Lawrence Solomon: Turkey: a threat to the West?

A radical regime in Turkey will be well positioned in future to defend the faith at home and — in the Imperial traditions of Islam — to defend the faith abroad as well.

The Free Gaza Flotilla has succeeded brilliantly, not in ending Israel’s naval blockade but in elevating Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to preeminence in the Middle East hierarchy. “Sultan Erdogan,” a reference to the potential reestablishment of the sultanate that existed under the Ottoman Empire, has often been heard in the last year, as Erdogan played his anti-Israeli, anti-Western cards. It will be heard a lot more in the years to come as Erdogan strives to make a nuclear and theocratic Turkey dominant in the region and beyond.

Erdogan’s grandstanding on Gaza — he sponsored the ship that defied Israel’s commandos and is now considering personally lead the next flotilla — follows a string of other spectacles that raised his stature in the honour-conscious Middle East. Earlier this year, he won high praise for wringing an apology from Israel for its ham-handed objections to the anti-Semitic programming on state-controlled television, leading to cheering throughout the region. “Israel understands only Turkish: the apology was on the same scale as the humiliation,” enthused the Lebanese newspaper, al-Akhbar. Stated the ’Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper: “Erdogan treated Israel rudeness like it deserved — with power and determination.”

Last year Erdogan won kudos throughout the Arab world when, after a heated exchange over Gaza with Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, he stormed out of a gathering in Davos. A defiant, charismatic leader, he also wins kudos at home by attacking Armenians. In March, he threatened to deport 100,000 Armenian Christians while claiming that the West had the story of the Armenian genocide backwards.

“In 1915 and before that, it was the Armenian side that pursued a policy aimed at exterminating our people which led to hunger, misery and death,” he said in a speech that marked a Turkish military victory during World War I. “There is no genocide in our civilization.”

A few months earlier, in solidifying his support of Moslem causes, Erdogan discounted claims that hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur were victims of Sudan’s Islamic regime, similarly stating that “Muslims don’t commit genocide.” Genocides do occur against Moslems, however, he asserts, and not just by the Israelis and Armenians. “The killings of Uighur Turks by the Chinese police during demonstrations constitute genocide,” he said of the deaths of several dozen Turkic-speaking and Muslim Uighurs during unrest in China. Lest anyone thought he was speaking loosely, he added: “I use this term intentionally.”

In 2008 while in Germany, Erdogan characterized its assimilation of the Turkish minority as a “crime against humanity.” In France, his message was similar: “never assimilate.” Erdogan, in fact, reliably supports Islamists everywhere, particularly where they are in conflict with non-Moslems. He voted against the West’s sanctions against Iran, supports Syria, another state the U.S. deems a sponsor of terrorism, and supports non-state Moslem terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Turkey also acts to bind Moslem nations together economically — it fosters free trade among Moslem nations — and militarily, such as through an alliance with Iran and Syria.

Those who believe Erdogan doesn’t plan to undermine Turkey’s democratic republic in favour of an extremist Islamic state haven’t been paying attention. A lifelong fundamentalist affiliated with parties that continually ran afoul of the country’s strict secularism, Erdogan as Mayor of Istanbul called himself the imam of Istanbul and famously said: “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”

Until recently, Turkey’s military, the upholder of its constitution, ousted governments that flirted with Islamism. Erdogan’s former party leader, for example, was forced to resign as Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister after launching a campaign for worldwide Moslem solidarity. To avoid this fate, Erdogan changed tack by forming a political party that promised to remain faithful to the constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state. Then, in a fluke outcome of Turkey’s electoral system of proportional representation, Erdogan won a staggering 363 seats out of 550 in its parliamentary election with but 34% of the vote, enough to give him a veto-proof majority.  He then used that majority to systematically undermine Turkey’s secular underpinnings. Now, in his second term in office, Erdogan may be preparing to get off that streetcar.

Turkey’s military has been neutered, its judiciary compromised, its press chilled, its secret police empowered, its political prisons well populated. Sharia law — banned under the republic — is slowly making a comeback. Islamic women’s dress — from Erdogan’s wife on down — is becoming widespread. More women are covering up now than in previous centuries under the Ottomans, in fact, when the female ideal was feminine: Women were often bedecked in jewels and wore clothing that showed off their shape and sometimes included a décolletage. The Turkey of the future promises to be far more Islamic than the late Ottoman Turkey, where the sultans were often the modernizers, trying to coax their subjects into a new, European era.

The Turkey of the future also promises to be more of a threat to the West. This week, Turkey announced an energy agreement with Russia that will give it a nuclear plant. Ominously, Turkey is also becoming an energy nexus for a complex of oil and natural gas pipelines from Russia, Central Asia, and Iran to Europe and other parts of the Middle East.  A radical regime in Turkey will be well positioned in future to defend the faith at home and — in the Imperial traditions of Islam — to defend the faith abroad as well.

Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post
June 12, 2010

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