DALLAS March 1, 2013 – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has drawn sharp criticism for remarks he made in Vienna this week. Speaking at the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna, the Turkish PM said, “The time has come to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity just like Zionism, just like Anti-Semitism, just like fascism.”
Reaction to the Prime Minister’s remarks was swift and pointed.
A statement released by Benjamin Netanyahu’s office characterized Erdogan’s remarks as “a dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from this world.” The optimistic hyperbole in that statement is enough to bring a smile to the face of almost anyone.
Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said, “The characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity… is offensive and wrong.”
We can only hope Secretary of State Kerry had the courage to address Erdogan’s blatant race-baiting when he met with the Prime Minister today. Vietor, on the other hand, made the US position clear. “We encourage people of all faiths, cultures and ideas to denounce hateful actions and overcome the differences of our times.”
If the US is expecting Prime Minister Erdogan to “overcome the differences of our times”, the wait may be long indeed. After all, this is the man who just last week had no qualms about insulting the largest religious minority group in his own country by claiming that their beliefs “were not a religion”.
In reference to the Alevi faith, he said, “It is a lifestyle. The cemevi is not a place of worship. It is a cultural center. In Islam the only place of worship is the mosque.” A cemevi is where Alevi’s hold their religious services. This would be akin to the President of France claiming that Protestantism is not a bona fide religious belief and that Baptist churches are not houses of worship.
The key to understanding Erdogan and the Middle East, however, lies in understanding political objectives and worldview, which in significant ways differ from our own.
An objective definition of Zionism is essentially Jewish nationalism. Its fundamental tenets are that the Jewish people should preserve their culture, resist assimilation and support a Jewish nation in the land of Israel, the home of their ancestors.
A religious nationalist like Prime Minister Erdogan should be able to understand and sympathize with the centuries-long struggle of the Jewish people to escape persecution, preserve their culture and find a homeland. After all, in a speech to Turks in Germany, the Prime Minister has also called “assimilation” a crime against humanity and urged his countrymen living in Germany to preserve their language and culture, a speech which drew sharp criticism in Germany.
But, if Erdogan understood Zionism in this sense, he wouldn’t have called it a crime against humanity. For him, Zionism means Jewish racism, oppression of Muslim Palestinians, and the occupation of Islamic territory. This is the definition of Zionism held by many in the Middle East, which brings us to his political objectives.
Turkey is flexing its political muscle, and it knows that to broaden its influence in the Islamic world it has to overcome certain perceptions among its fellow Muslims. The secular state created by Atatürk is viewed suspiciously in the Middle East. Turkey’s membership in NATO creates an equal amount of distrust, and its long history of cooperation with Israel has made it no friends in the Arab world.
Erdogan intends to change all of that. He wants to make it clear that Turkey will champion the rights of Muslims and deserves the mantle of leadership. Erdogan is also trying to erode the support that Iran has enjoyed in the region specifically because of its opposition to the state of Israel. The government of Iran has won many friends in the region and enjoys incredible influence due to its anti-Israel stance.
Viewed in this light, Erdogan’s statements make perfect sense. He just got the venue wrong. Or did he? His comparison of Zionism with anti-Semitism at an international U.N. event has been viewed as courageous leadership in the Middle East. Criticism from the US and Israel will only serve to enhance his standing with his target audience.
The Turkish Prime Minister is not trying to rule the world; he wants power in his own backyard. There will be time for the world later.
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.
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