Talking Turkey: Risky Moves

Jewish Light Editorial

The expression “talking turkey” is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “to discuss in a straightforward and direct manner.” There is a more pungent Yiddish equivalent to the expression called “talking tachlis,” or getting down to brass tacks. It is past the time for such a discussion on Turkey, the nation that launched the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the Gaza flotilla incident. The resulting violent confrontation led to the deaths of nine “activists” on board, all of whom were Turkish citizens (one held a dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship), along with several injuries among Israeli soldiers.

Until quite recently Turkey was accurately described as “Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world.” The two nations had cordial diplomatic relations going back for decades, and joint military exercises between Turkish and Israeli forces were an annual event of great strategic importance. When Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence in 2008, the Turkish Consul General for the Midwest issued warm greetings to the Jewish communities of Chicago and St. Louis. Turkey was playing a constructive diplomatic role in attempting to broker peace between Israel and Syria based on their positive ties with both governments. The 23,000-member Jewish community in Turkey has always felt welcome and protected by the Turkish government, and thankfully that continues.

Turkey’s willingness as a Muslim (but not Arab) majority state to have cordial relations with the Jewish State of Israel result from modern Turkey’s strong secular tradition. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, a strongly secular government for modern Turkey was established by the progressive and secular leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Under Ataturk, a strong separation of mosque and state principle was established, placing all formal governing powers in the hands of the secular government and limiting the imams and mullahs to the leadership of their mosques. Similar religious freedoms were granted to the Christian and Jewish populations, the latter of which traces its roots back to the period after the Spanish Inquisition and Edict of Expulsion 500 years ago, when many Jews found safe haven in Turkey.

The strong Ataturk traditions of secularism and separation of mosque and state began to erode with the government of the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took office in 2003. Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party was initially described as “moderately Islamist,” which seemed accurate until the Turkish government’s recent shift away from its strong pro-Western ties and towards the more radical elements of the Islamic world. Last month there were shocking photographs of Erdogan and Brazil’s President Lula da Silva in Tehran, flanking the fanatic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran as they announced a deal on nuclear fuel that was designed to circumvent the new sanctions regime approved by the U.N. Security Council.

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A longtime member of NATO, Turkey (which had applied for membership in the European Union) has clearly shifted from a pro-Western and moderate orientation towards anti-Western, pro-Islamist radicalism – from the tradition of Ataturk Modernist Revolution to the fanaticism of the Ayatollahs of the Iranian Jihadist Revolution.

Turkey has canceled joint military exercises and other cooperative projects with Israel, and its official involvement in the launching of the flotilla’s lead ship with the express purpose of provoking a confrontation with Israel proves that the Erdogan regime is playing a dangerous game. The Turkish Army has long been loyal to the modernist and secularist traditions of Ataturk, and when a previous Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, formed a coalition with the Islamic Welfare Party, the military intervened to prevent radical Islam from seizing power in Turkey.

Thus far, Turkey has not broken formal diplomatic relations with Israel, although it has withdrawn its ambassador to the Jewish State. Turkey would certainly not have welcomed an outside nation interfering with its own struggles with Kurdish separatist groups in its own borders, or attempting to provoke a confrontation over the nation’s illegal Turkish “Republic” on the island nation of Cyprus.

We hope that wiser heads will prevail so that Turkey returns to the modernist principles of Kemal Ataturk and away from the radical Islamist movements in Iran and in Gaza and Lebanon. Erdogan’s recent actions are a contributing to the instability of the already volatile Middle East and it is time that its NATO allies, including the United States call them back into the fold.