Updated: December 24, 2012 7:05AM
Anyone looking for hopeful signs of the role democratically elected Islamist governments might play in international affairs will find disappointment in how Turkey irresponsibly exploited the Israel-Hamas fighting with bluster, lies and fanatical characterizations of the Jewish state.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel a “terrorist state” and accused it of “ethnic cleansing” when its only offense is defending its citizens against rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip by the terrorist organization Hamas.
These wild, baseless accusations are evidence of how far Turkey has descended from its once worthy role as a moderate player in the Middle East and a power broker in the region. Before Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party won and then cemented its power with increasingly authoritarian actions, the country enjoyed amiable political relations with Israel and the two nations were allies. It was a favorite travel destination for Israelis.
Turkey is a member of NATO and once sought membership in the European Union, a drive it bitterly saw opposed by some European nations suspicious of its commitment to Western values, suspicions that, as it turns out, are being proved well founded.
Erdogan began spouting anti-Israel bilge, notably after previous Israel-Hamas fighting in the winter of 2008-09. More egregiously, Turkey backed the notorious 2010 flotilla of ships that tried to break Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza preventing arms smuggling to terrorists. That ended badly when Israeli forces boarding one ship were attacked by militants on board and several of them were killed. Now comes Erdogan’s irresponsible bombast in the latest crisis.
Don’t think Turkey’s turn for the worse is limited to Israel. The ascendancy of Islamist politics there has unleashed anti-Western and anti-American sentiments. A few years ago the most popular movie in the country was “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” a nasty bit of propaganda accusing U.S. soldiers of murder and mayhem in Iraq and, in a replay of an infamous anti-Semitic libel, portraying a Jewish doctor taking the organs of the dead to sell to rich Westerners. Recall that Turkey blocked one route the U.S. military wanted to use in the Iraq invasion.
With the anti-Western sentiment has come rejection of Western values of free speech, right of dissent and the rule of law. Thousands of people — lawyers, politicians, military officers and journalists — have been rounded up in waves of arrests in what frequently looks like persecution of political opponents. Last month, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that Turkey “has waged one of the world’s biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history” with repressive laws imprisoning more journalists than such familiar human-rights violators as Iran, Eritrea and China.
If Erdogan is looking for an ethnic group in need of aid, he need not look to Gaza but to his own backyard. Kurds in Turkey have long sought civil rights, at times even their own nation, only to be violently put down as terrorists. Now Erdogan embraces the genocidal terrorists of Hamas. That resonates with a dark chapter of Turkey’s history — the Ottoman extermination of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War I.
Turkey is proving to be a cautionary tale for those optimists who hope for moderation from Islamist governments elevated to power by the turmoil across the Middle East.