Scanning news reports this week, I was surprised to learn that according to much of the press, Turkey had been Israel’s “staunchest ally in the Muslim world,” until the Gaza aid flotilla debacle. According to the Associated Press, the UK’s Daily Mail and other media, the Gaza aid flotilla crisis has irreparably damaged the “close” relationship between Israel and Turkey.
The fact is such reports are simply untrue and misleading. It was not the Gaza aid flotilla that irreparably damaged relations between Turkey and Israel. The relationship had already been under severe strain for the past seven years, since the now ultra-conservative Islamist AK Party led by Turkish Prime Minister Erodgan took power in 2002.
Indeed friendly relations between Turkey and Israel prior to the flotilla incident had already, for the most part, been over.
Turkey, the country that led the flotilla initiative, has shown absolutely no interest in continuing peaceful relations with Israel in the past year, resorting to hostile rhetoric and policies against the Jewish state. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan barred Israel from annual military exercises on Turkey’s soil last year, while signing a military contract with Syria. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, the Turkish PM Erdogan verbally attacked Israeli president Shimon Peres about Gaza and stormed off the stage. In October 2009, Turkish national television aired a drama casting Israeli soldiers as sadists set to kill Palestinian children.
Not that Turkey’s human rights’ record is so squeaky clean. In 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, creating 160,000 Greek Cypriot refugees. Turkey still denies these refugees’ rights to return to their homes, as well as access and use of their property. Since the Turkish invasion, a large number of Turks have been brought to occupy the homes of the Greek Cypriot refugees, in violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention.
In 2009, the Orthodox Church of Cyprus launched legal action against Turkey for destroying 522 churches during the invasion. The Cyprus Church states that Turkey continues to destroy those remaining churches, converting them into “morgues, stables, night clubs, and chicken coops.”
But in addition to human rights abuses, it is those who Turkey counts as its friends, not its enemies, that should truly worry the West.
Turkey has announced that it would not join any sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and has warmly welcomed Iranian president Ahmadinejad to its capital city. But in May, Turkey went a step further and actually attempted to forestall UN economic sanctions against Iran much to the chagrin of the United States.
Back in February, the Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman wrote that the Turkish State Minister, Cedvet Yilmaz stated that his government was committed to working on improving relations with its neighbor Iran. The driving force behind this commitment, indicated Yilmaz, were the mutual gas transfer projects, which both Yilmaz and Iranian Foreign Minister, Manoucheher Mottaki agreed will bring both countries to a “historical era.”
Turkey and Iran have signed a number of deals to facilitate the flow of gas through Turkey to Europe, including agreements to allocate some Iran’s South Pars gas field to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, where Iranian gas will be trasported across Turkey.
The Turkey-Iran pipeline transfers natural gas worth around $2 billion every year. “We believe that the projects for the tansfer of Iranian natural gas to Europe via Turkey will give a momentum to relations between the two largest economies in the world,” Yilmaz has stated. Another Turkish government official, Zafer Caglayan, stated that bilateral trade with Iran has grown to $10 billion in the past eight years.
But its not only economic ambitions or a record of human rights abuses that Turkey shares with Iran. Turkey’s government has grown more and more totalitarian in recent years, seeking not only to control economic and political matters but also attitudes, values and beliefs of its population. According to a recent article in Forbes, Melik Kaylan reports that the ruling pro-Islamic AK party has over 100,000 Turks wiretapped, thousands arrested and questioned, and over 200 reporters, intellectuals, academics and military officers jailed, all accused of a military coup.
“If you try to talk over the phone to people in Turkey about their current government, they will likely refuse to do so. The ruling pro-Islamic AK Party is now tapping phones so liberally that everyone is paranoid,” writes Kaylan.
A Washington Post blogger writes about similar observations of the Turkish government regime. Professor Susan Brook Thistelwaite reports that “far more Turkish women are wearing headscarves and religious dress than a decade ago. As one Turkish businessman observed about his university-age daughter, ‘They want to put a headscarf on her mind.’ He is thinking about sending his daughter to the United States to complete her education.”
“Erdogan’s administration has severely undermined the independence of the media, of the judiciary, of the banking system and has abolished long-standing rules prohibiting religious dress on university campuses. It is now moving on to re-write school textbooks to revise the country’s secular history,” writes Thistelwaite.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah presented the Turkish Prime Minister with one of the country’s most prestigious prizes, the King Faisal International Prize, also known as the ‘Arab Nobel Prize,‘ in March. The prize was given to Erdogan for “rendering outstanding service to Islam by defending the causes of the Islamic nation, particularly the Palestinian cause.” He received $200,000 in prize money.
The Palestinian cause has become a rallying banner for the Muslim world, serving as a means to distract the rest of the world from the human rights abuses that continue in countries like Turkey, Iran and Saudia Arabia, as well as from their growing economic power.
Indeed the humanitarian goods, among the weapons and arms, on the Gaza-bound flotilla should have gone to refugees elsewhere in the Middle East who have been displaced by Muslim powers. But then the incitement and hatred against Israel which unifies Muslims worldwide would have been lost.
Anav Silverman is a columnist and educator whose work has been published widely online and in print, both in Israel and internationally. She has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC Radio, and CBS 2 and has contributed to BBC News, The Philadelphia Bulletin, Sderot Media Center, Front Page Magazine, Bangor Daily News, Maariv, The Jerusalem Post, Ynet News, and other publications.