from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Turkey: Hello, I Must Be Going

November 4, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I first arrived in Turkey on a chilly, gray afternoon in early October 1992.  I had been living in Jerusalem studying Arabic and Hebrew—this was during my Arab-Israeli conflict stage—when the guy with whom I was sharing a flat suggested that we backpack through Turkey during the month that Israel was essentially closed for Jewish holidays.  When we landed in Istanbul, we pulled out a used Lonely Planet, and somehow managed to communicate—Mark, who is now a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech, spoke pretty good German, which helped a bit—to a taxi driver that we wanted to go to the Orient Hostel in Sultanahmet.  We knew nothing about the place, just that it was cheap and sounded decent.  Wistful for my early twenties, whenever I find myself in Sultanahmet, which is pretty rare these days, I take a stroll past the place.

That trip has stayed with me like none other.  From the Sumela monastery near Trabzon, the Alps-like hills near Uzungol, the grit of Erzurum, the haunting ruins of Ani, and the Kurdish wedding we unexpectedly attended in Dogubeyazit, to the weirdly severe and austere architecture of Ankara, the amazing caves of Cappadocia, the long walk through the Ilhara Valley, and finally the warm, soft waves of the Mediterranean in the seaside village of Side, I fell for Turkey.  What had started out as a goof turned into a new area of inquiry and interest.  Until then for me Turkey was a country run by a guy named Turgut Ozal of whom President George H. W. Bush seemed to be particularly fond.  It was a big Muslim country that had been the colonial power in the Middle East for 500 years or so, but my interest lay with the Arab world, specifically Palestinians, and their conflict with the Israelis.

After I returned to Jerusalem from Turkey toting a Fenerbahce jersey and a large Turkish flag as souvenirs, I began to read about Turkish history and politics.  Books by Bernard Lewis, Kemal Karpat, and Feroz Ahmad were my formal introductions to the country.  It was almost exactly seven years after my backpacking adventure, when the Turkish General Staff succeeded in ending the country’s first experiment with Islamist-led government, that gave me an insight that led to my dissertation and later my first book. I suppose that for as long as I have been working on the Middle East professionally, people might have assumed that I am, and always have been, an Egypt obsessive, but it was Turkey that had an earlier impact on my intellectual development.

Besides piquing my curiosity, one of the things that stuck with me all these years was the uncommon kindness of everyone I/we met during those four weeks on the road.  Turks looked after us, made sure we got on the correct bus, took the right dolmus, and helped us find hotels/hostels in out-of-the-way places.  One memorable moment came when Mark and I sat down at a local restaurant the afternoon we arrived in Dogubeyazit.  As we stuffed ourselves silly, a bunch of large men, dressed in black and toting military rifles, sat down next to us.  They looked at us and we looked at them.  We discovered through their broken English that they were Turkish soldiers of some sort (we assumed they were special forces operators) who were fighting the PKK in the nearby mountains.  They made it clear to us—in the nicest way possible for guys with large guns—that we should not leave our hotel after dark.  We appreciated the heads-up and were a bit freaked out that we stupidly stumbled into a war zone, and grabbed the first bus out of town the next morning, to where I do not remember.  Another time when a bus never showed up in a small town where we spent the night, a guy took pity on the two yabanci and drove us to a town where he knew we could find transportation to our next destination.  He refused our efforts to pay him for his trouble.

The warm feelings toward Turkey and Turks that I developed in the early 1990s  were only reinforced some years later when my wife and I lived in Ankara for an extended period of time.  I am sorry to say, however, that they have begun to wane. Turkey is endlessly fascinating, but it is no longer fun.  I cherish my friendships with Turks and value my professional relationship with a long list of Turkish academics, journalists, and business leaders, but there is no denying any longer the fact that the environment for someone like me has become downright hostile.

For the better part of the last three years, it seems that every time I write about Turkey, I am subjected to a stream of disturbing and conspiracy-laden criticism that almost always concludes that my arguments about Turkey’s eroding strategic position in the Middle East or the illiberal turn in its domestic politics are not a function of research and careful analysis. Rather, to Turkish officials, journalists, a few academics, and a slew of Twitter trolls, my work reflects my Jewish faith and thus some kind of special attachment to Israel and the Israel lobby that compels me to compromise my professional integrity to smear Turkey for the benefit of the Netanyahu government. Anyone who has spent any time reading my work would know that this is fantasy.  They would also know that I welcome substantive critiques on the merits of my arguments.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am indeed Jewish, though my religion has never been a factor in my work.  I have Israeli friends and I also have three Mexico-born second cousins who, by dint of their American mother’s second marriage to an Israeli national, spent part of their lives growing up in greater Tel Aviv.  One is now a successful artist in Mexico City, another teaches English literature at the University of Georgia, and the other lives near Haifa with his wife and children.  I have also spoken to AIPAC groups.

It is easy to dismiss the fairly regular attacks on me and my identity as nonsense and the unfortunate price I pay for working on controversial topics, but it has gone well beyond the bounds of civil discourse and belies Turkish claims to being an inclusive and tolerant society.  I do not know how many times I have heard how the Ottoman Empire accepted the Jews of Spain during the Inquisition and how the remnant of that community remains and thrives in Istanbul and Izmir.  Yet that was a long time ago and from what I understand, Turkish Jews are leaving for the United States, Canada, Europe, and Israel because they no longer feel welcome in their own home.

There is no direct evidence that the Justice and Development Party or government officials are engaged in an effort to smear crudely and delegitimize critics of Turkish policy, but they have certainly created an environment in which it has become the norm.  In my own case, it began when I wrote a piece in May 2011 for Foreign titled, “Arab Spring, Turkish Fall,” in which I observed that for a variety of structural, historical, and political factors, Turkey was unlikely to lead the Middle East in ways that Ankara and its cheerleaders in the West assumed.  Almost immediately I began hearing from friends who relayed to me inquiries from journalists and people in official circles in Ankara asking if I had written such a critical piece because I am Jewish.  Of course, my religious background did not matter when I wrote “Cheering an Islamist Victory” for the Boston Globe in July 2007 after AKP garnered 47 percent of the popular vote in that year’s national elections.  More recently, a Turkish journalist named Kahraman Haliscelik who works for Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) in New York City wondered on Twitter why I was no longer a “friend of Turkey,” suggesting that I was working on behalf of Israel.

Until now, I have chosen to ignore these creepy slurs.  Why bother giving this kind of stuff credence? Yet in the last six months, something has changed.  Turkish political discourse is darker and the attacks on foreign observers of Turkish politics have become relentless.  During the Gezi Park protests, the thuggish mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, accused a BBC reporter of Turkish origin of being a traitor because she was reporting on the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in his city.  Recently, a Dutch journalist named Bram Vermeulen, was informed that his press card was not renewed and that he would not be permitted back into Turkey after his current visa expires, apparently in revenge for his reporting on Turkey’s recent tumult.  The Gezi Park protests represent an important point of departure for the AKP establishments and its supporters. Rather than a cause for introspection about why so many Turks—though not a majority by any means—are angry at their government, the ruling party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cynically framed the narrative in a way that places blame for Turkey’s political turbulence on outsiders seeking to bring the country to its knees.  The fact that they have been successful speaks to the continuing trauma of the post-WWI period when foreigners—the British, Greeks, French, and Italians—did actually seek to carve up Anatolia.  As a result, a depressingly large number of Turks blamed CNN, the BBC, the “interest rate lobby,” “Zionists,” the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Rubin for the events surrounding Gezi.

In reality the outrage on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara this past summer had nothing to do with foreigners, but that did not stop a veritable army of AKP’s followers, government ministers, and a variety of bootlickers from questioning the integrity of those of us who were telling the world what was happening around them.  Among the worst was Nasuhi Gungor, the head of TRT’s Turkish-language service.  Gungor poses as a journalist, but is little more than a propagandist for the Justice and Development Party.  When I was dodging teargas on Istiklal Cadessi on the night of June 15, 2013, he tweeted:

“@stevenacook is a [sic] islamophobic zionist hanging around Istiklal. If anybody identify him be careful about provocations!”

This was clearly an effort to intimidate me.  It did not have the desired effect, but it unleashed what seemed like thousands of Twitter trolls hurling the worst kind of invective.  Another pathetic and disturbing display came from Edibe Sozen, a former AKP deputy and professor of sociology at Marmara University.  Over Twitter she conveyed an unrelenting paranoia wanting to know why I was in Turkey, who sent me, and what my mission was.

Perhaps the most grotesque distortion of what it means to be a journalist in contemporary Turkey came more recently in the pro-AKP newspaper Yeni Safak thanks to someone named Yakup Kocaman.  On October 21 he published a front page story alleging that David Ignatius, the Council on Foreign Relations, Raytheon and I fabricated a story about Turkey blowing an Israeli spy ring in Iran because Raytheon was unhappy that it lost a contract with the Turkish military for air supply defense missiles to a Chinese firm. And, also I am a “neocon,” which in current Turkish discourse is a synonym for “Jew.”

The only one doing any fabricating was Kocaman.  There is no record that Kocaman ever called my office, called the communications department at CFR, spoke to anyone in the executive office at CFR, or even bothered to read what my co-author, Michael Koplow, and I actually wrote about David Ignatius’s explosive allegations in the Washington Post on October 16. In the interest of full disclosure, in my ten years at CFR, I have met David Ignatius a handful of times during which it became clear that we don’t agree on very much about the Middle East, I do not know anyone from Raytheon, and CFR is a non-partisan, non-profit, independent membership organization and think tank.  It is important to point out that Kocaman is making serious allegations against an organization that has hosted President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Ali Babacan, Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis, and various AKP parliamentarians.

Kocaman is clearly a fraud, but of course, this did not stop other parts of the Turkish press.  Ferhat Unlu of Sabah followed Kocaman with his own rambling article blowing the cover on Turkey’s “opponents” in Washington.  This would not be worth much in the way of comment, but for the fact that while actual professional journalists in Turkey—of which there are many—cower in the corner for fear of being fired for criticizing the government, people like Gungor, Kocaman, Unlu, and Haliscelik  frame the terms of debate.  Needless to say, this is unhealthy for Turkey’s democratic development.

Turks are fond of saying that “good friends speak bitterly to good friends.”  It’s a very nice aphorism, but it is not true.  Turks only like it one way.  If you dare offer a critique of Turkish politics, supporters of the government will attack you, your professional ethics, your employer, and your very identity.  A sad state of affairs.    


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