By Burak Bekdil
March 14, 2017
Turkey, officially, is a candidate for full
membership in the European Union. It is also negotiating with Brussels a deal
that would allow millions of Turks to travel to Europe without visa. But Turkey
is not like any other European country that joined or will join the EU: The
Turks' choice of a leader, in office since 2002, too visibly makes this country
the odd one out.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who
is now campaigning to broaden his constitutional powers, which would make him
head of state, head of government and head of the ruling party -- all at the
same time -- is inherently autocratic and anti-Western. He seems to view
himself as a great Muslim leader fighting armies of infidel crusaders. This
image with which he portrays himself finds powerful echoes among millions of
conservative Turks and [Sunni] Islamists across the Middle East. That, among
other excesses in the Turkish style, makes Turkey totally incompatible with
Europe in political culture.
Yet, there is always the lighter side of
things. Take, for example, Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara and a bigwig in Erdogan's
Justice and Development Party (AKP). In February Gokcek claimed that
earthquakes in a western Turkish province could have been organized by dark
external powers (read: Western infidels) aiming to destroy Turkey's economy
with an "artificial earthquake" near Istanbul. According to this
conspiracy theory, the mayor not only claims that the earthquake in western
Turkey was the work of the U.S. and Israel, but also that the U.S. created the
radical Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, according to him, the U.S. and Israel
colluded to trigger an earthquake in Turkey so they could capture energy from
the Turkish fault line.
Matters between Turkey and Europe are far
more tense today than ridiculous statements from politicians who want to look
pretty to Erdogan. The president, willingly ignoring his own strong
anti-Semitic views, recently accused Germany of "fascist actions"
reminiscent of Nazi times, in a growing row over the cancellation of political
rallies aimed at drumming up support for him among 1.5 million Turkish citizens
The Dutch, Erdogan apparently thinks, are
no different. In a similar diplomatic row over Turkish political rallies in the
Netherlands, Erdogan described the Dutch government as "Nazi remnants and
fascists." After barring Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from
entering the country by airplane, the Dutch authorities also escorted another
Turkish minister out of the country. Quite a humiliation, no doubt. An angry
Erdogan promised the Netherlands would pay a price for that.
Europe, not just Germany and the
Netherlands, looks united in not allowing Erdogan to export Turkey's highly
tense and sometimes even violent political polarization into the Old Continent.
There are media reports that the owner of a venue in the Swedish capital,
Stockholm, has now cancelled a pro-Erdogan rally, although Sweden's foreign
ministry said it was not involved in the decision.
Europe's anti-Erdogan sentiment is going
viral. Denmark's prime minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen, said that he asked his
Turkish counterpart, Binali Yildirim, to postpone a planned visit because of
tensions between Turkey and the Netherlands.
Although Turkey thanked France for allowing
Foreign Minister Cavusoglu to address a gathering of Turkish "expats"
in the city of Metz, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called on
Turkish authorities to "avoid excesses and provocations."
None of the incidents that forcefully point
to Europe's "Turkish awakening" happened out of the blue. At the
beginning of February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdogan held a tense
meeting in Ankara. Erdogan clearly rejected Merkel's mention of "Islamist
terror" on grounds that "the expression saddens Muslims because Islam
and terror cannot coexist."
The row came at a time when a German investigation
into Turkish imams in Germany spying on Erdogan's foes made signs of reaching
out to other parts of Europe. Peter Pilz, an Austrian lawmaker, said that he
was in possession of documents from 30 countries that revealed a "global
spying network" at Turkish diplomatic missions.
At the beginning of March, after Turkey
said it would defy opposition from German and Dutch authorities and continue
holding rallies in both countries, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern called
for an EU-wide ban on campaign appearances by Turkish politicians.
In response, further challenging Europe,
Turkey arrested Deniz Yucel, a Turkish-German reporter for a prominent German
newspaper, Die Welt, on charges of "propaganda in support of a terrorist
organization and inciting the public to violence." Yucel had been detained
after he reported on emails that a leftist hacker collective had purportedly
obtained from the private account of Berat Albayrak, Turkey's energy minister
and Erdogan's son-in-law.
Erdogan's propaganda war on
"infidel" Europe has the potential to further poison both bilateral
relations with individual countries and with Europe as a bloc. Not even the
Turkish "expats" are happy. The leader of Germany's Turkish community
accused Erdogan of damaging ties between the two NATO allies. Gokay Sofuoglu,
chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, which is an umbrella for 270
member organizations, said: "Erdogan went a step too far. Germany should
not sink to his level."
The most recent wave of tensions between
Erdogan's Turkey and Europe, which it theoretically aspires to join, have once
again unveiled the long-tolerated incompatibility between Turkey's
predominantly conservative, Islamist and often anti-Western political culture
and Europe's liberal values.
Turkey increasingly looks like Saddam
Hussein's Iraq. During my 1989 visit to Iraq a Turkish-speaking government
guide refused to discuss Iraqi politics, justifying his reluctance as: "In
Iraq half the population are spies... spying on the other half." Erdogan's
Turkey has officially embarked on a journey toward Western democracy. Instead,
its Islamist mindset is at war with Western democracy.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the
Middle East Forum.