Turkish reactions to the massacre in Paris once again reveal a growing gap with the West. While leaders and commentators in western countries immediately condemned the terrorists and presented a broadly unified stance denouncing the shocking attack on Charlie Hebdo as an act of violence against freedom of the press, Turkish leaders came up with a starkly different diagnosis: They interpreted last week’s events as yet another assault on Islam itself.
Freedom of the press, it would seem, is not high on the Turkish agenda at the moment. When the secular leftist newspaper Cumhuriyet decided to run a special issue of Charlie Hebdo today to show its solidarity, police raided the newspaper’s printing plant. Cumhuriyet said the police allowed distribution to proceed after verifying that Charlie Hebdo‘s controversial cover featuring the Prophet Muhammad wasn’t being published. Politicians were quick to follow up. “Those who publish some images in reference to our sublime prophet and thus disregard Muslims’ sacred [feelings] are involved in open provocation and agitation,” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said. Not only the ruling party but the judiciary, too, is offended by the Turkish media’s message of solidarity. A court in Diyarbakir has ordered the Turkish telecommunications authority to ban access to web pages showing Charlie Hebdo‘s front cover with the image of the Prophet Mohammed.
Turks did not celebrate the killings in the streets as some Afghans did, but there were very few who condemned the attacks without “buts” or “howevers.” Politicians, academics, intellectuals, and talking heads all reminded their audiences of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Mohammed, and many labeled the newspaper as “Islamophobic” or “racist.”
Customs and Trade Minister Nurettin Canikli depicted the attack on a live TV show as part of a conspiracy organized by unnamed parties to punish France for having recently recognized Palestine as a state and for adopting a policy on Syria that is very close to Turkey’s. Turkish security officials echoed that view, linking the Paris events with the recent suicide attack at an Istanbul police station. As one stated: “This could lead us to think that both attacks might have been orchestrated by the secret services of certain countries, given the fact that Turkey and France share similar policies on the Syrian issue.” Another lawmaker from the ruling party suggested that the murders had been carefully staged in order to shift blame onto Muslims.
Even more ominously, pro-government Twitter accounts, which are believed to have links to officials, used the Charlie Hebdo attack to threaten their Turkish counterparts. One tweeted that Leman, a satirical magazine that opposes the government, “doesn’t recognize any limits in its impertinence to President Erdogan” and “should draw a lesson from the Charlie Hebdo attack.” Unidentified people rented billboards in the city Bitlis that they used to salute the Kouachi brothers for having “avenged the prophet of Allah.” Ankara’s infamous mayor Melih Gokcek even accused Israeli intelligence of orchestrating the Paris attacks. The strongest statement, though, came on Monday, from President Erdogan himself: “The West’s hypocrisy is obvious. As Muslims, we’ve never taken part in terrorist massacres. Behind these lie racism, hate speech, and Islamophobia. Games are being played with the Islamic world. We need to be aware of this. French citizens carry out such a massacre, and Muslims pay the price. That’s very significant…. Doesn’t their intelligence organization track those who leave prison?”
Prime Minister Davutoglu joined the unity rally in Paris, but Ankara is still unable to speak the same language as the rest of Europe. Turkish officials are still trying to cast the Charlie Hebdo killings as a symptom of Islamophobia rather than as an assault on press freedom: “The attack has nothing to do with religion.” “The reason for this rage should be understood.” “The West is reaping what is has sown.” “This is a reaction to inequality and Islamophobia.” Given the Turkish government’s recent attacks on the freedom of the press at home, a certain defensiveness is unmistakable.
While conspiracy theories and dismissals of the Paris attack as a plot by unspecified “forces” to smear Islam may work just fine for domestic audiences, western countries are sure to see this as further evidence of Turkey’s drift away from Europe. Some leaders — including Obama — once expressed optimism that Erdogan could serve as the much-needed embodiment of a “moderate Islam.” Now that hope is fading by the day.
Prime Minister Davutoglu, who spent years as Turkey’s foreign minister, must surely understand Western perceptions since he knows the rules of diplomacy and international relations quite well. Yet Davutoglu’s self-confidence and self-righteousness — and his propensity to lecture — have now once again become his worst enemies. Having gone to Paris to join the rally, Davutoglu could have shown real solidarity with President Hollande and other world leaders. Instead he declared: “Our presence here is an assurance to all Muslims in Europe.” And lest anyone misunderstand his interpretation of events, he added, “We have the right, more than ever, to expect the same sensitivity from Europe toward Islamophobic attacks and acts against mosques.”
Discrimination against Islam is undoubtedly a serious issue in today’s Europe. But now is not the time to give lectures about racism and Islamophobia in Europe in the hope of changing the narrative; it is the time to take a stronger stance on extremism. Turkey, with its many ties to the West, can still play a critical role in countering terrorism, but in order to do so Ankara should acknowledge that the problem exists. That would include stopping halfhearted policies toward the extremists. As recently as a decade ago, the ruling Justice and Development Party was touting its adherence to freedom, democracy, and the need for pragmatic approaches to solving conflicts in neighboring countries. Now would be a good time to consider returning to those values.
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