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The Turkish Bridgehead

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Turkey is often mentioned as the West’s bridgehead to the Middle East—but Turkey could just as well be the Islamic world’s bridgehead in Europe.

NATO’s summit earlier this month gave the European Union a taste of what it can expect if it can ever agree on Turkey’s membership. Turkey is often mentioned as the West’s bridgehead to the Middle East—but since the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, Turkey could just as well be the Islamic world’s bridgehead in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO faces a new threat from militant Islam in Afghanistan and Iran, but Turkey’s stance at the NATO summit has created doubt as to which side of the fence Turkey is on.

Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and has been a loyal and stable member. NATO was established “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” In short, it was formed to defend Western values. But the recent summit, celebrating NATO’s 60th anniversary, raised the question of how well Turkey under its present government fits in.

Two cultures clashed at the summit. Turkey objected strongly (if, ultimately, unsuccessfully) to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s nomination as NATO’s new secretary-general due to his stand in 2005 regarding an uproar in the Muslim community over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a leading Danish daily newspaper.

The Islamic definition of freedom of expression is incompatible with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Shortly after the cartoons were published, 11 Muslim ambassadors, including the Turkish ambassador, wrote to Rasmussen, deploring an “ongoing smear campaign” in Denmark against Islam and warning that the drawings could cause reactions in Muslim countries and among Muslim communities in Europe. They called on the prime minister “to take all those responsible to task under law of the land” and requested an urgent meeting. The Danish prime minister also received a letter from Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Turkish secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who likewise deplored “the smear campaigns conducted against Muslims and their religion” in Denmark. Rasmussen’s answer to both letters was identical: “The freedom of expression has a wide scope and the Danish government has no means of influencing the press.”

Not long afterwards, at a press conference, Rasmussen reminded Turkey that one of the criteria to qualify for EU membership is that a society complies in full with democratic principles, including the freedom of expression and the press’s unlimited right within the law to criticize both political and religious authorities.

The U.N. Human Rights Council recently passed a nonbinding resolution that equates ‘the defamation of religion’ with a human rights violation.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn echoed Rasmussen when commenting on Turkey’s opposition to Rasmussen’s appointment. He found Ankara’s objection “a bit hollow.” He added, “It does not look good from a European perspective, because freedom of expression is such a fundamental value, and meanwhile Turkey is aiming to become a member of the European Union.”

Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, reacted that Rehn’s remarks were “unpleasant” and warned that European criticism could hamper cooperation on some of the biggest threats to European security. The country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, explained he had been approached by the leaders of some Muslim states and asked to block Rasmussen’s nomination. And as Erdogan pointed out in a speech in London: “How can I expect him [Rasmussen] to contribute to peace when he did not do so in the past?”   

Turkey’s attitude is similar to that of the majority of the members of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, which is dominated by the OIC, Russia, China, Cuba, and an African group. On March 26, the council passed a nonbinding resolution that equates “the defamation of religion” with a human rights violation. Turkey’s Ihsanoglu said, “If NATO intends to be busy with the Muslim world and issues like Afghanistan, the person it will elect as secretary-general will be acceptable to these societies.”

Last year 82 people were tried for denigrating the Turkish state or state institutions.

The Islamic definition of freedom of expression, as defined by the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990), limits the expression of opinion to a manner that would not be contrary to shariah—Islamic law based on the Koran—which is incompatible with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet Turkey is a signatory to both the Cairo Declaration and the International Covenant. Furthermore, as a member of the Council of Europe it is also signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. This led to a curious situation after the landmark 2005 judgment in Leyla Şahin v. Turkey, which upheld the headscarf ban at Turkish universities—Erdogan criticized the court’s decision and said it had no right to speak on this issue, as only Islamic scholars were entitled to pass judgment.  

In Turkey itself, one can see how its leaders would prefer the media to be treated. The State Department, the EU Commission, and the European Parliament have repeatedly criticized the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey. Last year 82 people were tried for denigrating the Turkish state or state institutions. Turkey ranks as number 102 out of 173 countries in the freedom of its press, according to Reporters Without Borders. In 2008, a total of 435 journalists, writers, publishers, human-rights activists, politicians, and children were taken to court because of their opinions—almost double the number from the previous year, according to BIA, an independent Turkish communications network.

Prime Minister Erdogan has sued journalists and cartoonists he considers to have insulted him, earning approximately $90,000 thus far. He is also pressuring Turkey’s largest media group, Dogan, which has exposed widespread corruption in national and local government. He has called for a boycott of Dogan’s papers and approved the imposition of a tax fine of almost half a billion dollars on the group. If it takes effect, the fine will surely shut down Dogan.

The Financial Times has criticized Turkey for adopting a “needlessly brash” tone on the world stage and characterized Erdogan’s opposition to Rasmussen’s nomination as “petty grandstanding.” The question is how long Turkey’s best interests are served by this form of leadership.

Robert Ellis is a commentator in Denmark and from 2005 to 2008 he was a frequent contributor to Turkish Daily News.

FURTHER READING: Also in The American, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute discusses “The Case Against Turkey’s Ruling Party” and Claire Berlinski warns of “The Looming Crisis in Turkey.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.


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