Friday, January 30, 2009


My really great friend, Bryce Kaufman, wrote this in a Facebook note: 

Erdogan and Davos
One of the more recent news items in the past couple of days has been how Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan walked off the stage at Davos, ostensibly angry at the moderator, for not giving him an equal amount of time to talk as Israeli President Peres. I watched a clip on CNBC where a commentator praised Erodgan as one of the world's shrewdest politicians in walking off the stage and made comments to the effect that it would help Turkey's regional importance.

I won't dispute the fact that Erdogan made a shrewd political move. The most immediate effect will largely be on the domestic side, and the consequences in my mind are not for the better. For one, in walking off the stage, Erdogan won key domestic political points in the eyes of the Turkish electorate. There can be little doubt that in recent years, with the rise of the AKP and an increasingly assertive religious conservative movement, coupled with the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, means that Turks' views of Israel and Jews overall have become increasingly negative. 

Although President Peres himself said that the incident wouldn't affect relations between the two countries, I can't help to disagree. In the mid-1990's relations with Turkey were the warmest relations Israel had with any country in the region (see, for instance, unsubstantiated rumors that Israel's Mossad helped supply information that led to the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdish terrorist PKK, and the fact that Israel and Turkish military cooperation and exchange were deep and comprehensive). Erdogan's comments about the Israel-Palestine conflict, his consistent haranguing of Israel's actions (I leave the decision up to you, the reader, to decide if the criticism is justified or not; I have my own feelings, but I'm not here to discuss Israel's recent campaign in Gaza), as well as his disturbing invitation of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in 2006, means that the act of walking off the stage is one is a series of moves that leave little doubt about the tenor of the relationship between the two countries, at least on the level of high politics.

Before I touch upon the issue of what this all means about Turkish domestic politics, I think that it would be worthwhile to think a bit more about the incident itself. A NY Times article mentioned that the overall discussion at Davos was supposed to be 1 hour ( UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon talked for 8 minutes; I didn't see the debate itself, but given his comments about the Gaza campaign, I hardly expect that his comments were in defense of Israel. Apparently also on stage was Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary general; again, I think we can safely say that his comments were not going to be pro-Israeli. Erdogan apparently was given 12 minutes earlier in the talk to comment and then Peres was given about 25 minutes to provide Israel's side of the story. 
I'm not mathematician, but 60 minutes minus 25 is 35 minutes, and 35 minutes which were likely highly critical of Israel. Also, 12 minutes is more than the 8 minutes given to Ban Ki-Moon. 

Basically what it comes down to is that I think Erdogan doesn't quite understand, ultimately, how stupid this whole debacle is. Peres was given 25 minutes because it was 3 against 1. Erdogan was given 12 minutes because he was one of three panelists criticizing Israel. He got more talking time than the UN Secretary General and presumably as much as, if not more, than the Arab League Secretary General. So, let's just get one thing straight: when Erdogan declares that the moderator was being "unfair" in only letting him get 12 minutes as opposed to Peres' 25 minutes, let's be clear what "fairness" actually means. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but Erdogan seems to have been given more than his fair shot at talking during the panel, and rather than keep his peace, let his ego overcome rationality.

I would also like to take some issue with Erdogan's comments about Israel's actions over the years, and although I am likely to cause some of my Turkish friends to bitterly complain, I feel it more important to discuss this rather than be silent. I in no way condone the way in which Israel has gone about attempting (or not) to resolve the long-standing Palestinian conflict, but listening to Erdogan criticize Israel rings oh-so-hollow in my ears. Erdogan's invitation of the leader of Hamas? Inexcusable. I can only imagine the fury and outrage Turkey and Turks would have expressed if Israel decided to invite PKK leadership like Ocalan to meet with the Israeli Prime Minster. But that is the exact parallel to inviting Hamas to Ankara. Turkey would find an Israeli meeting with PKK leaders an outrage of unbelievable proportions and the meeting with Hamas should have been understood as the same kind of meeting.

Secondly, Turkey's criticism of Israel about civilian and human rights abuses rings hollow. I do not list myself as an expert on the Kurdish conflict, but from what I have read, it is pretty clear that the conflict in Turkey for much of the 1980s and 1990s was a scorched-earth campaign against the Kurdish population of Turkey, with associated human rights abuses and forced internal migration. It is also clear that Turkey and the Turkish government has hardly owned up to the practices and methods it employed during its fight against the PKK and any attempted discussion of what exactly went on is stomped out as treasonous, disloyal, and unpatriotic. I no doubt open myself up to accusations that I don't know what terrorism is like or the necessity of meeting terrorism with violence, and how I am an naive American telling Turkey what it should or should not be doing without any understanding of the violence and fear that the PKK bestowed upon Turkey for much of the 1990s. That I would rather have Turkey pander to terrorists and their demands, rather than allow Turkey to defend its nation and soil.
And in fact, I will admit, I probably have no business sticking my nose into something I have not experienced myself. I am not qualified to tell people how to run anti-terrorism campaigns. But, nonetheless, I am firm in my belief that no matter how terrible the PKK is (and I will be the first to tell anyone that the PKK is a group of terrorists who have done great and terrible disservice to Turkey and more importantly, to the plight of Kurds in Turkey), terrorist violence never justifies the mass human rights abuses and tactics that were undoubtedly employed by the Turkish military in its fight. And so, when Erdogan criticizes Israel for its also inappropriate use of force, perhaps he should focus more on making amends for Turkey's human rights abuses against its own population and make sure that he has the moral high-ground before he accuses another country of acting inappropriately. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, or so the saying goes, and to be quite frank, Turkey's past actions against its Kurdish minority are more than a minor blemish.

Although my comments on this next point will be brief, since I have wasted far too much time blathering in this note, it is, for those who are interested in my concerns about Turkish society, the most important point to understand. The modern Turkish Republic was built upon the success of the nationalist movement and to this day, Turkish nationalism remains the most important unifying force in the country. The ways in which Turkish nationalism is expressed today is hardly new, but in an age where xenophobic nationalism is something that should be seen as dangerous, I view Erdogan's actions and words with respect to Israel indicative of a larger, more systemic problem with Turkey: its inability to accept difference in its people. I have far too little time and space to fully flesh out things here, but to put it succinctly, the increasing nationalist rhetoric in Turkey and Turks' antagonism towards the minorities within its borders, whether they be Jewish, Orthodox Christians, Armenians Christians, or Kurds, is worrisome. Erdogan may have come out and said that he does not mean to be anti-Semitic, but his words against Israel are reflected in increasing anti-Semitic behavior in Turkey. (For a good article on this, see:

I love Turkey, but the nationalist movement as it is expressed today is not beneficial for Turkey. It appears to silence freedom of debate and expression, prevents the full integration of vast numbers of Turkish citizens into society, and holds Turkey back from being a more open and tolerant society. I remember talking to a Jewish Turk this past year who told me that she hated the word 'tolerance.' She wished that instead of being "tolerated," she wanted to be thought of as the same; rather than being thought of as solely a Jew, she wanted to be thought of as a Turk whose faith is Judaism. So long as Erdogan and Turkish politicians and society continue to espouse the nationalist line that views minority populations as suspicious foreigners within the midst, a rhetoric which was hinted at in his conduct and words at Davos, Turkey will be held back from its full potential.

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