Monday, 09 November 2009

Islamic Conservative and Nationalist Views on Jews and Israel: Another Convergence of Perceptions?

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli and M.K. Kaya (vol. 2, no. 20 of the Turkey Analyst)

The attitude toward the Jewish “other” offers a prism through which Turkey’s ideological affiliation may be appraised. The Islamic conservatives and the secularist nationalists come across as similarly apt to be suspicious of the Jewish “other”. They are parented heirs to an illiberal tradition that has flourished throughout the nominally secular republican era. The conclusion that imposes itself is that the Turkish modernization endeavor remains hampered by an inability to fully internalize the values of liberal, universal civilization.

Istanbul's Jewish Quarter, 19th century

BACKGROUND: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to speak harshly of Israel in public speeches and in party group meetings in the wake of the row over Turkey’s decision to disinvite Israel from participation in the annual military exercise, “Anatolian Eagle”. Erdoğan has set the tone of a new, public discourse about Israel. Last week, the governor of Rize, the hometown of the prime minister, leveled heavy criticism at Israeli policies, accusing Israel of being an occupier and an expansionist country during a courtesy visit paid by Israeli ambassador Gaby Levy to the Rize Municipality.

In Trabzon, students from the Black sea Technical University staged a protest against the Israeli ambassador. An anti-Israeli rally was recently held in Istanbul. In another sign of the prevailing climate in Turkey, the state channel TRT has broadcast a television series with clearly anti-Semitic undertones that depicts Israeli soldiers as merciless assaulters that do not spare civilians.

It has long since been an article of faith of the official Turkish state ideology that Turkey, in the image of the Muslim world in general, has no history of any anti-Semitism even remotely comparable to what has been the case in the Christian world. Indeed, the assumption that non-Muslim minorities were privileged under Ottoman and Turkish rule has supported the Turkish self-image of tolerance. Among those minorities, the Jews have enjoyed a special status; while the Armenians are accused of having betrayed the confidence of the Turks by what official Turkish historiography deems was a perfidious act of rebellion, the experience of the Jews under Turkish rule has fit conveniently into a self-congratulatory narrative of Turkish tolerance.

Yet, the quietude of the Jews in the Turkish realm has not always protected them from the transgressions of Turkish nationalism. As the ethnic cleansing of the Jews in the region of Thrace in 1934 bore witness, the Jews were viewed with suspicion by the state - their presence in the sensitive border area of Thrace could therefore not be tolerated. Ultimately, their loyalty to the Turkish republic was questioned, indeed even assumed to be missing. In that regard, the Jews have been viewed no differently than the other, non-Muslim minorities, ultimately stigmatized as “alien citizens”. Significantly, the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary have all been off-limits for Jews as well as for Turkish citizens of Armenian and Greek origin.

Radikal's headline, featuring the survey

Attitudes on a popular level toward the Jews have not been distuinguished by any inclusiveness, either. The Turkish Jews, although spared outbursts of violent anti-Semitism, have nevertheless been treated as “the other”. A recent survey by Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir university revealed that 64 percent of Turkey’s population did not want Jews in their neighborhood. 52 percent objected to having to share a neighborhood with Christians. (See Turkey Analyst, July 3, 2009) Overall, the survey leaves no doubts about the endurance of deeply conservative, Muslim cultural instincts; the fact that the results were more or less identical in a similar survey conducted in 1990 suggests that Turkish society has not evolved into a society less marked by contempt for and intolerance toward “the other” during the last two decades.

The policies and the rhetoric of the ruling AKP nevertheless do represent a departure from what has been the traditional stance of the Kemalist state toward the non-Muslim – as well as Muslim – minorities. The recent Armenian and Kurdish openings are rooted in the recognition that the constraints imposed by a narrow nationalism do not serve the interests of Turkey. The change of mentality seemed on evident display when Prime Minister Erdoğan earlier this year stated that “in the past, those who had different identities were chased from our country; that was an unreasonable, fascist practice”.

IMPLICATIONS: Yet, the conversion of the Islamic conservative movement to liberalism and universal tolerance is belied by the fiercely anti-Israeli rhetoric of Prime Minister Erdoğan in particular. Erdoğan could obviously argue that he is not giving voice to any anti-Jewish sentiments, only being critical of the policies of Israel; it is however evident that the Turkish prime minister does not take the set of universal values as his point of reference when he condemns Israel’s acts of violence in Gaza, and accuses China of committing “near Genocide” in Xinjiang, while he denies the internationally recognized genocide in Darfur. Indeed, the ideological world view of Prime Minister Erdoğan remains fundamentally informed by the dichotomy of believers and non-believers, by the division of the world into Muslims and non-Muslims. Thus, Erdoğan last week defended the scheduled presence of the Sudanese president and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir at the Islamic summit in Istanbul. (Al-Bashir subsequently desisted from attending, reportedly out of fear of being apprehended en route to Istanbul by the Israeli and Greek air forces). Erdoğan stated that he had been in Sudan without noticing any evidence of genocide. “And that is only natural, since Muslims do not commit acts of genocide”, Erdoğan declared. Thus, the AKP leader has not in any fundamental sense broken with the mind-set of the past: non-Muslims may be tolerated, but the Muslims are nevertheless superior, endowed with virtues that “the other” does not possess, implicitly giving the Muslims the right to rule and pass judgments.

Dome of Istanbul's Ashkenazi Synagogue

The cadres of the AKP have notably been influenced by the poet and writer Necip Fazıl Kısakürek. Kısakürek’s ideas are known to have had a significant impact on the thinking of Erdoğan as well as President Abdullah Gül. Kısakürek was not only a prominent conservative critic of the secularist republic, but equally and perhaps even more importantly in light of current developments, a pioneer of systematic, unabashedly anti-Semitic thinking in Turkey. Kisakürek was a typical anti-Semite, who saw Jewish machinations behind the march of history; the Jews were responsible for religious strife in Islam, the architects of capitalism, the instigators of the French revolution and of communism. They were, Kisakürek wrote, condemned by God in the Quran.

From the perspective of the AKP, giving anti-Jewish resentment a free rein serves to reset an ideological balance that has been upset by the “openings” on the Kurdish and Armenian fronts. Opinion surveys indicate that both openings may be coming at a significant political cost for the AKP, with its concurrently Turkish nationalist and Muslim conservative base showing signs of being tempted by the nationalist parties. Furthermore, indulging in anti-Israeli – and by implication anti-Jewish – rhetoric and policies has the benefit of conforming to growing unease with Israel within the military establishment as well.

The Turkish-Israeli military and strategic relations were strengthened from the mid 1990s on. Several defense projects, such as the modernization of F-4, F-5 aircrafts and M-60 tanks and direct procurement of Heron unmanned aerial vehicles were awarded to Israeli firms, mostly without tender. However, severe managerial and technical problems soon arose. Deliveries were delayed and commitments were not met. The last example of this has been the Heron systems, which were manufactured by Israel’s IAI-Elbit firms. The Israeli firm failed to meet the technical specifications requested by the Turkish Air Force. The view held in defense and military circles in Ankara is that the Israeli failure to deliver the Heron systems ultimately made the military less inclined to dispute the government’s decision to disinvite Israel from Anatolian Eagle.  The lack of competition in procurement processes has created rumors about corruption. These allegations, along with the lack of the procurement of technical specifications at the user level, have created disappointment and fueled resentment against the Israeli systems.

Furthermore, the developments in Northern Iraq with its impact on the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey have been another important cause of the disenchantment of the Turkish military establishment with Israel. The view that Israel seeks to help create an independent Kurdistan has come to be widely held among the Turkish military, which has viewed the training given by Israeli security units to the Kurdish forces of Northern Iraq with great suspicion. Taken together, Israel’s presumed support for an independent Kurdistan, and the disappointments experienced in the area of defense industry projects have made forces in the Turkish military more resentful of Israel.

CONCLUSIONS: In terms of economics and business interests, Turkey has little to gain from steering too close to Israel, as the country’s economic ties with the Arab and Muslim world has expanded vastly over the last decade. Yet, it is the convergence of religious conservatism, represented by the ruling AKP, and the nationalism of a disenchanted military establishment that has grown increasingly resentful of the role Israel is assumed to play in Iraq, that has set Turkey’s downgrading of its relations with Israel in a particularly radical ideological context.

The attitude toward the Jewish “other” offers a prism through which the ideological affiliation of Turks – historically as well as currently – may be appraised. In that perspective, it becomes clear that the new, Islamic conservative elite of the republic has not yet broken with the mindset of the past, which divided the world into Muslims and non-Muslims. Indeed, the Islamic conservatives as well as the secularist nationalists come across as similarly apt to be suspicious of the Jewish “other”. They are parented heirs to an illiberal tradition that has flourished throughout the nominally secular republican era. Ultimately, that convergence suggests that Turkey’s modernizing aspirations – yesterday represented by Kemalist nationalists, today by Islamic conservatives – remain hampered by an inability to fully internalize the values of liberal, universal civilization.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst. M.K. Kaya is a contributing editor.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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