To declare an ambassador persona non grata is a serious step, signifying that relations with that ambassador’s country are in crisis. The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken this serious step, declaring hostility to Israel by demanding the recall of the Israeli ambassador by next Wednesday. What’s been happening is worth studying as a prime example of values within the Muslim world that compel foolish and dangerous behavior.
Turkey and Israel had long enjoyed a good relationship. Trade and tourism have prospered. The two armed forces held joint exercises, and Israel sold advanced weaponry, including drones, to the Turkish air force. In office for almost ten years now, Erdogan has been undermining the secular state by degrees, and imposing his version of Islamism. The break with Israel was implicit in such a policy. Erdogan calculated that the Arabs would then look to him and his so-called neo-Ottoman Turkey for leadership.
Last year, the Erdogan government hit upon a pretext to bring about the reversal of alliances. Israel maintained a blockade of Gaza to stop the smuggling of arms to Hamas, an openly murderous enemy. Turkey admitted to sponsoring a ship to sail to Gaza. The declared purpose was to bring humanitarian aid (although there was no need of that), but the reality was to engineer the desired quarrel with Israel. Israeli commandos duly boarded the ship, and in the ensuing fracas nine Turks, all of them known anti-Israeli Islamists, were killed.
Erdogan demanded an apology. This at once triggered the calculus of shame and honor that runs throughout the Muslim world. The Israeli government expressed regret and willingness to pay compensation, but refuses to apologize for exercising its legal rights in self-defense.
Worse still, the United Nations investigated the incident, only to conclude in a report published this week that Israel was indeed within its rights. Demanding an apology that it cannot receive, Turkey has manipulated itself into a position of shame in full public view. To throw out the Israeli ambassador is an attempt to recover honor.
Over the past 30 years, Turkey has killed about 45,000 Kurds and displaced at least 2 million more. Shortly prior to the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador, Turkish armed forces shelled and bombed the Kurds in Iraq, announcing that they had killed up to 160 of them. In the Turkish town of Cukurca, Kurds then held a peaceful protest. The police fired tear-gas cartridges at them, and one hit Yildirim Ayhan in the chest, killing him. He had been a Kurdish member of parliament. Another Kurdish parliamentarian, Sebahat Tuncel, risks her life by organizing Mothers of Peace, a group prepared to be human shields against Turkish soldiers.
Turkish anger over nine men killed by Israelis and pride over their massive killing of Kurds is plain hypocrisy, of course, but responses of shame and honor energize and certify it. It is shameful to have your men killed — especially if they are evidently wrong-doers — but honorable to go killing people who are making unwanted demands on you.
This way of behaving is a mechanism of violence in perpetual motion, as everyone seeks to acquire honor and avoid shame at the expense of everyone else.