear of the safety of their family back in Turkey or to maintain access to the country. Either way, the knowledge that people will subvert a quest for truth to such career calculations have enabled Erdoğan’s rise from the very start.

Almost 20 years ago, author Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book which took to task the German public which argued that they were unaware of just what Hitler was doing as he did it. Erdoğan is no Hitler, but he is at a minimum a dictator who combines the ambition and egoism of Vladimir Putin with uncompromising Islamism.

While few now debate what Erdoğan represents and where he means to take Turkey, he need not have succeeded in his quest. Perhaps as Turkey enters a new year, it is time for Turkish liberals, ambitious businessmen, corrupt journalists, and frightened diplomats to look back and consider the consequences of the compromises they made. As Turks—not only Islamists but liberals as well—suffer under Erdoğan’s dictatorship, let us hope that they acknowledge that their new dictator is a product and reflection of Turkey’s own political culture, and not some conspiracy imposed by the outside.

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Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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Time to Speak Out on Turkey Media Bans

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on press freedom is now more than a decade old. The story is well-known: Upon taking office, he surreptitiously replaced all the technocrats at Turkey’s banking board with political hacks, all of whom had an Islamic banking background. He then used this board and others to levy exorbitant and arbitrary tax liens sometimes amounting to billions of dollars against his political enemies and any newspaper which reported critically about him.

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Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on press freedom is now more than a decade old. The story is well-known: Upon taking office, he surreptitiously replaced all the technocrats at Turkey’s banking board with political hacks, all of whom had an Islamic banking background. He then used this board and others to levy exorbitant and arbitrary tax liens sometimes amounting to billions of dollars against his political enemies and any newspaper which reported critically about him.

While media watchdogs have chronicled Erdoğan’s reign of terror against journalists, famously labeling Turkey the “world’s biggest prison for journalists,” just as important to Erdoğan’s success has been his ability to co-opt journalists. Meeting with veteran Turkish journalists in Istanbul this past summer, most estimated that only five percent of Turkish journalists at most are professional; some within the newer generation of journalists have become multimillionaires simply because they parrot Erdoğan’s line and paint flattering portraits of his sublime wisdom.

Many of the authentic journalists who remain work at the Turkish daily Hürriyet. Certainly, that paper still self-censors and it is also home to some columnists who frequently toe the government line, but it still is willing to push the envelope in a way so many other Turkish outlets will not. One recent bold case was that of reporter Zeynep Gürcanlı who, after Erdoğan’s regime decreed no one should report on the massive corruption scandal involving former ministers and Erdoğan associates, compiled this list of ten topics on which the government has banned Turkish journalists from reporting. Her list is well worth reading.

Hürriyet soon followed suit with this declaration decrying the bans. Several newspapers subsequently issued statements that they would ignore the ban, a bold move which can result in fines, prison, or worse.

Interestingly, one newspaper that has apparently decided to go along with Erdoğan’s ban is Sabah. This does not surprise: That newspaper, once mildly critical of Erdoğan, was seized by the Turkish government and transferred to Erdoğan’s son-in-law. What makes Sabah’s refusal more meaningful, however, is that when President Obama hosted Erdoğan at the White House last year, Obama chose Sabah of all newspapers in order to laud Erdoğan’s Turkey. Its sycophantic behavior to Erdoğan was already well known, as was Hürriyet’s willingness to resist. To be fair to Obama, it is doubtful he personally knew about Sabah’s baggage. But certainly the Turkey desk at the National Security Council did, as would all the Turkey hands at the State Department, at the American Embassy in Ankara, and the American consulate in Istanbul. That the United States has so consistently turned a blind eye to the contraction of rights and freedoms in Turkey is a poor reflection of a litany of U.S. ambassadors in Turkey, with the clear exception of Eric Edelman, who regularly stood up and spoke out in favor of democracy and liberty and was not willing to paper over or rationalize Erdoğan’s abuse of power.

Mistakes happen, but they can be corrected. Once upon the time the White House valued moral clarity. How telling it is that as some Turkish journalists risk life and limb to expose the truth, Obama and so many handling Turkey affairs in the State Department remain as silent publicly on the subjects Turkey bans as Erdoğan’s in-pocket, bought-and-paid-for journalists.

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Obama Should Correct Erdoğan on Women

That Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not only believe but also state openly that he doesn’t believe women to be the equal of men should surprise no one after all these years. While Turkey was once one of the most enlightened majority Muslim populations when it came to women—being one of the first Muslim countries to elect a female prime minister, for example—in recent years, the plight of women has declined precipitously.

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That Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not only believe but also state openly that he doesn’t believe women to be the equal of men should surprise no one after all these years. While Turkey was once one of the most enlightened majority Muslim populations when it came to women—being one of the first Muslim countries to elect a female prime minister, for example—in recent years, the plight of women has declined precipitously.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, Turkey now ranks 125th out of 142 countries, in the bottom not only of Europe, but also of Central Asia, and below Russia, Tajikistan, Swaziland, and conservative Muslim societies like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Erdoğan has flushed women from top levels of the state bureaucracy; in the current cabinet, there is only one female minister. A few years ago, the Prime Minister’s Office of Personnel found no women among the 25 ministry undersecretaries, and only three women among the 85 deputy undersecretaries. Only one woman served among the 254 regional ministry directors. This is no coincidence: women found little support from Erdoğan, who told them they should have at least three babies and ideally more. It was upon this theme that Erdoğan doubled down in his comments yesterday, declaring, “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women [in society]: Motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t.”

Of course, the most damning statistic which also comes from within the Turkish government is that in the first seven years of Erdoğan’s watch, the murder rate of women in Turkey increased 1,400 percent.

Obama once praised Erdoğan as one of his most trusted international friends. American presidents—with the slight exception of Ronald Reagan—have traditionally been averse to bullhorn diplomacy, that is, using the podium of the Oval Office to lambast adversaries outside the confines of wartime.

But sometimes the most effective thing a president can do is speak with moral clarity from his bully pulpit. Just as Obama’s silence against the backdrop of Iran’s 2009 post-election protests forfeited an important opportunity to define the moral high ground, so too might Obama provide Erdoğan with a teachable moment about bigotry and the contributions women make to societies and have made inside Turkey when treated with equality. Women in Turkey are not willing to take Erdoğan’s slights sitting down; they should know they have support.

It is not only Obama, though, who should speak up and make Erdoğan realize that when he spouts nonsense, others will push back on him. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has had an honorable career. Under her tenure during the Clinton administration, U.S.-Turkey relations arguably reached their tightest. Since leaving government service, she has remained engaged in Turkey. Her word matters, and if she were to stand up and speak out, Turkish officials would notice.

Too many current officials choose to remain silent because they believe principle might get in the way diplomacy. But diplomacy absent principle is often not worth the paper on which it is written. Likewise, former officials bite their lips and remain silent for fear of undercutting business interests or access. That is a short-term approach, however; for if Turkey continues to unravel the progress its women long made and if Erdoğan continues to seek the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s mantle of craziness, then such opportunities aren’t going to persist.

President Obama once solicited Erdoğan’s advice for raising daughters. Perhaps it’s time Obama returned the favor and offered the Turkish strongman some advice on how to treat women.

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Erdoğan’s Historical Truthiness

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

Erdoğan, for his part, doubled down on his claim, demanding that his theory now be taught as reality in Turkey’s schools.

While Western officials might shrug and chuckle at Erdoğan’s declaration, it’s important to realize it’s no outlier for the Turkish president. A Turkish interlocutor (evidently paraphrasing this column by Yılmaz Özdil) noted how historians in Turkey have long chafed at Erdoğan’s theories:

In Antalya, Erdoğan explained how “the word Olympics takes its name from a mountain near Antalya, Mt. Olympus.” The mountain is in northern Greece, and nowhere near Antalya.

It’s not just geography that confuses Mr. Erdoğan. When discussing the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, a battle in which the Muslim Seljuqs defeated the larger Byzantine army and captured the Byzantine emperor, Erdoğan declared, “Seljuq soldiers fought with their swords against the iron balls of the Byzantine artillery, raining on their heads.” Artillery and gunpowder didn’t come to the region for another three centuries. Oops.

Then, again, this wasn’t the only time he was publicly confused about the Seljuqs. In one speech, he described Ankara as “the capital of the Seljuqs.” In reality, though, Konya was the Seljuq capital. Ankara, at the time, was little more than a small town or large village.

Fast forward about 500 years, to the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Back in 2011, Erdoğan went on a rant about a popular Turkish serial depicting his life and times, complaining that it concentrated too much on his lavish life in the harem. Erdoğan explained that Suleiman had in reality spent 30 of his 46 years on the throne on horseback, running from battle to battle. During Suleiman’s reign, however, the Ottomans were at war for just ten years, and so were at peace for 36.

He has repeatedly become exacerbated by the constraints of facts. When some historians began using old documents and records, and historical artifacts to research old Istanbul churches, Erdoğan grew annoyed that anyone would record or discuss Istanbul’s pre-Islamic past. He chided, “They don’t know Istanbul’s history. They go around with magnifying glass in their hand like [the Byzantine Emperor] Romanus Diogenes.” He apparently confused Romanus IV with Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived more than a millennium before, and who went around with a lantern, not a magnifying glass. Philosophers, however, have not been his thing. After all, he once said, “If the Germans have Goethe and if the Spaniards have Socrates….”

Now, it’s perfectly true that other world leaders can occasionally get history wrong. George H.W. Bush once mistakenly commemorated the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on September 7 rather than December 7. When mistakes happen, however, leaders acknowledge them. President Bush corrected himself; he didn’t order textbooks re-written to make his error the new norm.

Erdoğan may sound foolish, but the importance of his errors extends far beyond himself. Rather, they reflect the future of Turkey. Erdoğan is a product of an İmam Hatip education, the Turkish equivalent of a madrasa. Prior to Erdoğan’s rise, İmam Hatip graduates would primarily become mullahs or perhaps work in family businesses. Their lack of grounding in liberal arts and science disqualified them from most university programs and the government service which might follow. But Erdoğan has bolstered and promoted the İmam Hatips, so that their graduates now dominate Turkey’s bureaucracy. Erdoğan may be no historian, but he has become the rule rather than the exception for the Turkish government he leads. He has ensured that there are thousands if not tens of thousands of protégés marching in lockstep behind him, all of whom treat fact with disdain and embrace mindless revisionism. Welcome to the future of Turkey.

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Protest Against Anti-Semitism in Turkey

Turkey was once one of the most religiously tolerant majority Muslim societies in its attitude toward Jews. The reason wasn’t so much tolerant political culture, but rather a belief that the Jews were a tranquil, loyal minority. After all, Turkish school books taught that while Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs all rose up against the Ottomans, the Jews did not. Hence, Turkey boasted along with Iran either the second or third largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel itself.

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Turkey was once one of the most religiously tolerant majority Muslim societies in its attitude toward Jews. The reason wasn’t so much tolerant political culture, but rather a belief that the Jews were a tranquil, loyal minority. After all, Turkish school books taught that while Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs all rose up against the Ottomans, the Jews did not. Hence, Turkey boasted along with Iran either the second or third largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel itself.

In recent years, of course, this has changed. Just as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used his consolidation of control over state media to fan the flames of anti-Americanism, so too has he used it to stoke anti-Semitism far beyond the Islamist circles in which he grew and from which he emerged. Jews are now contemplating the end of their millennia-long presence in Anatolia.

Against the backdrop of Hamas’s missile strikes on Israel and the Israeli military response, Samil Tayyar, an AKP member and the head of constitutional commission, tweeted “may your ancestors perish, may your Hitlers be abundant” and, of course, a Turkish shopkeeper made headlines with the sign, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” This month has been particularly bad, as vandals attacked one of Istanbul’s most prominent synagogues on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, significant not only for that date but also because it was so close to the 11 anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the synagogue that in a different time and place Turks had condemned.

It’s important to recognize that not all Turks have succumbed to the hateful populism pushed forward by Erdoğan, the Turkish government, and even some members of the Turkish foreign ministry. This past weekend, a handful of Turks held a protest to condemn the anti-Semitism which has flourished inside Turkey. From “The Radical Democrat,” a blog which is also on the forefront of anti-censorship efforts inside Turkey:

In order to protest against the rising anti-Semitism in Turkey and commemorate the horrific events of the past, Say Stop has held a protest meeting with dozens of participants. When activists were gathering in Galatasaray Square in Taksim’s Istiklal, right next to the venue was placed ten times more policemen than activists as usual. The moment banner was opened, interestingly enough some people came to ask questions in English, thinking anyone protesting anti-Semitism would come from abroad and not from within Turkey….

Too often, American and European diplomats find it “sophisticated” to ignore incitement, human rights, and the hateful ideologies promoted by adversaries. Had they held Erdoğan accountable for his statements from the start, Turkey might not have descended to the point it is now. But whether in Iran, Venezuela, Russia, or Turkey, it should never been too late to lend a hand and give a platform to those within their respective countries who at great personal risk to themselves speak out in favor of tolerance, individual liberty, and freedom.

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Turkey: Beware the Jewish Olive Tree!

Because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarianism, Turkey has become quite an inhospitable place to be a religious minority, whether Jewish, Christian, Alevi, or Yezidi. Over the last several years, Turkish militants have murdered or attempted to murder priests in Turkey. Whereas the Turkish government has sought sympathy for the refugee crisis that has resulted from the Islamic State’s rise in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s treatment of refugees differs wildly based on their religion. Simply put, when Turkey distributed humanitarian aid, Yezidis need not apply. And, as for the Alevis—basically a Shi‘ite offshoot sect that accounts for at least one-fifth of Turkey’s population—Erdoğan has refused to recognize their places of worship and deemed their children should be educated only in Sunni doctrine. The Jews are facing unprecedented anti-Semitism to the point where the community has begun to pick up and leave, much as most of the Iranian Jewish community did during and after Iran’s Islamic revolution.

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Because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarianism, Turkey has become quite an inhospitable place to be a religious minority, whether Jewish, Christian, Alevi, or Yezidi. Over the last several years, Turkish militants have murdered or attempted to murder priests in Turkey. Whereas the Turkish government has sought sympathy for the refugee crisis that has resulted from the Islamic State’s rise in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s treatment of refugees differs wildly based on their religion. Simply put, when Turkey distributed humanitarian aid, Yezidis need not apply. And, as for the Alevis—basically a Shi‘ite offshoot sect that accounts for at least one-fifth of Turkey’s population—Erdoğan has refused to recognize their places of worship and deemed their children should be educated only in Sunni doctrine. The Jews are facing unprecedented anti-Semitism to the point where the community has begun to pick up and leave, much as most of the Iranian Jewish community did during and after Iran’s Islamic revolution.

So just how bad has anti-Semitism become inside Turkey? Erdoğan has, of course, been no friend to Turkey’s environmentalist movement. The Gezi Park protests began as an effort to save one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul against government-sponsored development but morphed into a wider opposition movement as a result of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed tactics. Over subsequent months, Erdoğan has accelerated development which has raised the ire of those seeking to protect Turkey’s green spaces. Now, it seems, Erdoğan’s supporters have found a new and creative way to justify the bulldozing of trees. From a Turkish column explaining a whispering campaign promoting the ideas that olive trees are ‘pro-Jewish’ and therefore should be destroyed. A Turkish interlocutor translates the key passage:

Close to the end of the World, a war will break out between the Muslims and Jews which will be won by the Muslims. The Jews will start to run away and hide behind trees. All such trees will yell “There is a Jew hiding behind me come and kill him/her.” Only the olive tree will not give away the Jews. Because the olive is a Jewish tree, that is why Israel is promoting the planting of olive trees.

Therefore, it seems, it is desirable to cut down olive trees. Hence, there should be no complaints as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) destroys thousands if not hundreds of thousands of olive trees in Western Turkey to clear land for mining and industrial development. It’s all meant simply to prepare the world for the end of days and the annihilation of the Jews.

Sure, Mr. Obama. Turkey belongs in Europe. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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Turkish Islamists Train Snipers in Syria

That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

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That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

So what to make from this? Firstly, it’s an open secret that Turkey passively if not actively supports radical Islamist factions inside Syria, up to and including ISIS, whose members it has allowed to transit Turkish territory. Secondly, Erdoğan has assumed the power to shut down websites and Twitter feeds without so much as a court order. And yet, sites depicting the training of terrorist snipers inside Syria by Turks remain up. But should an environmentalist condemn the cutting down of trees in an urban park, Erdoğan labels him a terrorist and demands stiff jail terms.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that for Erdoğan, the problem isn’t Twitter any more than the problem is newspapers or television stations. Rather, the issue is whether or not such technology adheres to Erdoğan’s agenda. And by nature of his silence on these tweets, it is clear once again that Erdoğan does not consider ISIS, Jebhat al-Nusra, or the İnsani Yardım Vakfı to be terrorist groups or feeders, but rather honorable organizations to allow to operate unmolested.

Welcome to the reality of the new Turkey, same as the old Saudi Arabia.

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Turks Again Attack American Sailors

Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

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Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

It’s time to recognize reality: Turkey may be a NATO member, but it is no ally. And while anti-NATO protests can happen in any NATO member, few members would tolerate violence or the targeting of individual American servicemen. The problem with Turkey, however, is that Turkey’s current regime has long promoted such anti-Americanism, as have other Turkish political parties, like the opposition National Movement Party (MHP) and even the left-leaning secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP). There is an atmosphere of impunity inside Turkey that violence in pursuit of certain causes is acceptable (see my previous posts about the plight of Turkish women, in this regard).

So what should the United States do?

Firstly, it’s well past time the U.S. Navy stop making port calls in Turkey. Port calls are a reward not only for sailors, but also for the countries which host the port call and derive significant financial benefit for doing so. There are many other countries and cities which would bend over backwards to host American sailors. Haifa, in Israel, is one. Various ports in Croatia and Montenegro are another. In recent years, Greece, too, has rolled out the red carpet for American ships.

Secondly, it is counterproductive and embarrassing that American congressmen lend their support to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime and agenda by signing up to be part of the Congressional Turkey Caucus. It is time to leave and treat Turkey as the regional pariah it has become, at least in any official capacity.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is fond of demanding apologies. Well, it’s our turn now. Erdoğan should personally apologize for the attacks on American servicemen and offer compensation to a charity of their choice. Let’s put aside the nonsense that the United States “started it” with the hooding of Turkish soldiers in Iraq on July 4, 2003 in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Turkish journalists have quietly pointed out, despite protestations of their innocence, none of those Turks was ever subsequently promoted, and most were quietly retired, as good a sign as any that they truly had gone rogue and were planning to assassinate public officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the information passed by Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan indicated.

Lastly, it’s well past time that the United States and other NATO members come up with contingencies for Turkey’s exit from the alliance. NATO is governed by consensus, and so a hostile Turkey—its past contributions notwithstanding—can undercut NATO’s governance and effectiveness. To keep Turkey inside the alliance is to condemn NATO to paralysis and irrelevance.

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Erdoğan Aspires to Be Sultan Not a Putin

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

Sprawling over nearly 50 acres of forest land that was once the private estate of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a new presidential compound has nearly 1,000 rooms, an underground tunnel system and the latest in anti-espionage technology. It is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. The reported price: nearly $350 million. Then there is a new high-tech presidential jet (estimated price, $200 million), not to mention the new presidential office in a restored Ottoman-era mansion overlooking the Bosporus, all of which have been acquired to serve the outsized ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is little doubt that Erdoğan is both an ideologue and autocrat, and sees himself above the law. He targets those who vote against him, run against him, and criticize him. In Erdoğan’s mind, environmentalists who protest the cutting down of trees in one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces are “terrorists,” but those who place bombs on buses or behead journalists and aid workers in Syria are not.

The New York Times proceeds to compare Erdoğan to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, a comparison I made in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. At the time, it looked like that was what Erdoğan wanted, but the Turkish leader may actually want more. Much more. Despite a foreign policy which has managed to make Erdoğan persona non grata across much of the Middle East (Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, anywhere Hamas does not control in the Palestinian territories, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well), the Turkish leader still sees himself as a regional and Islamic leader. He is a Sunni sectarian to the core. He has declared his intention to remake Turkey along religious lines, and has pledged to “raise a religious generation.” And he is very astute with regard to symbolism.

Back in 2005, during his monthly television address, Erdoğan replaced the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with a photo of Atatürk’s mausoleum and a mosque. Turks understood the symbolism: Atatürk is dead, but Islam is the future.

By building his Versailles over Atatürk’s private estate, he is doing the same thing. Atatürk was the symbol of secularism, and Erdoğan seeks to bury secularism. If Erdoğan was not content to simply be prime minister, and is not content to be merely the president of Turkey, then to what else could he aspire? While it may once have seemed farfetched that anyone could aspire to revive the Ottoman sultanate and the caliphate which Atatürk ended, Erdoğan seeks to do just this. He differs less in ideology with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi than in tactics and ambition. For all his talk of restoring a pan-Islamic caliphate, al-Baghdadi concentrates on the Arab world; Erdoğan’s goals are broader. The Turkish leader may or may not succeed, but he likely believes God is on his side: After all, how else could anyone explain the meteoric rise of a relatively uneducated (at least in secular terms) former street vendor to the height of political power.

The United States and the West are in denial, much as too many left-liberal Turks were until recently. Erdoğan can rest assured, however. He can play his cards deliberately, for Western diplomats and journalists will as always ignore his game until it is too late.

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Connections Between Turkey’s AKP and ISIS?

When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

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When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

Alas, if recent reports out of Turkey are true, then the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ISIS are closer than previously known. There is a Turkish website called “Takva Haber” which Turks say serves as the mouthpiece for ISIS. It has been crucial in pushing out ISIS propaganda, and it has also helped ISIS recruit Turks to the degree that Turkey will be facing blowback from the radicals it has spawned long after Erdoğan is dead or in prison.

According to Turkish interlocutors, it now appears that the website is published from “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” or “Foundation for the Spread of Science [i.e. Islamic Theology].” For years, this foundation simply spread Islamist propaganda. What’s interesting, however, are its founders, among whose names can be found Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who serves as Erdoğan’s Medvedev.

How strange it is that the organization which these AKP luminaries—and dozens of others founded—now seems to be working unabashedly for ISIS. Perhaps this explains why Erdoğan has been so reticent to call ISIS a terrorist organization in his various speeches.

Then, of course, there is this photo which appeared yesterday in the Sozcu newspaper and which purports to show prominent AKP figure Suat Kılıç having dinner with ISIS supporters in Germany. A witness to the gathering said they jointly handed out Korans before beginning dinner.

Given the trajectory of Turkey—a state which has now reportedly fired more than 1,800 journalists for insufficient political loyalty to Erdoğan—and the willingness of Erdoğan to use security forces and vigilante gangs against those who provoke his ire, perhaps the time is not long coming before Erdoğan decides to unleash his ISIS supporters in Turkey in a deadly show of force to demonstrate what happens when the sultan is disobeyed.

When it comes to Turkey in 2014, nothing can any more surprise—other than, perhaps, that so many congressmen, among them otherwise responsible and serious Democrats and Republicans—would lend their names to the regime Erdoğan dominates and the agenda he pushes.

UPDATE: The “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” has published a response to the original Turkish article in Sözcü Gazetesi whose report was cited in this blog post in which Ilim Yayma Vakfı deny any links between the foundation and the ISIS website. I will take them at their word. What is striking, however, is that the religious foundation founded by Islamist luminaries including now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rushed to demand Sözcü Gazetesi take down its article, but the Turkish government which Erdoğan dominates and which has assumed the power to shut down websites refuses to touch the website of “Takva Haber” which continues to publish al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda. So is Erdoğan serious about countering ISIS? I’d submit Turkey is as serious about shutting down the ISIS as Pakistan is about shutting down the Taliban.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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Criticism to Become Crime in Turkey

I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

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I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

Draconian internet laws in Turkey are deepening yet once again with a new reform package that will bring by new measures against freedom of speech in Turkey. Previously, the government has already tried to silence masses through censorship measures, surveillance of netizens, blocking access to web sites, or even raids on online news portals’ headquarters. The most recent “development” on the laws against online free speech is the most recent law draft that foresees up to 5 years of imprisonment for tweeps that criticize the government online.

The issue goes beyond simply social media or print criticism, but rather will extend to slogans during street protests:

The new bill’s scope is not limited to digital public spaces but also makes opposition movements’ visibility on streets problematic. The slogans that have been adopted by critical groups on street protests had already drawn many frowning faces so far, and with the new bill they will be considered a crime. New law also breaches the diplomatic immunity of politicians, allowing them to be put on trial as well, in case of threats against public-officers, soldiers, police, governors etc. The prison sentence will possibly go up to 5 years depending on the intensity of the “criminal activity.”

To make matters worse, the new law restricts the ability of lawyers to defend those accused of criticizing the government. Welcome to the new Turkey, a country intent on falling below even Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain in press freedom rankings.

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