The blatant antisemitic and anti-Western rhetoric of Turkey’s leaders shows just how illiberal the country has become under the twelve-year rule of its Islamist Justice and Development Party.
The reaction of Turkish president and ruling party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was voted into office with almost 52 percent support last year, to Muslim extremists’ attacks in Paris last week was so typically vitriolic, it barely registered in the West anymore.
Rather than condemning the attacks on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in the French capital, in which seventeen people died, Erdoğan insisted Muslims had “never taken part in terrorist massacres” and suggested it was really the West’s own fault. “Behind these lie racism, hate speech and Islamophobia,” he said on Monday.
The Turkish leader fed conspiracy theories that security services abetted in the Paris attacks in order to disparage Muslims by saying, “French citizens carry out such a massacre and Muslims pay the price. That’s very meaningful. Doesn’t their intelligence organization track those who leave prison?”
As usual, Erdoğan couldn’t resist lashing out at Israel, criticizing that country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for joining a freedom march with other world leaders in Paris.
“How can a man who has killed 2,500 people in Gaza with state terrorism wave his hand in Paris like people are waiting in excitement for him to do so? How dare he go there?” Erdoğan — who did not attend the ceremonies — wondered.
On Thursday, Erdoğan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, compared the Paris attacks with Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and its interception in 2010 of a Turkish-led convoy that tried to break the blockade of the Palestinian enclave. Nine activists were killed when they attacked Israeli commandos boarding the ships.
“Just as the massacre in Paris committed by terrorists is a crime against humanity, Netanyahu, as the head of the government that kills children playing on the beach with the bombardment of Gaza, destroys thousands of homes,” said Davutoğlu, “and that massacred our citizens on an aid ship in international waters, has committed crimes against humanity.”
Neither Erdoğan nor Davutoğlu said anything about the fiercely antisemitic Palestinian militant group Hamas that controls Gaza and uses the territory to lodge rockets at Israeli cities and towns, prompting the Jewish state to respond militarily time and again. Hamas’ stated aim is to murder Jews and destroy Israel.
The two Turkish leaders’ trivialization of Muslim extremism — or worse, their insistence the West is really at fault because it condemns radical Islam — and their eagerness to use any excuse to lambast Israel and Jews shows Western observers — this one included — were wrong to dismiss the increasingly antisemitic and overly Islamist rhetoric of Erdoğan and his acolytes as electioneering. It is clear in hindsight they were pushing the boundaries of Turkish public debate.
By now, around half of Turks clearly don’t mind such nastiness or they wouldn’t keep reelecting Erdoğan and his party.
In fairness — and in my defense — Turkey’s Islamists only gradually revealed themselves for what they are. During their early years in power, they seemed rather liberal, enacting reforms to meet the European Union’s criteria for membership. Erdoğan allowed the European Court of Human Rights supremacy over Turkish courts, weakened a 1991 anti-terror law that had constrained Turkey’s democratization and abolished the death penalty. The repeal of a decades-old ban on the wearing of headscarfs in public-sector jobs and state universities could also hardly be described as illiberal, even if Turkey’s secular opposition warned at the time it was a sign of things to come.
Their warnings were often so overblown, though, that they were easy to dismiss as the desperations of a disparaged secular establishment.
It turns out they were right all along. Erdoğan, in the words of Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is an “antisemitic bully” and he should be shunned by respectable Western leaders because of it.