It’s a familiar pattern.
The citizens of a Middle Eastern state explode with frustration against their corrupt, repressive government.
They gather for noisy, impassioned demonstrations in their capital city. The authorities react violently. Images of middle-aged women and wheelchair-bound men being tear-gassed, clubbed, and sprayed with water cannon race across social media platforms like wildfire. The protests then spread to other cities. The authorities step up their repression.
And then, inevitably, the country’s political leaders snarl that outside forces are stoking the discontent. Newspapers and websites are suddenly full of lists of American neoconservatives, illustrated with lurid graphics that superimpose the logos of organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee over pictures of demonstrations. No one needs to say the word “Jew” in order to know who’s being referred to here.
So where is this happening?
In Bahrain? Egypt? Tunisia?
Actually, no. What I’m describing is taking place in a non-Arab, inwardly Muslim but outwardly secular candidate nation for European Union membership.
The protests there began on May 31, when an initially small group of activists gathered in Istanbul to voice opposition to the redevelopment of the city’s Gezi Park. But the anger quickly escalated into an all-out confrontation with the Islamist government of Reccep Tayyip Erdogan. Many Turks are fed up with the slow yet inexorable Islamization of their country, which Erdogan has begun.
Specifically, they are fed up with Erdogan’s promotion of conservative Islamic dress codes; with his demand that married couples have at least three children; with his prohibitions on the sale of alcohol and his opposition to abortion; with his scolding of couples who dare to smooch in public; and with his clampdown on freedom of speech and of the media, which has resulted in more journalists in prison in Turkey than in any other country in the world. As the German magazine Der Spiegel pointed out recently, Turkey’s enthusiasm for incarcerating journalists – by some estimates, more than 60 are now in jail – beats the records of even China and Iran.
It always was unrealistic to expect that an arrogant autocrat like Erdogan would listen to the demands of the protestors. His standard response has been to fulminate against shadowy plots hatched by Marxists, Kurdish separatists, and – most of all – Jews.
As the Turkish demonstrations were reaching their height this month, the conservative newspaper Yeni Safak published an article that featured a “rogues gallery” of prominent American neoconservatives-Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and so forth – as well as a photo of a masked protestor flanked by the logos of the American Enterprise Institute think tank and AIPAC. The thrust of the article was clear: the protests are being actively encouraged by a group of Jews hell-bent on war with the Islamic world. In tone and substance, it was thoroughly in line with other anti-Semitic screeds published by Yeni Safak – for example, a 2005 article that warned “Jewish paranoia” was at the root of the Middle East conflicts and predicted that this same paranoia would one day “destroy the Jews themselves.”
If you really want to see a plot, though, look no further than Erdogan himself. Yeni Safak is owned by Berat Albayrak, who is married to Erdogan’s daughter. (Their wedding ceremony was broadcast live on Turkish television.) Berat’s brother, Serhat Albayrak, is a press advisor to Erdogan, while their father, Mustafa, is the head of Albayrak Holdings, a construction company that has prospered visibly under the present Islamist government. The company recently issued a nervous denial that it had been awarded the contract to build a shopping mall on the ground now occupied by Gezi Park – the very same affront which sparked the protests in the first place.
When this intimate network of familial and business ties is considered properly, it stretches credibility to think that Erdogan somehow is unaware of Yeni Safak’s vile Jew-baiting. Indeed, when you introduce Erdogan’s consistent assaults on Israel into the equation – like his recent outrageous declaration that Zionism is a “crime against humanity” – you can see perfectly well how such attacks serve his broader political interests. After all, blaming the Jews is what Middle Eastern autocrats do.
Which brings me to the issue of Turkey’s bid for EU membership. There’s a widespread impression that the bid, launched as far back as 1999, is unlikely to result in full membership. But that’s not what Erdogan believes. He is adamant that Turkey is entitled to EU membership, and his virulent reaction to the European Parliament’s recent condemnation of his government’s repressive acts – “I don’t recognize you!” he roared in response – is a sign of his growing impatience.
To their credit, so far EU leaders have proven that they have something of the backbone that many observers have doubted they possess. Stefan Fule, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, told an audience in Istanbul, which included Erdogan, of the need to “aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices…. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully, and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.”
Now Germany, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is stepping up the pressure on Erdogan. Following Merkel’s description of the government’s response to the protests as “appalling,” the Germans are blocking forthcoming talks to move Turkey’s accession bid further down the line.
But the fundamental question remains unresolved: Should Turkey be admitted to the EU? It is easy to see how EU membership would boost the fortunes of those courageous Turks who have risked life and limb in their confrontation with Erdogan. Equally, the Europe that emerged after the Second World War cannot, by its very nature, tolerate the kind of government that has hospitalized more than 7,000 of its own citizens simply for exercising their right to protest peacefully. And it certainly cannot tolerate the kind of anti-Semitic agitation that brings to mind the worst excesses of the 1930s.