What direction is the Turkish regime heading?

A pessimistic view goes like this: The ruling AK party is pushing toward an Islamist agenda both at home and abroad. It is moving closer to Iran, Syria, and Hamas. In some ways, Turkey might become part of the Iran-led alignment in the region. Anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israel feeling is growing. The government is making a sharp break with the past, based on structural changes in the country. It is gradually capturing institutions: buying up or intimidating the media; allied with a rising, more traditionally oriented new business class and village migrants to the city; naming judges; and neutralizing the army.

The hopeful view sounds like this: The Turkish people haven’t changed. A lot of this is temporary, problems stemming from friction with the previous U.S. government in Iraq as well anger at Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip. National interests—hope of getting into the European Union; need for U.S. backing; high levels of trade, tourism, and military cooperation with Israel—will pull the government and country back onto its usual course.

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Both courses are still open to Ankara’s rulers. But at the moment the more pessimistic analysis seems the likelier outcome. It is true that the key factor is Turkey’s people: but will they speak out and do so effectively?

Before considering this, it should be understood that the policy changes in Turkey do not just include criticism of Israel or some highly publicized events. Rather, there is a systematic shift going on. Internationally, the developments include closer relations between Turkey and such countries as Iran, Syria, and Sudan. Internally, the focal point is the AK’s introduction of more Islamic or Islamist norms, the placing of its people in key positions in the civil service and social institutions, the rising pressure in daily life for conformity with Islamist-dictated behavior, and so on.

The intensity of such changes can be seen also in rarely reported details. Take, for example, the behavior of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in attacking Israeli President Shimon Peres in an insulting fashion, then walking out of their session in the Davos conference. Erdogan used, in Turkish, a derogatory form of address toward Peres, and then referred to the one-sided confrontation as a new Gallipoli.

Gallipoli was the World War One battle in which the Ottoman Empire defeated a British invasion attempt. To equate this verbal exchange with a bloody battle in which Turks defended their country from invasion was about the most inflammatory patriotic language the prime minister could use to stir Turk passions.

While Turkish officials issue some soothing public statements, emphasizing their opposition to antisemitism, those who know Turkish or are in the country are getting a different picture. Turkish officials are investigating the possibility of initiating war crimes’ charges against Israeli leaders as they welcome top Sudanese officials who are engaged in mass murder in their own country.

Educated, modernist, moderate Turks have not wanted to face what is happening in their country and up until recently have been able to believe the AK is a moderate center-right reformist party with a slight pious tinge. This is becoming more difficult to sustain.

Some months ago I sat around a table with a dozen Turkish professors near Istanbul, people who fit the profile of what would be expected to be strongly anti-AK types. Unanimously they agreed the party was no threat.

One of them, added, however that his sister-in-law told him he was crazy and that the government was leading the country into a disastrous transformation. He then told me that their young nanny had to wear a headscarf and “Islamic-style” clothing, not because she wanted to but because otherwise she might be harassed or even attacked in her neighborhood. But this was all anecdotal information that could be disregarded in favor of heeding what top AK leaders promised.

For me, the most dangerous sign was that while the AK promised not to pick the hardline Abdullah Gul as president, to occupy the post once held by Kemal Ataturk, before the last election, the moment it won by a big margin it did so any way. Gul made an extremely arrogant speech saying, in essence, we won and can do whatever we want.

Now we are seeing the result of that confidence. Believing it can win any election, knowing that there will not be strong international condemnation or pressure, aware that the political opposition is divided and poorly led, and not too worried about an army intervention, the AK is marching faster and more visibly down the road a more Islamicized Turkey at home and abroad.

The next, local elections will tell the tale. If the AK loses in Istanbul and Izmir then it might become more cautious. If not things are going to get worse, much worse.

Right now, the situation of Turkey’s Jews is perilous. There has been no violence and the government might well prevent that from happening. But the signs are dangerous. The Ankara branch of the AKP put up a terribly antisemitic item as an apparent official statement. It said that Hitler was Jewish and the Holocaust was a plot to force Jews to emigrate to Palestine. It came down only after the newspaper Radikal protested. The branch’s leader denied all knowledge of the article.

I append below a letter from Istanbul by a very good friend of mine, a Turkish Jew who is 100 percent reliable and the most moderate, mild-mannered, apolitical person you can imagine. He writes:
-The crowd demonstrating in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue after a speech of Erdogan was chanting: “Tell us to die, we (will) die; tell us hit; we (will) hit”. (MY BROTHER HEARD IT)
-A neighboring Jewish woman who spoke Turkish with a “Jewish” accent was told by the taxi driver I wish I hadn’t picked you up. (A FRIEND OF MINE TOLD ME)
-In two elementary schools 10 yrs old Jewish boys were called “Dirty Jew” by their peers, something unheard of in the last 60 years. (A FRIEND OF MINE TOLD ME)

-The Jewish youth who were supporting assimilation have debates on this topic, now. (MY FATHER SAID THAT)

-Some Muslim customers/clients are telling jokes to Jewish shopkeepers or businesspeople: “You will butchered, ha ha ha …!” (A FRIEND OF MINE TOLD IT).
-Jewish soldiers –having their obligatory service- were sent home in order to be protected from the harassment of peers.(A FRIEND OF MINE TOLD IT)
-In the exit of the Neve Shalom Synagogue after a wedding was a signboard “Go away Jews , Down with Israel”… (MY COUSIN SAW IT)
–A day after the “Go away Jews” part was covered but the rest remained.
–Jews are wounded by the words of Erdogan implying they are “guests” not citizens after 500 years in Turkey. (EVERYWHERE)
-They were announcements on the billboards in Istanbul “You cannot be the son of Moses!” After some objection they removed the signs from billboards but put them on the buildings (I SAW IT)
-The police has the power to stop any march in Turkey, only if they want to. They have stopped leftist marches immediately, but let the demonstration outside the Israeli consulate continue though it had no permit.
-There is anxiety and discomfort among the community from either terrorist groups or individuals who wage violence thinking that they enjoy government support for doing so.
He ends: I personally thank you for your support to the Turkish Jews –hopefully not Jews from Turkey, soon.

On reading this, a non-Jewish Turk from another city wrote me: “This brought tears to my eyes. I feel the pain for a tree dying in the orchard where I spent my childhood.”

As someone who has spent 35 years working on Turkish history and politics; as the first Israeli exchange professor to teach there; and as someone with scores of close friends, I hope that moderate prevails.

Many Turks are horrified by what they are seeing. Some say these concerns are alarmist and exaggerated. It is the Turkish people alone who will decide their direction and future. But the stakes are high. Not only is their liberty and society in question but also there are wider implications. For if Turkey cannot sustain itself as a tolerant, secular, moderate republic, what hope is there for any other Muslim-majority country to do so?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, write me at [email protected].