His outreach to Syria’s notorious dictator Bashar al-Assad, for example, came against the backdrop of the 2005 Cedar Revolution against Syrian-imposed rule in Lebanon. As the Western world rallied around the Lebanese people, Turkey was one of only two countries — the other being the Islamic Republic of Iran — that supported Syria. Likewise, when given a choice between the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and that of Abbas’s rejectionist (anti-peace-process) opponents in Hamas, Erdogan not only sided with the latter but provided diplomatic legitimacy to Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s most unrepentant terrorist. In 2007, emergency personnel responding to a train derailment in Turkey found it to be carrying arms apparently destined for Hezbollah, the Syrian/Iranian-backed terrorist militia in Lebanon.
Erdogan’s support for extremists proved to be the rule rather than the exception. In this context, much of the press analysis surrounding Erdogan’s behavior at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos appears naïve. During a panel discussion with Israeli president Shimon Peres in which Peres defended Israel’s military response to Hamas, Erdogan shouted, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” and stormed off the stage vowing never to return. The New York Times explained that “Mr. Erdogan apparently became incensed after the moderator curtailed his response to remarks by Mr. Peres on the recent Israeli military campaign. The panel was running late, and Mr. Peres was to have had the last word.”
Turks, however, knew better. Engineers working on Istanbul’s metro system were told a day before the incident that the subway should not close at midnight as usual, but rather should remain open until 4:00 a.m., on the evening of the Davos blow-up. Other AKP activists received notices telling them to prepare for a dead-of-night rally. As Erdogan “spontaneously” curtailed his trip and flew home, 3,000 Palestinian-flag-waving supporters greeted his plane at 3:00 a.m. Pre-printed signs hailed Erdogan as a new world leader. Neither Erdogan’s attack on Peres nor the rally was spontaneous. Even in a city as vibrant as Istanbul, it is hard to purchase Palestinian flags by the thousand after the close of business.
Today, Erdogan tries to leverage Turkey’s position to create an impression that it is the chief power in the Middle East. Like his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has tried to hijack the Arab Spring quest for democracy to his own ends. In September, Erdogan embarked on a tour to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, pledging support for their new governments and lobbying them to adopt the Turkish model. While Erdogan now speaks out against Assad and Qaddafi, Arabs know that Erdogan was for the region’s worst dictators before he was against them. As recently as November 2010, Erdogan even traveled to Tripoli to collect the Moammar Qaddafi human-rights prize — and its $250,000 purse — from the mercurial and murderous dictator. He used his acceptance speech to pledge his dedication to the “truth” and promised to spare no effort in holding Israel to account.
Diplomats may concede that Turkey has become pro-Arab in its foreign policy, but this is only half the story. The rest is that Erdogan seeks not only to be pro-Arab, but also to head the region’s rejectionist front.
While Erdogan gives lip service to secularism when talking to Western diplomats, or at rallies where international media are present, his actions consistently show the importance he places on Muslim solidarity and Turkey’s place in the Islamic world. In June 2004, after significant Turkish lobbying and deal-making, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) selected Turkish professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as its new secretary general. AKP officials point to the Ihsanoglu appointment as a sign of Turkey’s increased prestige among Islamic countries.
The destructiveness of Turkey’s Islamist nexus first became apparent with the eruption of the Danish-cartoon controversy. On Sept. 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Initially, the cartoons passed with little notice in Denmark. It took two weeks for the first demonstration to occur there, and it was largely peaceful. On Oct. 17, 2005, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr even republished a half dozen of the caricatures without prompting so much as a demonstration. But by February 2006, the Middle East was aflame.
Certainly the spread of rage was not spontaneous. First a delegation of Danish imams traveled from Denmark to Egypt with the controversial cartoons and some fraudulent ones to whip up outrage, then Saudi preachers poured gasoline on the fire. Behind the scenes, Turkey played a more active role than it will publicly acknowledge.
According to Danish officials, the crisis became internationalized after Turkey’s ambassador in Copenhagen called Gul, now Turkey’s president, who in turn instructed Ihsanoglu to exploit the cartoon issue. On Dec. 6, 2005, the OIC issued an official communiqué condemning Denmark and the cartoons. The next day, protests erupted in Pakistan, marking the beginning of violence that would claim more than a dozen lives. Erdogan sided fully with the Islamists. “Caricatures of Prophet Mohammed are an attack against our spiritual values,” he said, adding, “There should be a limit of freedom of the press.” Denmark quietly asked Turkey’s ambassador to leave.