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The ‘Sick Man,’ Still

by David Pryce-Jones

Turkish Islamization, Iran, Syria, and the fate of the Middle East

Question any of our political masters or their subordinates about Turkey and they will be quick to assert that it has long proved its faithfulness to Western values. Membership of NATO speaks for itself; there’s an important American air base at Incirlik; and for years, Turkish leaders one and all have been petitioning the European Union for admission. This is the one and only country in the Muslim Middle East, it will also be said, that can pass as democratic and secular.

Habitual flattery of this kind masks the reality that superficial imitative Westernization has barely touched Turkey’s very un-European history and culture, or the respect and honor that its people feel is their due.

The Turkish republic that replaced the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I takes its modernizing ideology from Kemal Atatürk, the founding father who knew his own mind and had the authority to enforce it on his people. Islam for him was the cause as well as the guarantee of backwardness, and he did what he could to break its hold.

Official visitors are expected to lay a wreath at his rather forbidding mausoleum in Ankara, rather as politicians visiting Beijing have to do formal obeisance to Mao Tse-tung. Atatürk’s lasting contribution was to make the military the real guardians of the constitution of his new republic. Four coups in the last 50 years, and such events as the arrest and hanging of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes in 1960, prove where real power has lain. In the Muslim Middle East, the paradox of the military’s resorting to authoritarian methods to safeguard secular democracy has been special to Turkey.

Since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been prime minister, and he is now at the start of his third term in office. One of his declared objectives is a new constitution, and it is clear by now that he is reworking Atatürk’s legacy. He is setting himself up to have a monopoly on power. Born in 1954, the son of a member of the coast guard, Erdogan is no doubt a sincere Muslim, neither an extremist nor a philosopher but convinced by upbringing and instinct that Islam and patriotism are one and the same thing, and any Turk who disagrees with him will have to be brought into line. Briefly a semi-professional footballer, he has been a fully professional politician all his adult life. Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, he was in office when, in a speech to a large public gathering, he quoted some lines of a nationalist poet that are famous for their Muslim triumphalism: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”

Upon being arrested for this, he is said to have shouted that the song is not yet over. After four months in jail, he became a national figure, founder and moving spirit of the Justice and Development party, AKP in its Turkish initials, and finally prime minister.

A successful administrator, he has stabilized the currency, mastered inflation, and delivered impressive economic growth, all of which has encouraged voters to trust him. The opposition, the Republican People’s party, or CHP in its Turkish initials, has been in disarray, poorly led and preoccupied with factional and personal disputes that leave the field clear for Erdogan.

He has been as ruthless as his predecessors in dealing with the Kurds: Depending on who is doing the counting, Turkish Kurds number somewhere between 10 and 20 million, or maybe 15 percent of the population. Most of them live in the southeast of the country, and all are suspected of a nationalist ambition to have a state of their own with a capital in Diyarbakir. This might be a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity, and accordingly they are regularly persecuted on ethnic, linguistic, and cultural grounds. In one particularly symbolic instance, Leyla Zana, a well-known member of parliament, added a phrase in Kurdish to the oath of loyalty she had to swear, and was sentenced for this to 15 years in prison. (Twice she’s been recommended for the Nobel peace prize.) The Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK, nominally Marxist but realistically nationalist, has been waging a war of liberation for decades. In the past 30 years, 40,000 Kurds are estimated to have been killed; and 3,000 Kurdish villages destroyed, leaving some 350,000 refugees to make their own way, many of them fleeing to Scandinavia, Germany, and Australia.

The PKK had a base in Syria until, in 1998, Turkey threatened to go to war to close it. Hunted down, Abdullah Ocalan, the movement’s leader, remains in prison in Turkey, apparently reprieved from a death sentence. PKK guerrillas make regular incursions from Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkish armored columns then invade Iraq in reprisal.

Kurds are not alone in being abused: Christians in Turkey are victims of the Islamization that is affecting the political and emotional climate of every Muslim country. Of the approximately 60 Catholic priests in the country, two have been killed in the last five years, one of them beheaded to cries of “Allahu akbar.” Fr. Andrea Santoro was shot dead from behind while saying his prayers. “I have killed the Great Satan!” was the Iranian-style exclamation of the man who murdered Bp. Luigi Padovese, the Vatican representative in Anatolia. (“We don’t want to mix up this tragic episode with Islam,” was Pope Benedict’s inexplicable comment.) In Malatya — hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot and wounded Pope John Paul II — three employees of a small company publishing Bibles had their throats cut; two of them were Muslim converts to Christianity.

Hundreds of judges and professors have been dismissed, in order to control justice and education. Broadly drawn, Article 301 of the penal code makes it illegal to insult Turkey, Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions. Over a thousand people have been brought to the courts under this article. One of the first to challenge it directly was Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel prize winner for literature, who wrote in 2005: “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” His prosecution raised such an international scandal that the judge felt obliged to find legal grounds for suspending the case. In the end, Pamuk was merely fined a quite small sum for offending the honor of a few plaintiffs.

Others have not been so fortunate. The Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted in 2006 for insulting Turkishness, and received a six-month suspended sentence. Radical nationalists then assassinated him, after which Dink was posthumously acquitted of the charge. At the latest count, 63 journalists are held in custody: a greater number than in any other country, including Iran and China.

Four months ago, Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, two journalists in the public eye, were arrested. The latter had written a couple of books about the murder of Hrant Dink. The Istanbul prosecutor denied that the arrest of these two had anything to do with their writings, but then claimed that confidentiality prevented him from giving the reason for their arrest. Dogan, one of the country’s largest media groups and critical of the government, has been crippled by a fine of $3.05 billion for alleged unpaid taxes. The owner and some of the staff of OdaTV, also critical of the government, were arrested. Thousands of websites have been closed, and only last month 32 people were arrested on a charge of plotting against government websites. Erdogan in person has sued dozens of cartoonists and journalists for defamation. The Turkish Journalists’ Association rightly protests about a “climate of fear.”

The military could in theory have turned the tables on Erdogan with yet another coup. Blindly, the European Union has succeeded in making the army renounce any political role as a condition of Turkish admission; Erdogan, therefore, has had the opening to strike and cripple the military.

Ergenekon is a word borrowed appropriately from Turkish mythology, and used since 2007 as the code name for a supposed conspiracy in the armed forces to oust him. Five hundred or so people have been arrested. Some sources say that, so far, 270 have been brought to court, while others put that number nearer 300. Members of parliament from the opposition CHP have been roped in, and two of them have been awaiting trial for two years. Proceedings follow quite closely those of the 1937 trials in the Soviet Union, when Stalin destroyed Marshal Tukhachevsky and other generals who he feared might act against him. Charges were invented that these officers were conspiring with the Japanese, the Gestapo, British intelligence, or whomever. Just as absurdly, Turkish officers are alleged to be plotting with Greeks, Armenians, the PKK, even Christian missionaries. Erdogan delivered the memorably opaque observation, “There is a deep Turkey working against the deep state.” Few, however, believe that Ergenekon is anything more than an ordinary play for power: So far, not a single one of the accused has been convicted.

In 2003, Turkey voted not to allow American forces to enter Iraq through its territory. Taking further distance from the United States, Erdogan has protected Iran from sanctions and cooperated with Brazil in a vain effort to gain the world’s acceptance of the Iranian nuclear program. In April 2009, Turkey was the first Muslim country that Barack Obama visited as president. In his main speech there, he declared that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam” and also that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation” (he added that the nation isn’t Jewish or Muslim either, but the qualification tends to get lost in amazement at the apologetics). Calling Turkey “a critical ally,” he boosted its EU membership — though this surely was none of his business — and he further rhapsodized about some future all-embracing “modern international community.” Mention was not made of persecuted minorities, mythical conspiracies, or wrongful arrests. Secular Turks could only draw the unwelcome conclusion that Obama was telling them that the U.S. actively supports Islamism in their country. In Erdogan’s interpretation, the U.S. was abandoning its interests in the region. Here was the invitation to restore the glory of the pre-Atatürk era, when Turkey was the preeminent Muslim power: He would be the neo-Ottoman sultan.

Quite probably, Erdogan is venting anti-Israel fury only as a pretext for neo-Ottoman heroics. At any rate he chose the crucial moment for it with his customary calculation. The World Economic Forum was held in Switzerland in January 2009, a couple of weeks after the Israeli campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, was sitting next to Erdogan when the latter accused him of murdering children on beaches. “When it comes to killing,” he fulminated in front of television cameras that ensured maximum publicity, “you know it too well.” Peres was too polite or too slow to answer that Turkey has killed Armenians and Kurds in far greater numbers than Israel has killed Arabs in all its wars put together. This staged incident gave Erdogan the requisite Muslim credentials in Iran and Arab countries, and he has followed up by sponsoring Islamists trying to run the Gaza blockade from Turkish ports.

As though claiming sovereignty over lost Ottoman lands, Erdogan boasted after his electoral victory this June, “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul. Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”

Surprisingly, he seems not to have anticipated the immense repercussions on the Middle East of today’s Arab uprisings. At first, he dismissed the Syrian turmoil as “a domestic issue.” His foreign minister spoke of “ties of trust” with the regime of Bashar Assad. Turkey was thus in step with the Iranian ayatollahs who have turned Syria into a protectorate so vital to the spread of their Islamism that they are willing to protect its regime at any cost.

Turkey shares a border of 500 miles with Syria. Bashar, his murderous brother Maher, and their thugs have killed many innocent people and driven thousands more to flee into Turkey. The uprising might spread unstoppably, the Kurds might take advantage of it, Israel could become involved. Fear of instability is more powerful than Muslim solidarity. Thus, in an abrupt and complete reversal of policy, Erdogan has rounded on Iran and its Syrian client: He suddenly resorted to strong language about the barbarism and savagery let loose on the far side of the frontier, and he has permitted Syrian dissidents to hold a conference in Antalya.

Angry ayatollahs in Tehran are warning ominously that a Turkey taking this position is a rival and will face serious resistance from Iran, Iraq, and Syria. As though he really were a sultan, Erdogan finds himself in a reprise of the historic confrontation when Ottomans and Iranians fought one another to a standstill on imperial, sectarian, and ethnic grounds, with Arabs everywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia obliged to submit to the victor. Whether it’s Turkey or Iran that ends up as the dominant power over Syria will define the Middle East for years to come.

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