A young American man with black hair and dark brown eyes checked into a small hotel in Capadaccio, where visitors to Turkey flock to see the famous lava formations carved into the landscape.
“Are you Muslim?” the clerk asked, acknowledging his Semitic features.
“No, I’m Jewish,” the young man replied, smiling and assuming the question was asked in good faith and good humor.
“Oh, the clerk replied, disappointment in his voice. “This is not a good time for Jews in Turkey.”
A general observation rather than a personal one, but it was true enough. This is not a good time for Jews in Turkey. The bond between Israel and Turkey, once strong, is now frayed and weak. The closeness of the two modern countries was forged in their dedication to democratic secularism, with strong trade, military ties and unifying attitudes toward economic growth binding them together. Turkey was the first country with a Muslim majority to recognize the state of Israel.
The idea that modern Turks stood securely with the West was clear not only by their close connection to Israel, but in their adherence to separation of church and state, and the Latin alphabet. Fashions have told the tale, too. After enactment of the Hat Law of 1925, the fez was diminished to a trinket for tourists, replaced first by the straw Panama and then the felt fedora. Today, most men in the cities, like most men in the West, go bare-headed. Turbans, associated with the sultans in the celebrated tales of the Arabian Nights, are worn by doormen at cafes, mostly for visitors in search of picturesque photo-ops. Veils for women are gone, too, along with the harem of Topkapi, now the famous museum.
Western dress is associated with Western ideas, and the ideas - but not the dress - seem to be disappearing. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has turned away sharply from the West.
Israel is the canary in the coal mine, the first to breathe the toxic fumes of political change as the Turks seek to win Islamist friends. The government expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut military ties with Israel after the Israelis refused to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish “activists” on a ship in a Turkish-based flotilla attempting to break the Israeli embargo to Gaza. Israel has expressed “regret for the loss of life,” and a United Nations investigation concluded that the Israeli blockade was legal and the Israeli commandos acted only in the face of “organized and violent resistance.”
The Turkish reaction sounds like a ploy to signal Islamists that Turkey is on their side. “While diplomats and generals too often ascribe tensions between Turkey and the West to a reaction to the Iraq War,” says Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, “or disappointment with the slow pace of the European Union-accession process, or anger at the death of nine Turks killed in a clash with Israeli forces aboard the blockade-challenging Mavi Marmara, in reality Turkey’s break from the West was the result of a deliberate and steady strategy initiated by Mr. Erdogan upon assuming the reins of government.” Mr. Erdogan emphasized his secularism initially and Western officials, eager to believe him, ignored his record and his party’s ties to Islamist ideology.
“Thank God Almighty,” said Mr. Erdogan in 1994, when he was the mayor of Istanbul. “I am a servant of Shariah.” His favorite newspaper, an anti-Western daily, espouses “neo-Ottomism,” celebrating Turkey’s imperial past in contrast to Attaturk’s modernism. Many in the West hailed his reduction of the army, but he destroyed the check-and-balance role of the military without putting a civilian alternative in its place. The prime minister has locked up without charges secular officers, journalists and opposition leaders.
Western governments presumed that Turkey allowed NATO to build a radar station on its soil to monitor a nuclear threat from Iran, but on a recent trip to Africa, Mr. Erdogan made a point of saying that the real nuclear threat is from Israel. He dallied on imposing sanctions against Syrian repression and now says the United Nations should sanction Israel.
When a young populist politician in 1999, Mr. Erdogan ran afoul of Turkey’s constitutionally mandated secularism and was imprisoned for reciting a poem expressing militant Islam: “Minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks, and the believers our army.” Many Turks, who have learned that keeping a low profile is the better part of survival, fear Mr. Erdogan was not merely reciting poesy, but speaking his mind and biding his time.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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