By Abdullah Bozkurt
May 05, 2014
Increasingly hurtful and pointedly hateful discourse adopted by Turkey's chief political Islamist, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the past couple of years has done a huge disservice in combating Islamophobia in the world today, dealing a blow to decades-long efforts done by organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in international forums.
The rabble-rouser speeches he has delivered on the campaign trail and defamation articles published by Erdoğan-controlled media stigmatize Jews, Christians and even Muslims who do not subscribe to Erdoğan's firebrand political Islamist ideology that has close affinity with its brethren in other countries, albeit marginal.
Erdoğan's parochial political Islamist ideology defies the richness in multiplicity and diversity of viewpoints among Muslims, setting a bad example for opponents of Islam to capitalize on. Instead of resisting marginalizing different religious groups with the same commitment and engagement that he tackles signs of Islamophobia, Erdoğan rather implements discriminatory practices to dominate his authoritarian Islamist version among Muslims, imposing an exclusionary vision of non-Muslims altogether.
The latest example of Erdoğan's destructive discourse was seen last week when Erdoğan, responding to well-placed criticism by visiting German President Joachim Gauck on press freedom woes and tightening control over the judiciary in the EU candidate country, accused Germany's head of state of not acting like a statesman probably because Gauck still thinks of himself as a pastor and that he should keep his advice to himself. Instead of addressing legitimate concerns raised by the German president, who merely repeated similar criticism uttered by Turkey's top judge, Haşim Kılıç, a week ago, Erdoğan chose to attack Gauck based on his past record of being a Lutheran pastor.
What is the point here for Erdoğan in recalling Gauck's religious background, which is perfectly alright with German citizens? Perhaps he was trying to score politically among his core political Islamist constituency and keep their spirits up by humiliating a visiting dignitary. This is conduct totally unbecoming for a Turkish head of government, let alone for a Muslim. By attacking someone for his Christian roots as a pastor, Erdoğan plants seeds of religious hatred in Turkish society, which is very dangerous for dialogue and outreach activities long-endorsed by the United Nations' Alliance of Civilizations, an effort initiated by former Spanish Prime Minister Don José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Toeing the line with Erdoğan, one of the government-controlled newspapers, the Star daily, ran a headline story on Sunday in which it accused US-based watchdog Freedom House, which downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its annual report last week after citing a significant decline in press freedom, of being a mouthpiece of pro-Israel lobbies and of being financed by Israel. It also singled out the president of Freedom House, David Kramer, as being Jewish and to have alleged close ties to neocons in the US. The story, followed by a full-page analysis inside, was mostly based on distorted facts and run without a byline and signature, hinting that it was serviced by the government, probably by intelligence directly controlled by Erdoğan's close confidant, a common pattern that has been seen in the Turkish media landscape recently.
Raising Jewishness in order to discredit a report or any opponent of the government for that matter has now become a hallmark of Erdoğan's government. He frequently raised Jewish conspiracy as being behind last year's Gezi Park protests when he said the "interest lobby" -- a murky and veiled reference to Jewish investors and bankers -- was driving the anti-government rallies. When a vast corruption scandal broke on Dec. 17, 2013, incriminating Erdoğan and his close associates, the prime minister again accused Israel and the West of orchestrating investigations to topple his government. On the campaign trail before the March 30 local elections, Erdoğan had also scapegoated what he called domestic collaborators for that conspiracy such as opposition parties, business groups, media and the Hizmet movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
He has done so in order to shift the debate away from corruption scandals, but in the meantime hurt decades-long investments so many others made to strengthen dialogue and outreach activities across the divide among cultures, civilizations and religions. The corruption scandal revealed that Erdoğan's hate speech is not limited to non-Muslims. He has singled out Gülen, an interfaith dialogue advocate who inspired a powerful, non-political social movement that places emphasis on the empowerment of Muslims through science education, as his number-one enemy for the past six months. He has done so by going against his own record of having praised Gülen publicly and having been supportive of Gülen's work at home and abroad for years.
Gülen's critical stand against corruption in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and refusal to be cowed into silence disturbed Erdoğan, prompting his government to take a hostile position openly against the Hizmet movement. In public rallies, Erdoğan slammed this elderly Muslim cleric for having met with Pope John Paul II in 1998 and called him all kinds of slanders such as "traitor," "hollow preacher," "virus," "false prophet," "hashashin" -- a member of a medieval order that spread political influence through assassinations -- and others. This unprecedented attack on a Muslim cleric was so appalling that Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was clearly startled during a press conference in Copenhagen in March when a journalist asked the visiting Turkish president whether Erdoğan's hate speech against the Hizmet movement conflicts with the Turkish authorities' fight against Islamophobia in Europe.
It is clear that with this kind of rhetoric, Turkey's embattled Erdoğan is hampering efforts to bridge the great divide among religions on the basis of fundamental human rights such as freedom to practice a religion. This hateful discourse also makes it difficult to combat growing Islamophobia in the West because it gives ammunition to Muslim haters who pick up on the views of the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan, who blatantly disregards the rule of law, fundamental rights and democratic principles. Erdoğan acts like a political entrepreneur benefiting from hateful speech that stigmatizes Jews and Christians as well as Muslims who defy political Islamism. It appears as if the prime minister raises Islamophobic issues deliberately but has no interest in actually solving them. It seems as long as there is more conflict there, the better for him to seize upon the conflict for electoral purposes.
The Erdoğan government's smear campaign against Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former OIC secretary-general and Turkish diplomat, is the ultimate display of how few Islamists in Turkey dominated the current government, and can damage Muslims' fight against Islamophobia. İhsanoğlu, the man who changed the face of the world's second largest intergovernmental organization, is perhaps the most accomplished international personality in raising awareness about Islamophobia. He has successfully worked with the US administration and the European Union on advancing measures to tackle discriminatory practices against Muslims. He helped produce powerful resolutions in the UN tackling Islamophobia.
Since he is not a political Islamist within the strict definition of Erdoğan's thought process and he refused to take a position on the Egyptian coup that ousted former Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi from power, İhsanoğlu was subjected to a character assassination in Turkey. İhsanoğlu, who was born in Cairo to a Turkish family and is a graduate of Cairo's Ain Shams University, is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable diplomats on Egyptian affairs in Turkey. He knew it would not be wise to go against the interim government backed by the military and the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people. It was also improper for him as secretary-general to try to impose Turkish views on the 57-member nation bloc with regard to Egypt.
The OIC secretary-general also said that if the Turkish government really wanted to raise this issue, it could certainly call an emergency session of the OIC on the Egyptian situation, something Ankara declined to do after realizing that it was in the minority. Yet Erdoğan publicly slammed the OIC for not doing anything in Egypt while his ministers attacked İhsanoğlu when he was still OIC secretary-general. Just as pro-government dailies attacked Gülen for meeting with Pope John Paul II, İhsanoğlu was also targeted for meeting with Pope Francis in December of last year. Speaking to reporters following the meeting in Rome, İhsanoğlu said his visit is the first of its kind and aims to deepen cooperation between the Catholic Church and the OIC to contribute to reducing tension in international politics. This is the difference between a respected diplomat who wanted to go the extra mile to make a difference towards world peace and a politician who simply wanted to leave conflicts unresolved so that he can continue to profit from a political windfall.
The harsh narrative and extremist language employed by Erdoğan publicly is certainly taking a toll on combating discriminatory practices targeting Muslims. It builds new walls, destroys bridges of trust and puts more distance among communities. It affects the ability to counter extremist narratives and impairs an objective assessment of the situation for Muslims in Turkey and abroad. What is more, instead of dispelling common misperceptions that feed prejudices against other religions, Erdoğan is in fact reinforcing biases towards non-Muslims.
As the head of government, Erdoğan must in fact encourage active participation of people who belong to vulnerable or underrepresented groups in positions of responsibility based on professional competence and merits. Yet he appears to have been doing completely the opposite. The widespread reporting on massive profiling of Turkish citizens based on ethnic, religious or ideological affiliations in the workplace is alarming. Erdoğan is promoting worst practices and his way is definitely eroding the struggle of Muslims to combat Islamophobia in the world today. This is totally uncalled for.