In January 2005, MEMRI launched its Turkish Media Project, which translates press reports from that country. The need for the project arose following reports of unprecedented anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, beginning in November 2002 when the Justice and Development Party, under the leadership of its Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took over the country.
Certain corners called on MEMRI to stop its work on this subject following the project's first few releases: Turkish lobbyists in Washington, D.C., the foreign ministry of Turkey, and leading American Jewish organizations have all attempted to stifle the research. (This calculated attempt will be the subject of a column in the coming weeks).
Additionally, on April 6, 2005, the vice consul at the Turkish Consul General, Murat Omeroglu, sent an animated letter to The New York Sun in response to this author's March 23, 2005, column, “Turkey's Spiritual Submission.” Mr. Omeroglu argued that the column falsely accused Turkey of being anti-American and failing to participate as a full partner in the War on Terror. The article focused on neither point, although anti-Americanism in Turkey is rampant – a BBC poll conducted last year found Turkey to hold the most anti-American sentiment in the world.
“Turkey's Spiritual Submission” rather spoke to the cause of the recent tension between America and Turkey - the Islamist Justice and Development Party and its leader. It included a photo, which originally appeared in the Turkish daily Star Gazette, that showed an Afghan jihad leader with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, with two men kneeling at his feet. One was Mr. Erdogan. The Star Gazette's caption read, “Taliban in the armchair, kneeling is the Prime Minister.” My column highlighted the cultural significance of sitting at another's feet in Islamic tradition: It implies spiritual submission. Mr. Hikmatyar has a long-established relationship with Osama bin Laden and offered to shelter him in Afghanistan when he fled Sudan in 1996. Following September 11, 2001, with the spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, Mr. Hikmatyar pledged to launch a guerrilla war on the Afghan government and American troops there. He was named in Executive Order 13224 as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in the same month that Mr. Erdogan was elected.
What does the fact that Turkey's prime minister remains so close to an enemy of America say about the country's government as a whole?
It is helpful to have additional background information on Mr. Erdogan to understand the present strained relationship between America and Turkey. Mr. Erdogan was active in the now-defunct Islamist National Salvation Party until a 1980 military coup disbanded the party. When its former members founded the Islamist Welfare Party, he became chairman of the party in Istanbul. By 1994, the party emerged as Turkey's largest - just as Mr. Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul. Two years later, the Welfare Party was declared unconstitutional and was disbanded on the grounds that it threatened Turkey's secularity.
On December 12, 1997, at a public meeting in southeastern Turkey, Mr. Erdogan read a passage by renowned Turkish poet Ziya Gokalp: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” As the BBC reported, “his pro-Islamist sympathies earned him a conviction in 1998 for inciting religious hatred.”
Following Mr. Erdogan's trial and conviction, he was sentenced to a short jail term, which barred him temporarily from politics. (The Turkish Parliament changed the constitution in 2001, allowing those who had served time in jail to serve in public office.) By 1999, Mr. Erdogan's Welfare Party merged with the Virtue Party – which was also banned. This led to the creation of the Justice and Development Party that he now heads.
With Mr. Erdogan scheduled to visit to Washington, D.C., next month, it should be noted that Turkey has developed a PR machine that is working overtime to create the impression that the ruling party is an ally of America and a friend of the West. Mr. Erdogan's personal history should not be overlooked in assessing his political and religious inclinations.