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Ran Ukashi


By Ran Ukashi, July 7, 2010

To many unsuspecting observers, the behavior of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards Israel seems highly erratic and uncharacteristic.  It was at the 2009 Davos Conference that Erdogan stormed out on Israeli President Shimon Peres over what he claimed to be war crimes in Gaza, and now it seems that Erdogan is using as much political pressure as possible on Israel to make it pay for its “crimes” regarding the recent “freedom flotilla” incident.  Turkey has always been viewed by many as a rare and stalwart Muslim ally of Israel in a region that is, to say the least, rabidly hostile to Israel’s existence.  However, this once amicable relationship appears to be fraying.  If one takes even a cursory glance at Erdogan and his “Justice and Development” Party (AKP), one can see that it was only a matter of time before Erdogan turned his back on Israel.

Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the early 20th century, political Islam became a reactionary movement to the highly secularized mode of government established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  Islamist movements began to emerge under the leadership of religious orders, sheikhs and religious professionals who lost their status and power after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, operating underground throughout much of the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The first mainstream Islamist party emerged in 1970, under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, called the National Order Party (NOP).  The NOP appealed to those of lower socioeconomic status and more religious Sunni Muslims.  The military forced the Constitutional Court to ban the party on the grounds that it threatened the secular Constitutional order of Turkey.  The Party reformed into the National Salvation Party (NSP) in 1972, reforming its policies to avoid the ire of the military, and was used repeatedly throughout the 1970’s to form coalition governments.  The military began tolerating “moderate” Islamist parties in order to prevent the radicalization of Islamist parties in the future.  Unfortunately, this miscalculation blinded the military, and many Turks, to the fact that these parties were using democracy instrumentally to destroy the secular republic piece by piece.

The NSP was later outlawed by the military after the military drafted a new Constitution in 1982, banning coalition governments and political parties that were harmful to the “maintenance of order,” a measure that lasted until the 1990s.  Out of the NSP came the Welfare Party, a political party which enjoyed a large following among the rural-to-urban migrants to Turkey’s major urban centres.

The Welfare Party was openly anti-Western, anti-European, and sought closer links to Turkey’s “Islamic backyard.”  The Party claimed that joining the EU would make Turkey a “province of Israel.”  The Party used substantial amounts of foreign funding from Saudi Arabia and remittances from Turks working in Germany, to help garner large amounts of support from its observant Muslim base, as well as the growing Muslim middle class.  In 1998 the Welfare Party was banned for similar reasons to its forebears, but again, adapted and learned to bide its time, reconstituting itself as the Virtue Party in 1999.  The new party renewed sixty percent of its membership from the Welfare Party, but suddenly claimed to be pro-Western, pro-European, tolerant towards Israel and the United States, no longer enforcing Islamic dress codes on women and paid lip service to human rights, democracy and state responsibility, and Kurdish and other minority rights.

After internal divisions split the party, the AKP was born, coming into power in 2002, winning a rare majority in parliament.  The AKP capitalized on corruption scandals of the Left and Right-wing parties and successfully disassociated itself from its Islamist past.  The AKP practiced excellent fiscal discipline and retained all of the pro-Western rhetoric.  However, what troubled many observers was how the AKP—under Erdogan’s leadership, as it is today—circumvented hot topic issues such as headscarves, Kurdish and religious minority rights, as well as its failure to redistribute wealth to its own constituent base, despite promising to tackle these issues.  Furthermore, AKP mayors have all banned alcohol in their municipalities, Turkish Airlines has inquired into its employees views on the Qur’an, and Erdogan himself even suggested the criminalization of adultery.  Erdogan has addressed the nation publicly, not with the traditional Turkish flag and portrait of Ataturk in the background, but with Ataturk’s mausoleum and a mosque, the symbolism of which was not lost on anyone.

Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul once remarked in 1996 that democracy is like a “streetcar” in that once you arrive at your destination, you get off and go on with your true agenda.  Erdogan is a man of his word, and it is no surprise to see that Erdogan has patiently bided his time over the years, finding the most opportune moment to distance himself from Israel.  This turn of events does not bode well for Israel, but for the citizens of Turkey, there is much more at stake, including the Republic itself.

Ran Ukashi has a Masters of Political Science from the University  of  Manitoba and has worked on Capital Hill in Ottawa.

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