On Wednesday, under the crystal chandeliers of Vienna’s ornate Hofberg Palace, the prime minister of Turkey delivered a speech in which he called Zionism “a crime against humanity” — equating it with fascism, and, for good measure, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Following his remarks, Erdogan was thanked, and applauded.
The occasion was a February 27–28 meeting of an outfit called the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, launched in 2005 by former secretary general Kofi Annan for the purpose of “bridging divides.” Among those attending this latest conclave of the Alliance were U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon; director general Irina Bokova of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and such celebrities of the diplomatic circuit as Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
No surprise, then, that it was left to a private monitoring group, Geneva-based U.N. Watch, to blow the whistle on Erdogan’s remarks. U.N. Watch, noting that Zionism is a movement founded in 1897 for Jewish self-determination, called on Ban and other prominent participants in this U.N. Alliance to repudiate Erdogan’s slander.
American secretary of state John Kerry, arriving Friday on a previously scheduled trip to Turkey, called Erdogan’s comments “objectionable.” It would be good to hear a more full-throated condemnation from a great many world leaders, as well as an apology from the Austrian authorities who hosted and helped subsidize this gathering. Austrians, more than most, ought to be acutely aware that Erdogan’s speech was dripping with the same prejudice that produced the U.N. General Assembly’s 1975 resolution declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism.” That noxious resolution was approved during the tenure of former U.N. secretary general Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian, who was later exposed — to his country’s shame — as having been complicit in Nazi war crimes.
In 1991, under pressure from the U.S., the U.N. finally repealed that resolution. Now, the noble-sounding Alliance of Civilizations, serviced, sheltered, and praised by the U.N., is providing a platform for similar bigotry.
So, what exactly is this U.N. Alliance of Civilizations?
Headquartered in midtown Manhattan, with a lineage that tracks back to the government of Iran, the Alliance can best be understood as a glorified slush fund, run chiefly by a number of Muslim-majority countries — Turkey and Qatar in particular — busy leveraging the U.N. label. Officially, the Alliance advertises itself as promoting global “respect and tolerance.” In practice, it functions more as a matchmaking service between the left wing of Western politics and the anti-Western actors and agenda of a dominant lobbying bloc in the U.N. General Assembly, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The Alliance of Civilizations was grandfathered by former secretary general Kofi Annan out of a previous project, the U.N.’s Dialogue of Civilizations, proposed in 1998 by Iran’s then-president Mohammad Khatami. Annan jumped at the idea, and the U.N. General Assembly decided that 2001 would be the Year of the Dialogue of Civilizations. To run this enterprise, Annan picked a veteran Italian U.N. official named Giandomenico Picco. Picco had served previously as a U.N. negotiator for the release of Western hostages held in Beirut, which involved bringing what were effectively U.S. ransom offers to the mullahs in Tehran. The Dialogue was introduced as a one-year project but then dragged on for years, producing a jargon-filled report in 2001, logging a lot of air miles, and holding a meeting in Tehran in 2004, before finally fading out.
In 2005, Annan revived the project as the Alliance of Civilizations. He announced that it had two new sponsors: Turkey, under Erdogan; and Spain, which in the aftermath of the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid had just voted into power the Socialist party. This new Alliance had plenty in common with the old Khatami-inspired Dialogue. For one, Annan appointed Khatami himself to a “high-level group of eminent persons to guide the initiative.” To this day, Khatami remains one of the 20 members of the Alliance’s advisory board, which includes representatives from around the globe but is dominated by nine members from Muslim-majority states — among them, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran.