LONDON— It was the first time that cattle cars would be used in the 20th Century to carry people to concentration camps, a systematic annihilation of a whole population so horrific that a new word had to be invented to capture its brutality: genocide.
In the midst of World War I, over a million Christian Armenians in Turkey were rounded up by the Ottoman Empire and slaughtered in unspeakable ways. No less a mass murderer than Adolf Hitler, in a speech to Nazi commanders before he invaded Poland, reportedly defended his order to “kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race” by asking, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Ninety years later, the Armenian Genocide has been recognized by 21 nations, 43 American states and a United Nations Commission. But Turkey still denies it ever happened. Under Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not only is speaking of genocide in Turkey a jailable offense—but earlier this year, Erdogan announced that Turkey was tearing down the Turkish-Armenian “Friendship Monument” that stands on the border between the two countries, calling it “monstrous.”
Yet, this is the same man who lectures Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel needs to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish activists last year on board a pro-Palestinian flotilla that was attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. This is also the same leader who has promised to help pass a Palestinian resolution at the UN next week welcoming the State of Palestine as a member—at the same time Ankara continues to deny basic rights to 20 million Turkish Kurds while illegally occupying northern Cyprus, in defiance of the UN.
This is far from just a gross expression of diplomatic hypocrisy or an historical reversal of a Turkish-Israeli friendship that dates back to 1949. At a time when much of the Muslim world is turning towards democracy, one of America’s oldest democratic allies in the region is headed in the other direction.
Erdogan, who is Islamist to the core, once famously declared that “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers”—seems to see himself as the Islamic leader of a post-Arab-Spring Muslim world.
Since taking power in 2003, Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (In Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partis, or AKP) has been less interested in preserving Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s 90 year-old vision of Turkey as a secular state and more committed, as Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai writes, to bringing about “a return to the Ottoman Empire’s glory days.”
As prime minister, Erdogan has wielded Turkey’s aspiring membership in the European Union brilliantly as a tool to suppress secular opposition, none more efficiently than with the military—which has been the constitutional guarantor of a secular Turkey for nine decades.
Using the EU’s insistence that Turkey bring its military under greater civilian control, Erdogan has castrated military leaders. In June, with more than 40 generals in jail, Turkey’s top military commanders resigned simultaneously. The vacuum leaves Erdogan free to remodel Turkey, as Caroline Glick of the Center for Security Policy puts it, “into a hybrid of Putinist autocracy and Iranian theocracy.”
Meanwhile, the judiciary— the other guardian of secular power in Turkey—had its independence garroted last year with the passage of new constitutional amendments that give the AKP control over judicial appointments and power to “investigate” judges.
Burnishing his credentials as a brilliant fraud, Erdogan praised the new constitution as a step towards EU membership—while knowing that the EU’s “Christian Club,” as he calls it, won’t likely ever grant Turkey full membership.
In Israel, Erdogan has the perfect foil; and in Netanyahu, the perfect fool. Incensed by Israel’s 2008 bombing of Gaza, Erdogan engaged in a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos—shouting “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill”—before storming offstage.
He returned home to a hero’s welcome and has made trouble for the West ever since. Last year, when Turkey sided with Iran in a UN Security Council vote on Tehran sanctions, Western scholars asked, “Who Lost Turkey?” Yet, while Erdogan has sought to assert Turkish leadership across the region, every initiative he’s attempted—from ending the NATO mission against Libya, to imploring Syria to end its violent crackdowns, to promoting reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah—has met with failure.
With his threats against Syria being ignored by Damascus, Erdogan was in need of a distraction to win back the street, which the UN provided last month with the Palmer Report on the 2010 flotilla raid. It found that Israel used excessive force and was morally responsible for the deaths, but ruled that the Gaza blockade is lawful and enforceable by Israel against humanitarian vessels in international waters.
The rest was predictable: Erdogan seethed at the UN; kicked out the Israeli Ambassador to Turkey; suspended all economic and military agreements with Tel Aviv; and warned that Turkish warships would break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. But his brilliant jujitsu continued: while bashing the Palmer Report, he also enraged Iran by agreeing to host a NATO anti-missile radar on Turkey’s border.
So, what’s next? This week, Erdogan becomes the first Turkish Prime Minister to visit Cairo in 15 years. Turkey and Egypt—which together represent half of the population of the Middle East—are expected to sign an agreement leading to new political, economic, and scientific ties. Can Egypt and Turkey work to turn the Arab Spring into an Islamic Summer—and will Erdogan lead it, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide? Only one thing is certain: somewhere, Ataturk is turning over in his grave.