The increasingly punitive and xenophobic discourse adopted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in recent years has done a huge disservice to the fight against Islamophobia, dealing a blow to the decades-long efforts of organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Hizmet movement in international forums.
Erdoğan's hateful discourse makes it difficult to combat growing Islamophobia in the West because he strengthens the arguments of proponents of anti-Islamic sentiments when he uses distasteful discourse snubbing the rule of law and fundamental human rights.
Erdoğan on German president: He still thinks of himself as a pastor
This intolerance was seen last year when President Erdoğan responded to criticism from visiting German President Joachim Gauck about press freedom and increasing government control over the judiciary by accusing the German president of acting un-statesmanlike “probably because he still thinks of himself as a pastor." Gauck was also told by Erdoğan that he should keep his advice to himself.
German leaders, among them President Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel, came together last week to support a vigil organized by the German Muslims Council (ZMD) and the Turkish Berlin Community (TGB) to protest the extremist views that have been surfacing in Europe in the wake of Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) rallies in Germany and a recent terrorist attack in Paris.
Erdoğan chose to attack the German head of state based on his past record of being a Lutheran pastor instead of addressing legitimate concerns raised by the German president. David Kramer, the head of US-based watchdog Freedom House, was also singled out by pro-government media as being Jewish and allegedly having close ties to neoconservatives in the US after Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its annual report in 2013.
Erdoğan has frequently indicated that Jewish conspiracies were behind the Gezi Park protests in 2013, saying the "interest lobby" -- a murky and obscure reference to Jewish investors and bankers -- was driving the anti-government rallies.
Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Hurşit Güneş talked to Sunday's Zaman, stating that although it was not possible to speak directly against the president of Turkey, he felt that the president should encompass everyone and refrain from alienating certain sections of society. “He [President Erdoğan] must do justice to his post,” he said.
“As you remember, nine of our youngsters were killed by police forces during the Gezi protests due to [hemorrhages caused by tear] gas canisters. One, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, died of an assault,” said the veteran CHP deputy. “But no condolences were sent to their families. Why? Because they weren't of the mainstream Sunni sect. They were Alevis,” he added.
Erdoğan added fuel to the fire last March when he suggested that slain teenager Berkin Elvan, 15 years old and one of the teens killed during the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013, was a member of a terrorist organization and defended police who killed him. Hundreds of thousands of people bid farewell to Elvan, who was hit in the head by a police tear gas canister during the protests and lost his battle for life on March 11.
After a vast corruption scandal broke out when graft probes incriminating Erdoğan and his close associates were made public on Dec. 17, 2013, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan again accused Israel and the West of orchestrating the investigations to topple his government.
On the campaign trail for the municipal elections on March 30, Erdoğan also accused what he called “domestic collaborators” of conspiring with Western forces to topple him and his government. These included opposition parties, major business groups, media conglomerates and the Hizmet movement -- a faith-based grassroots movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
The corruption scandal revealed that Erdoğan's hate speech is not limited to non-Muslims. He has singled out Gülen, an advocate of interfaith dialogue who inspired a powerful, apolitical social movement that places emphasis on the empowerment of Muslims through science and education, as his number-one enemy.
Gülen's critical stand against corruption and refusal to be cowed into silence prompted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to openly take a hostile position against the Hizmet movement. In public rallies leading up to the municipal and presidential elections in 2014, Erdoğan slammed Gülen for having met with Pope John Paul II in 1998 and called him a "false prophet,” a "traitor," a "virus" and "hashashin" -- a member of a medieval order that spread political influence through assassinations -- among other slanderous terms.
Gülen is known for being the first among the international Muslim community to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Gülen had an article published in The Washington Post one day after the attacks in which he employed the now oft-used phrase “No terrorist can be a Muslim, and no true Muslim can be a terrorist.”
The destructive speeches delivered by Erdoğan continued throughout the campaign trail for two major elections. Defamation articles published by Erdoğan-controlled media outlets unrelentingly stigmatized Jews, Christians and even moderate Muslims who refused to conform to Erdoğan's brand of political Islamist ideology.
In the ultimate show of how the contest for power can damage the fight against Islamophobia, Erdoğan and his associates unleashed a smear campaign against Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former OIC secretary-general and a Turkish diplomat, during last year's presidential election.
Erdoğan wrongly accused İhsanoğlu of siding with Israel during the bombing of Gaza in the summer of 2014 though İhsanoğlu said one cannot afford to remain neutral in a fight between an oppressor and a victim. İhsanoğlu, like Gülen, was targeted by pro-government media and Erdoğan for meeting with Pope Francis in December 2013.
İhsanoğlu, the ninth secretary-general of the OIC -- who was successful in coordinating the advancement of measures to tackle discriminatory practices against Muslims with the US administration and the European Union -- is known as the one of the most accomplished international personalities in raising awareness about Islamophobia.
At a rally in İzmir during his election campaign in August, Erdoğan publicly pointed out that CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi and that the presidential candidate of the Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, is of Zaza ethnic background, in what many saw as the pinnacle of Erdoğan's polarizing rhetoric.
During the presidential election campaign, Erdoğan also made offensive remarks concerning people of Georgian and Armenian descent. In response to a question posed during a joint broadcast of Star TV and NTV in August 2014 regarding the negative reaction these words have drawn, Erdoğan said: “They have also said a lot of things about me. One of them came and said I was a Georgian. Then another came up and, I beg your pardon, called me uglier things, saying I was Armenian.”
‘What's the difference between Turkey and Saudi Arabia?'
Latif Taş, an academic of Turkish origin residing in the UK, spoke to Sunday's Zaman, stating: “In the past the Turkish position was different. Turkey was seen as a modern, moderate country. People used to say, ‘Look, not all Muslims are the same.'”
Taş, a researcher and independent consultant at Oxford University, continued: “Turkey was making Islamophobia weaker. Before, only Saddam and Gaddafi used to make headlines in the West, and not in a good way. Turkey used to counteract that. But now Turkey's position has changed.”
Stating that President Erdoğan is not only targeting groups but also individuals -- as when Erdoğan reprimanded a person sitting down outside and smoking, saying: "Where are your manners? He is still smoking despite the president having told him not to" -- Taş said: “There's a bad feeling toward Turkey now. This rhetoric has weakened Turkey's position [in the West] and strengthened the arguments of those supporting Islamophobia.”
Mentioning that Turkey is not doing enough to distance itself from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Dr. Taş said: “People are starting to see Turkey as a country aiding ISIL and are saying Turkey has jailed journalists. They are asking, ‘What is the difference between Turkey and Saudi Arabia now?'”
The harsh narrative and extremist language publicly employed by Erdoğan is certainly taking a toll on the fight against discriminatory practices against Muslims. It is clear that with this kind of rhetoric, Erdoğan is hampering efforts to bridge the great divide between religions on the basis of fundamental human rights, as he is in fact reinforcing biases towards Muslims in the rest of the world with his unwelcome antics targeting people at home and abroad.
Published on Today's Zaman, 17 January 2015, Saturday