Kurdish fiasco an ‘America first’ cause

WHEN PATRICK HENRY vowed to “live free or die,” he couldn’t have known about today’s Kurdish dilemma in Iraq. Two weeks ago 92 percent of Kurdish voters in northern Iraq voted in a referendum to create an independent state, consisting of the three Iraqi provinces where they’re in a majority. Unfortunately for them, the outcome has been, not independence, but curbs on their freedom to travel, economic hardships, and political isolation in the region. Now very few Iraqi Kurds seem ready to risk further hardships pushing for independence, let alone die fighting for the cause.

Iraq already has banned air travel in and out of its semi-autonomous “Kurdistan.” No Iraqi government can expect to stay in power if it were to allow the dismemberment of the country. And the Turkish government has announced it’s going to shut off the oil pipeline of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which runs through Turkey, carrying 5.5 million barrels of crude oil daily and providing more than 90 percent of the KRG’s annual budget.  Ankara fears that the secession of a Kurdish enclave in Iraq would embolden its own Kurdish militants, who have been carrying on a terrorist campaign since 1984 to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like the Baghdad government, had urged the KRG over and over not to hold the referendum.

Two days ago Baghdad announced that it’s now going to host a summit among Iran, Turkey and Iraq to decide on further measures to punish the KRG for its secessionist move.

Poor Iraqi Kurds! Their grievances remind me of a Mexican official’s response to President Trump’s demand that Mexico pay his proposed wall along its boundary with the United States. An aide to President Enrique Peña Nieto told the Trump administration, facetiously of course, that Mexico would be happy to pay for the wall provided it’s “built along the northern boundaries of New Mexico and Arizona.” He was obviously alluding to the fact that those American sates used to be part of Mexico until the United States grabbed them by force.

Kurds in Iraq – and in Turkey, Iran and Syria – have a similar grievance. In reality, their plight as minorities in those Middle Eastern countries originated in the imperialist machinations of a century ago. When France and Britain were gobbling up territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, they promised the Kurds an autonomous statelet, which they said could eventually become an independent nation-state. That commitment was mentioned in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Little did the Kurds know that oil under their soil would turn out to be the stumbling block to their independence, just as resources in many other developing countries had cost theirs. Lure of resources drove European powers into invading and colonizing most of the non-Western world.

In the 1920s as Britain was settling down in its Iraqi colony (bestowed on it under the League of Nations mandate), the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company struck oil near Kirkuk, in the middle of the Kurds’ “promised land” of an autonomous state. Out the window went the British and French pledge for a “Kurdistan.” The two imperial powers now decided to split the more resourceful part of the centuries-old Kurdish homeland between the British colony of Iraq and neighboring French colony of Syria and dole out the remainder of the territory to Turkey and Iran.

Thus 35 million Kurds have become the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own, languishing as minorities in four states and refugees in many others. During trips to Iraq and Turkey, the word I often heard Kurds mention as the source of their quandary was “betrayal” – betrayal by British and French colonial powers. Throughout the century that followed the fourfold partition of their land Kurds in one country or another have struggled off and on for a national homeland or homelands.

In Turkey bloody terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bloodier government reprisals have cost nearly 40,000 lives in three decades. In Iraq separatist uprisings by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia led to equally brutal government crackdowns, including a chemical attack in the Halabja village by the Saddam Hussein government.

Thanks to America’s need for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia to fight its wars against the Saddam government and then against the Islamic State, the United States has helped set up Iraqi Kurdistan with wide local autonomy.  But Washington never agreed to support Iraqi Kurds’ secessionist scheme.  In northern Syria Kurds have taken advantage of the five-year-long Syrian civil war to carve out a territory they call Rojava, which they aspire to turn into an autonomous or independent Kurdish stare. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is also perturbed by the Rojava campaign and the adrenaline it could get from the KRG referendum in Iraq. Last week Damascus denounced the KRG for its referendum. In Iran Kurdish separatism is less assertive than in any of the three other countries. But Tehran, too, worries about a spillover of the Kurdish ferment in its neighborhood, and the Iranian government has decried the referendum in northern Iraq. The United States and several European countries have also been concerned that a Kurdish independence movement in Iraq could threaten the stability of the state system in that region. The Trump administration repeatedly warned KRG President Masoud Barzani not to stage the referendum.

Barzani couldn’t but have known that in the teeth of the strong regional and international opposition his referendum would open a Pandora’s box, instead of promoting Kurdish independence. True, the Kurds lost their territories to the four states against their will, just as Mexicans lost part of their land to America against theirs. But plenty of water has flowed down the Euphrates and Mississippi rivers since America and the four Middle Eastern countries took shape and evolved as nation-states.  The aide to the Mexican president can’t expect to wrest Texas, New Mexico or Arizona back from America anymore than Kurds in Iraq – or Turkey, Syria or Iran – stand a reasonable chance of tearing up those nation-states to create one or more independent Kurdish states.

The Kurds could achieve their goal of national independence in one of two ways: by the force of their own arms or through the military or diplomatic intervention of a major power or powers. Bangladesh, South Sudan and East Timor gained their independence in one or the other of the two processes. But Kurds in none of the four countries have the armed capability to secede, and support for their cause in the international community is zero (Oops! I forgot the vociferous Israeli support for the KRG’s independence project).

You would wonder why, then, the KRG president went ahead with his ill-fated referendum. I think his fast dwindling support base among Iraqi Kurds has something to do with it. Barzani was elected KRG president by the regional legislature in 2005. Since then he has turned into an autocrat, ruling the territory without a mandate since his term of office expired in August 2015. His blatant nepotism, rampant corruption in his government and a sharp downturn in the region’s economy have heightened his people’s discontent against him.  But the aspiration for an independent homeland still animates most Kurdish minds and hearts in Iraq. If he held the referendum to shore up his popularity among Kurds, their overwhelming yes vote shows that he made a good bet. But sadly, their euphoria was short-lived.  Media reports show that it already has died down and most Kurds are worried, instead, about the onset of the economic and political crisis, spawned by the neighboring states’ virulent reactions to the referendum.

I think the international community should get to work to help resolve the Kurdish imbroglio. The United States, which has used Iraqi Kurds in two major wars, is morally obligated to step in to pull them out of the quagmire. The Kurdish predicament also offers the Trump administration an opportunity to get away from its own quagmire created by the president’s reckless stands on the climate change accord, Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and other issues. He should get Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take the lead in an international initiative to bring about a reconciliation between Iraqi Kurdistan and its neighbors. Because such an effort would bolster America’s standing in the world, it would be part of Trump’s “America first” agenda.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.

 

 

 

 

Turks, EU: Never the twain shall meet?

IS TURKEY FINALLY waking up from its dream of joining the European Union?

During the past six weeks EU politicians excoriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in a Turkish constitutional referendum, which transforms the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, concentrating wide powers in the presidency. The constitutional changes go into effect after the 2019 Turkish general elections, and if Erdogan is re-elected, he’d become a powerful “executive president.” These Europeans, and many Turks, see that making him an “authoritarian” ruler. Some of them demanded and end to negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU.  Others argued that Turkey would be unable to adopt “European values,” which EU members are required to observe. Those values include democracy, the rule of law, human rights and minority rights.

In response, Erdogan threatened to hold a new “Brexit-like referendum,” asking the Turks if they wanted to join the European bloc at all. Over the years many Turks have been turned off by what they consider a discriminatory stance of a “Christian club” toward their Muslim nation. A poll taken in 2014 found that only 28 percent of Turks viewed EU membership as “a good thing,” compared to more than two-thirds of them who did so in the 1990s and early 2000s.

At any rate, tempers have cooled lately among politicians on both sides. Never mind, says the EU foreign policy chief.  Federica Mogherini has announced that the talks on the the 30-year-old Turkish membership application would continue. “It is not suspended,” she insisted. “It hasn’t ended.” And last week Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, confirmed her announcement.  He said “there is no question” of breaking off those talks.

I have been predicting, though, that Turkey would never join the European bloc, not as a full member, anyway. I came to this conclusion nearly two decades ago, and nothing has happened since to change my opinion. During 1998-1999 I was conducting fieldwork in Europe and Turkey on how a Turkish Islamic surge would affect Ankara’s bid to join the European bloc. I had a fellowship with the German Marshall Fund of the United States to do the project.

On August 2, 1998, at the end of a long interview with Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, he asked what I had learned about Europeans’ attitudes toward Turkey’s EU membership. I told him that “I’d be surprised” if his country would ever become a “full member” of the bloc. The mayor didn’t seem to be convinced. Four months before, he had been convicted by a State Security Court for reciting an Islamic poem at a public meeting, which the judges said had incited “hatred based on religious difference.”  Turkey was then a radically secular state and Erdogan had been known as a gung-ho activist of the Islamist Welfare Party. I interviewed him when he was packing to vacate the mayor’s office and await an anticipated jail sentence from the State Security Court. He told me that he would be working to have Turkey “join the [European] Union.”

Contrary to what I had heard about him, Erdogan disputed my characterization of him as an “Islamist” and asserted twice that he believed that the Turkish government should be “secular,” and that religion should be a “private matter.” He was no more an Islamist than Helmut Kohl was a Christian fundamentalist, he said. Kohl was then chancellor of Germany, belonging to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). I’d learn later that Erdogan, Parliament members Abdullah Gul (later president) and Bulent Arinc (later speaker of Parliament) and a number of other former Welfare Party activists were about to leave the Islamist movement and form a conservative Muslim party. Polls had shown that two out of three Turkish Muslims, religious as they were, had been leery about Islamism.

Soon after his newly formed Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won the 2002 parliamentary elections, Erdogan set out for a whirlwind trip through Europe, pushing the Turkish accession case to EU governments and elites. The Turkish leader reiterated to them that he was a “secular” politician who had no intention of setting up an Islamist government.  And he began making continual visits to the United States (Yesterday was his 13th visit to the White House), meeting government officials and intellectuals, including some neoconservatives, and trying to dispel the notion that he or the AKP had an Islamist agenda. He also talked about his pursuit of Turkey’s EU membership.

ACCESSION TALKS

On December 10, 2002, the day before his first visit to the White House to meet then President George W. Bush, Erdogan told me in Washington that he would be asking the U.S. president to “say a good word” to EU leaders about the Turkish case.  Bush did just that, and in December 2005 the EU began Turkish accession talks. I read news reports about some Turkish politicians were optimistic about their finally joining the Europeans, which had been a consuming mission of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

I still didn’t expect to see Muslim Turks showing up in Brussels to join discussions about the policies and priorities of the bloc. I didn’t think “democratic deficit” and “poor human rights record” were the real sources of the EU’s angst about Turkish accession, even though these shortcoming were routinely mentioned as Turkey’s disqualification for bloc membership.

If you have European friends or observed Europeans’ attitudes toward the Turks closely, you’d know what dismays them most about having Turks in Europe. Julius Ray Behr, an architect in Berlin, was quite candid to me about it. During a 2000 trip I asked him about his take on the Turks’ efforts to join the EU. Were they trying achieve “in Brussels what they could not accomplish in Vienna”?  he replied, laughing. He was referring to the Ottoman army’s 1683 attack on Vienna, which was repulsed by the city’s Austrian and Polish defenders, putting an end to the Ottoman Empire’s thrust toward Western Europe. A burly, graying man in his late 50s or early 60s, Behr suggested that if the Turks, then about 60 million, were allowed to join the bloc, they would mess up Europe’s “social and cultural life,” infusing Islam into it.

I heard the argument before and since. Since the Dark Ages, Continental Europe has been a white racial monochrome, and Europeans violently resisted the presence of other racial and cultural strains in their midst. Beginning in the late 15th century, Jews and Muslims, who had lived in Europe for centuries, suffered waves after waves of slaughter, forced conversion to Christianity and expulsion from the Continent. Most of those Jewish and Muslim refugees were welcomed with open arms in Muslim Turkey and Levant. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, Jews were detested as “Christ killers” and Muslims as heathens. Post-Enlightenment, they were scorned as inferior races. The Holocaust was the final episode of whitening Europe’s social and cultural texture.

Erdogan, as I observed him, is a passionate, willful man, who isn’t quite acculturated to Western democratic institutions and practices. He’s not very tolerant of dissent as would be, for example, Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron.  Erdogan and his government say, however, that the current political and social turmoil has been spawned by the old ultra-secular Kemalists establishment. Kemalists are follower of Kemal Ataturk’s laicist, anti-Islamic ideology, who have been campaigning for the secularization and Europeanization of Turkish society and culture. Having been roundly defeated in successive elections, many of them have made common cause with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been trying to topple the AKP government through undemocratic means. In 1999 Turkish intelligence found Gulen colluding with his associates to destabilize the then secular government in Ankara, and the cleric dashed into exile in the United States to evade arrest and prosecution.

Gulen has, or had, an extensive network of followers in Turkish police, judiciary and military. The military, the self-appointed “guardian” of Kemalism, continually overthrew democratically elected governments until the AKP came to power in 2002. The military brass, Kemalists and Gulenists have had a hard time accepting the AKP government, despite it being elected democratically.  In 2007 the army high command issued a threatening memorandum opposing the election of Abdullah Gul as president, arguing that the headscarf worn by his wife, Heyrunnisa, would violate the secularist tradition of the presidential palace. The Kemalist opposition in the parliament, which used to elect presidents, also decided to boycott the vote. The AKP responded with a snap election, which it won handily, neutralizing military-Kemalist resistance to Gul’s election as president.

CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT

The next year Kemalist prosecutors sued the AKP in the Constitutional Court, demanding the party be banned because it had become a “center of anti-secular activities.” The Constitutional Court had, at the bidding of the army and Kemalist elites, outlawed five political parties one after another. This time, though,  the AKP survived because only six judges, instead of the required seven, supported the motion to ban it. This was followed by other Kemalist and Gulenist court cases against Erdogan government. The abortive military coup last July, which the government says was masterminded by Gulen, was the latest attempt so far to overthrow the Erdogan government.

Reacting to these subversive actions, especially the failed coup, the AKP regime launched a widespread crackdown on Gulenist and Kemalist dissidents. It has jailed thousands of political dissidents and fired thousands of others from their jobs in the police, judiciary, bureaucracy and military. Several media outlets have been shut down, and scores of journalists thrown behind the bar. Many Kemalists and Gulenists obviously have supported or joined destabilizing activities or the abortive coup. But many innocent citizens appear also to have been caught up in the fray and lost their jobs or suffered detention or prison terms. Given the mounting opposition to Erdogan and his government, I won’t be surprised to see them defeated in the next or a subsequent election.

But Erdogan and the AKP will be remembered for ending the 90-year-long military and Kemalist pseudo-autocracy in Turkey and ushering in full-fledged, or nearly so, democracy. In one bold move after another the Erdogan government purged the military of many of its coup-mongering officers; reformed the military-dominated National Security Council, bringing it under civilian control; stripped the Constitutional Court of its power to ban political parties; disbanded the clandestine West Study Group (BGG), a cell within the army, which collected intelligence on politicians and planned coups; expanded freedom of the press and expression; introduced a new Penal Code, abolishing torture by police and security personnel; guaranteed individual rights, which was subordinated to the demand of whatever law-enforcement agencies decided was the “security of the state”; restored the use of the Kurdish language and celebration of Kurdish symbols cultural events, banned since the founding of the state; and so on.

The government has rolled back many of the democratic reforms it carried out. I expect these lapses to be remedied by this regime or its successors. I don’t believe that the Turks, having tasted the blessings of freedom and democracy, will revert to the Kemalist era again. They demonstrated their new, indomitable spirit of freedom during the coup attempt last July when everyday Turks, responding to Erdogan’s televised call, poured into the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, braved military bombs and bullets, chased and assaulted rebel troops and crushed the uprising in hours. That was the first time in history the Turks challenged and quashed a military putsch.

DEMOCRACY’S BIRTH PANGS

Formative phases of most democracies – including the United States, Britain, France and Germany –  have always been marked by similar and more dire mayhem: civil wars, ethnic and religious strife, and authoritarian governance. Some of the newer democracies within the EU are also going through their birth pangs. Look at the post-Communist democracies of Hungary and Poland.  Freedom House has lamented a “spectacular breakdown of democracy” in the two countries, and human rights watchdogs and media pundits have denounced their “autocratic” governments.  Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has all but silenced political dissent through continual crackdowns, suppressed press freedom, persecuted his opponents, and proudly declared Hungary an “illiberal state.” He says Western European “liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), has passed laws flouting parliamentary rules, weakened the country’s highest court, stifled the press, appointed loyalists to civil service and government-run media organizations. He has turned the public television broadcaster TVP into a PiS party station. (Critics call it TVPiS!). PiS has gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure the victory of its candidates. And so on.The problem is that both Orban and Kaczynski continue to win elections, the former has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. European politicians and news media continue to criticize their autocratic rule.  Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, met Orban at the EU’s Riga summit and greeted him: “Hello dictator!”

Yet few Europeans are calling for Hungary’s or Poland’s expulsion from the EU, just as few would like to have the Turks in the bloc. Ask a Turk why, and he or she would tell you that Poles and Hungarians have the right faith and skin tone, and more of less blend in the cultural monochrome that Europe has been for the past two millennia. Turkey, with its Muslim population of 90 million, would rupture that cultural harmony. Echoing the German architect Behr, Remy Leveau, a political science professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Institute of Political Studies of Paris), told me the “real problem” hindering Turkish membership of  the EU. “We [Europeans] don’t have a history of cultural pluralism.”  I was chatting with him at his office on Rue Michel-Ange in Paris on the gloomy afternoon of November 2, 2000. Even though Europeans were secular, he said, “we observed All Saints Day yesterday,” and “Christian values” underpinned “our moral standards and worldviews.” Having Muslim Turks in European neighborhoods wouldn’t “help social cohesion,” he added.

All the same, Turkey remains an asset to Europe and America, having the second-largest armed forces in NATO and serving as a bulwark against anti-Western guerrilla and terrorist forces in the Middle East. Turkey, too, is the EU’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-largest supplier of imports.

Today, under an agreement with the EU, Turkey hosts 3 million refugees from the Middle East and South Asia, who would otherwise be flooding Western Europe, creating a demographic and security nightmare there.

Hence Mogherini wouldn’t suspend, let alone end, Turkey’s “accession” talks, even though she knows the Turks wouldn’t be joining the family of European nations. I can foresee the eventual outcome of the negotiations: The Turks won’t become Europeans, but would maintain special economic and security relations with Europe.

The Erdogan government knows this. As a result, it’s already cultivating strategic and trade relations with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and a host of  Middle Eastern countries.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs analyst in Washington, has researched EU-Turkish relations and U.S. foreign policy options in the Middle West and South Asia. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’: http://muslimjourney.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did CIA try to bump off Erdogan?

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN has upped the ante in his row with the Obama administration, which has heated up since last month’s failed coup in Turkey. The Turkish president now has jumped onto the lap of America’s geopolitical rival, Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan’s meeting Tuesday with his Russian counterpart in a czarist palace outside St. Petersburg has opened what he called – correctly, I believe – “a new page” in Turkish-Russian relations. The two erstwhile foes agreed on a raft of trade, economic and strategic ties between their countries. Some Turks are calling it Erdogan’s “counter-coup” against the United States, which they believe masterminded the botched military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government.

The St. Petersburg meeting was a 180-degree turn for a man who used to admire America with a passion. The United States was a “model of democracy which Europe should follow,” Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, told me during an interview at his office on August 2, 1998. He was packing to leave the office as he had lost his mayoral job upon his conviction in a Turkish court for reciting a provocative “jihadi poem” at a public gathering.

Putin had fallen out, spitefully, with Erdogan last November when Turkish troops shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. That’s all forgotten now. The Turkish guest addressed his Russian host as “dear friend” three times in 10 minutes during their meeting.

Erdogan’s trip to Russia, his first abroad since the failed coup, was meant, partly, to be his tribute to the man he believes had saved his life and government. On the night of July 15 Russian intelligence officers at the Khmeimin airbase in Syria intercepted coded radio signals about preparations for an uprising by military units in Turkey. At Putin’s behest, they called Erdogan at a seaside Turkish resort to alert him about it. A squad of rebel soldiers, they told the Turkish leader, was in flight with orders to “capture or kill” him. Less than 15 minutes after the Erdogan and his family had left the Marmaris resort by an aircraft, 25 renegade Turkish soldiers barged into the hotel where he was staying, looking for him. Erdogan must have thanked his stars for making up with the Russian president a month earlier.

The Turkish president and his associates have accused the CIA of organizing the attempted rebellion in collusion with Erdogan’s arch rival Fethullah Gulen, a multi-billionaire Turkish cleric, living in Pennsylvania. The unorthodox Muslim cleric has built a vast network of schools, businesses and charities in Turkey and dozens of other countries. Critics say the pro-American Gulen has been planning to use his support base in his native Turkey to rule that country as a political and spiritual leader, as a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini, so to speak. Except that unlike the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary of Iran, Gulen is a pragmatic, modernizing religious leader.

The belief that the United States engineered the attempted putsch is widely shared by the Turkish public, 69 percent, according to one poll, and by several Turkish media organizations. Some print and electronic news outlets have detailed the alleged American complicity. The Yeni Safak (New Dawn) newspaper, based in Istanbul, has named retired U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell as “the man behind” the rebellion. The pro-government paper wrote that Campbell had been recruiting Gulenists in the Turkish armed forces for the coup for eight months. The general, the paper said, had been working with some 80 CIA operatives and distributed $2 billion among Turkish military officers and others through the Nigerian branch of the United Bank of Africa. Yeni Safak obtained most of the information from testimonies of the putschists in Turkish custody.

Then while the uprising was being crushed by angry crowds who had poured into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul at the call of their president, someone spotted a groups of distinguished foreigners behaving suspiciously at a luxury hotel on Princes’ Island outside Istanbul. Henri J. Barkey, a well-known former CIA official and Gulen’s mentor, was watching the insurrection on TV, along with 17 others. Among them, according to one account, was Graham E. Fuller, another former top-ranking CIA officer and long-time Gulen patron. Barkey had instructed the management of the Splendid Palas hotel to set up gadgets for connection to American TV channels.

“I will make a live interview with CNN International,” Barkey had informed them, “and with Voice of America.”

Gulen’s relationship with the CIA began in the 1980s and thickened in 1999 when he defected to the United States to escape capture by the then Turkish government, which had obtained a taped speech by him, instructing his followers to infiltrate government agencies to eventually seize the government. “Move into the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence,” he told them, “until you reach all the power centers.”

In the United States, Fuller was among three CIA-linked Americans who pushed for Gulen’s permanent residency, despite opposition from the State and Homeland Security departments. The other two were George Fidas, a 31-year CIA veteran, and Morton Abramowitz, U.S. ambassador to Turkey during 1989-1991, who is suspected to have been collaborating with CIA projects.

Some of my Turkish interlocutors have been saying that the CIA is the main source of Gulen’s staggering wealth ($25-$50 billion) and his schools and charities in Central Asia. Among those who exposed his CIA connection was the former head of Turkey’s foreign intelligence service, known by its Turkish acronym MIT (the “Turkish CIA”). In 2011 Osman Nuri Gundes published a book, saying Gulen’s Central Asian schools were honeycombed with CIA agents operating as “native-speaking English teachers.”

Regime Change

The CIA reportedly tapped Gulen to use him in a broader U.S. program to get Islam and Muslims to fight communism. The collaboration allegedly continues as part of the CIA’s and neoconservatives’ fight against Islamist movements, one of the many pie-in-the-sky American programs to fight Muslim extremism and terrorism. In any case, they included Erdogan’s AKP in the program.

Unlike Turkey’s Islamic fundamentalist organizations of earlier times, the AKP is a moderate or conservative Muslim party. But American neocons, intelligence agencies and leading media operations continue to consider it a typical Islamist party. They have been as hostile to Erdogan and the AKP as they are to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its imprisoned leader Mohammed Mursi. One can see their animosity toward Erdogan in the writings and rhetoric of Fuller, Barkey, Abramowitz, Michael Rubin, Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes and others. They have been castigating Erdogan’s Islamic “agenda” and “authoritarian” rule and making no secret of their impatience for a regime change in Ankara.

Intriguingly, on March 21 Rubin wrote an article on the American Enterprise Institute website under the headline, “Could there be a coup in Turkey?” He wrote: “The Turkish military would suffer no significant consequence should it imitate [Egyptian coup leader and now president] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s game plan in Egypt, no one should be surprised if Turkey’s rocky politics soon get rockier.”

Some of these neocons and intelligence operatives have also been defending Gulen against Ankara’s repeated calls, being made for years for his extradition to answer charges in courts for his alleged subversive activities (before the recent coup attempt). The Erdogan government has ratcheted up those calls since the July 15 mutiny. The Obama administration’s persistent refusal to hand over Gulen to Turkey has deepened many Turks’ suspicion about alleged U.S. collusion with Gulen to overthrow the Erdogan government.

President Obama and other American officials have strongly denied allegations of a U.S. role in the Turkish rebellion, and Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Turkey later this month to underscore U.S. support for that country and Erdogan’s democratically elected government. Gulen, too, has flatly denied any complicity in the uprising, although he said some of the Turkish troops who participated in it could be among his supporters.

I don’t expect Turkish-America ties to snap overnight. Relations between the the two old allies have survived Turkey’s invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, which infuriated President Lyndon Johnson; the Turkish parliament’s rejection of Americans’ plans to use their airbase in southern Turkey during the 2003 Iraq invasion; and other glitches.

But the dissension between Ankara and Washington has been too real, and going on for too long, to ignore. If I were to pick a time when the feuds began, I would say it was Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq to roll back its invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq used to be Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, and relations between the two Muslim neighbors were cordial. The Turks were opposed to the war, but were “bullied” into it “despite our misgivings about it,” then Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit complained to visitors. As a NATO member, then impoverished and dependent on U.S. military aid and trade, Ankara couldn’t afford to turn down the U.S. demand to join the conflict. The war and the devastating U.S.-sponsored trade embargo on Iraq that followed completely ruptured Turkey’s trade and commercial relations with Iraq. A decade later the Ankara-based newspaper Turkish Daily News reported that Turkish trade with Iraq had dropped to 8 percent of its 1990 volume, costing Turkey between $80 billion and $100 billion.

“We have become America’s serfs,” Faris Estarda, a college graduate and centrist political activist working at Alibaba rug store near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet square, lamented to me during my 1999 trip. “They [the Americans] would start a war with a country to enlarge their empire or take out a government they don’t like, and they would order us pick up the guns and march. Or let them use Incirlik [U.S. military base in southern Turkey]. We can’t say no. Whatever that does to our economy, our relationships, we can’t say no.”

Freedom, Dignity

By the time the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, however, Turkish society and politics had changed dramatically. The democratic upheaval spearheaded by Erdogan and his AKP had ushered in an unprecedented economic boom and buoyed the Turks with a spirit of freedom and dignity they hadn’t felt sine the early 1920s when they defeated the victors of World War l to liberate Turkey from their occupation. Before and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Turks were denouncing it as “unjust,” “imperialist,” and so forth. Erdogan, still on good terms with the United States, planned to help with the American war plan. But the Turkish parliament overwhelmingly rejected Washington’s request to use its Incirlik airbase for bombing runs in Iraq.

American politicians and foreign policy community were enraged. Many of them blamed the Turkish rebuff on the AKP-led Islamic resurgence. Ever since, relations between the two NATO partners have been deteriorating, mainly because U.S. strategic and policy objectives are clashing with Turkey’s security and economic interests.

During the Iraq war, the United States depended heavily on Kurdish and Shiite militias to do most of the ground fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab forces. The Bush administration didn’t want to use U.S. ground forces on front lines, fearing American casualties would erode U.S. public support behind the war.

To compensate for their support in the war, Americans let Shiites monopolize political power in Baghdad, and what has had more far-reaching consequences, looked the other way as the Shiite government and militias began a massive purge of Sunni Arabs from the military, bureaucracy and security forces. Simultaneously, Shiite militants and public went on ethnically cleansing Sunni Arabs from Shiite-majority towns and cities. That led to the rise of ISIS as the only defender of Sunni Arab victims of the U.S. invasion and Shiite pogrom. The tragedy that befell Sunni Arabs in Iraq spawned anger and anguish among many Sunni Turks across the border.

But it was America’s coddling of the Kurds that took – and is still taking – the heaviest toll on Turkish-U.S. relations. Iraqi Kurds had been fighting for decades, often against American resistance but with Israeli support, to create an independent or autonomous “Kurdistan,” comprising the three Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq. As a price of their help with the U.S. war effort, the United States endorsed their Kurdistan project. Turkey objected to the project strenuously as it feared that the autonomous Kurdish territory in Iraq would become a staging ground for attacks into Turkey by secessionist Turkish Kurds. And it did. Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists have been fighting since 1984 for an autonomous or independent territory in southeastern Turkey, just as their ethnic kin had been in northern Iraq. PKK guerrillas now infiltrated Iraqi Kurdistan and began attacking targets in Turkey from there. The Erdogan government urged Washington over and over to expel the PKK guerrillas from northern Iraq. Americans did little in response, except denounce the PKK and ask the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to throw them out, which the KRG ignored.

Besides its dependence on the fighting muscle of Iraqi Kurds, the United States also saw Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic asset. After the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki rejected, under Iranian pressure, U.S. plans to build military bases in southern or central Iraq, the Pentagon and the CIA saw Iraqi Kurdistan as an alternative host to U.S. bases. Last month the Pentagon signed an agreement with the KRG to build five bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, apparently to carry out surveillance and launch military missions in the Middle East.

PKK guerrillas not only were using northern Iraq for their terrorist campaign in Turkey. They also made common cause with fellow Kurds in northern Syria, whom the United States has been using in its fight against ISIS. In the fog of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish militia in Syria, known by its Kurdish acronym YPG, has staked out an autonomous region of their own, known as Rojava. The YPG has been supportive of the PKK and its secessionist struggle in Turkey. The Kurdish terrorists from Turkey have getting arms, ammunition and other logistical support from their fellow Kurds in Syria.

The Obama administration practically has ignored Ankara’s pleas to expel PKK fighters from Rojava, as it did before in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erdogan’s aides say the Turkish president was first befuddled by Obama’s indifference to his pleas. For months now, he has reportedly been convinced that the availability of Iraqi Kurdish territory for U.S. military bases has downgraded Incirlik’s importance to Washington, and Turkey’s, for that matter. America’s need for the YPG to fight ISIS is cited as the main reason the United States has been indifferent to the Syrian guerrilla group’s support for and collaboration with the PKK.

A widely circulated exchange at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was taken by Ankara as evidence that the United States is ready to forget about the Turks to preserve its ties to PYG. In April

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told the Senate panel that he believed YPG was aiding the PKK in its terrorist activities in Turkey. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had returned from an investigation of the Turkish-PKK conflict, concurred with Carter’s assessment. The Texas Republican criticized the administration for “arming people inside of Syria who are aligned with a terrorist group” that was destabilizing Turkey. Arming the PKK-aligned Kurdish guerrillas in Syria was “the dumbest idea in the world,” he added.

The State Department immediately got its spokesman to disown the defense secretary’s comments. John Kirby told the press that Carter’s remarks on YPG was “his views and the Pentagon’s views.” The YPG was “not a designated foreign terrorist organization” and hence the United States had no problem arming them, he added. Kirby ignored Carter’s and Graham’s concerns about the threat that the YPG’s support for the PKK has posed to Turkey.

The Obama administration has a decision to make. If it thinks security and strategic relations with Turkey would continue to serve U.S. strategic interests, it has to accommodate two crucial demands of the Turks. First, the Obama administration needs to get its Syrian and Iraqi allies to stop aiding and abetting the PKK. Secondly, it should extradite Gulen to Turkey to answer allegations in Turkish courts about his role in the July 15 armed insurrection and other subversive operations.

An unwillingness to meet the two crucial Turkish demands would signal to the Turks that their assumption is right: Turkish-U.S. security and strategic relations have outlived their usefulness. Who knows, they may have.

  • Mustafa Malik covered Turkey as a newspaper correspondent and conducted fieldwork there and in Europe on Ankara’s relations with the European Union. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’ (http://muslimjourney.com)

Erdogan’s hello to Egyptians

THAT WAS A second in Turkish history. Democratic forces, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overwhelmed Turkish military units that had attempted to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government.

It was a spectacular triumph for Erdogan, and more to the point, the democratic fervor and aspirations of the Turkish masses.

The first time Erdogan and the Turks foiled a military plot to overthrow their civilian government was in 2012, when the government of then Prime Minister Erdogan roped up hundreds of coup mongering military officers and soldiers, 322 of whom were sent to prison after lengthy trials. Since 1960 the power hungry Turkish military had overthrown four democratically governments.

During and after yesterday’s abortive military uprising, the Erdogan government arrested more than 2,800 military personnel, suspected of participating in what the president termed “an act of treason.” He vowed that the plotters would “pay a heavy price.”

I have known Erdogan for a while and am familiar with his commitment to democracy. He’s a single-minded man. He can be impulsive, too. But don’t get worked up by “authoritarian” and “autocratic” labels put on him by his detractors in Turkey and abroad. Most of them have been raving about his Islamic political background right from the beginning. They abound in the American media and political circles. These Americans have forgotten about slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, Jim Crow, and the enduring racism – all of which coexisted with the democratic process. Erdogan may be an imperfect practitioner the democratic art, but he’s the father of full-fledged democracy in Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an autocrat.

Erdogan impressed me with his commitment to true democracy during my first interview with him nearly two decades ago. A journalism fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I had been on a research trip through Western Europe and Turkey to assess the spread of Islamism among Turks and its possible impact on Ankara’s bid for accession to the European Union.

Then mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan had been convicted by a secularist court for reciting a poem at a public meeting that the judges said could have incited religious hatred. Intriguingly, the poem had been composed by an agnostic sociologist who was also a protagonist of secular Turkish nationalism. Zia Gokalp’s poem, entitled “Soldier’s Prayer,” likened Turks to Islamic soldiers, mosques to their military barracks and minarets to their swords.

Following Erdogan’s conviction, the ultra-secularist government of the day sacked him from his job as mayor. On August 2, 1998, when I arrived to interview him in Istanbul, the disgraced mayor was packing to vacate the mayor’s office. Apparently because of his belief that his political career would survive the conviction and a subsequent prison term, he showed a keen interest in Turkey’s accession to the EU.

He was eager to know what my interlocutors in France, Germany and Belgium had said about Turkey’s EU membership.

“Do they want us in,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some of them said they were concerned about your military’s grip on your democratic process.”

“I share their concern. We, our party [the Islamist Virtue Party], have been the worst victims of military coups.”

The previous year the army, which considered itself the guardian of Turkish secularism, had thrown out the democratically elected government of the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s mentor. The generals accused Erbakan of posing a threat to the country’s secular political system.

Most EU officials, I said, wanted to see Turkey “a real democracy before they take a serious look at your membership application.”

“We want Turkey to be a full democracy. That’s one of the reasons we want to join the European bloc. That would help us secure democracy.”

I have since watched him, as prime minister and president, replace Turkey’s military-supervised, elitist political system with a full-blown democracy, as it can be in the ethnic contexts of the Turks and Kurds and their Islamic tradition. I’ve watched him reiterate his commitment to democracy over and over.

Yesterday I remembered Erdogan’s democratization campaign as I watched crowds pouring into the streets and squares of Ankara and Istanbul, facing down the rebellious troops and their tanks and rolling back their short-lived rebellion. And I was wondering why Egyptians couldn’t do the same thing in July 2013, when a military junta overthrew the democratically elected Islamist government of President Mohammed Mursi. Why couldn’t Egyptian crowds chase Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisis’s forces back into the barracks? Al-Sisi and his troops probably were more brutal than Turkey’s rebel soldiers and officers. They have mowed down hundreds of protesters, imprisoned and hanged hundreds of others and unleashed a reign of terror in Egypt.

My take on it is that unlike in Turkey, democratic consciousness and aspirations in Egypt have yet to jell among the public. In their 7,000-year history, Egyptians had never known elections and democracy until 2012, when Mursi was elected president and his fellow Islamists won a parliamentary majority. The Turks, on the other hand, have been having elections and nurturing a multi-party democratic process, albeit with occasional military interruptions, for some six decades now.

Democracy never takes root in a society in one smooth push. It’s a messy and long-tern business. The British took seven turbulent centuries to become a pro in the art. The Americans have been practicing it through slavery, a Civil War, Jim Crow and racism, whose latest manifestation has been a spate of killings of African Americans by white policemen and the slaughter of five white police officers by an African American man.

As I see it, four years ago Egyptians had a trial run of democracy. I bet the barbarity to the Sisi dictatorship is fueling a second, more determined democratic uprising in Egypt. A more enduring Arab Spring.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).

 

Hijab and Muslim women

Muslim women’s headgear, or hijab, is “a symbol of a dangerous purity culture” among people “obsessed with honor and virginity.”

I realize that Asra Nomani, who made this comment, has acquired an Islamophobic prejudice about hijab.  Many Westerners, especially Islam-baiters, say that the hijab is imposed by bigoted Muslim men on unwilling women. Ms. Nomani was born into a Muslim family in India but has lived in America since she was 4. In her New York Times op-ed, however, she describes herself as a “mainstream Muslim woman,” and maintains that the hijab “has divided Muslim communities … since the Saudi and Iranian regimes promulgated puritanical interpretations of Sunni and Shia Islam.”

I was also born in India, and lived in the Indian subcontinent for three decades. I have had the opportunity to continually travel through Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries on research and reporting stints. I somehow missed the division in Muslim communities over wearing the hijab, which Ms. Nomani has mentioned. And I had thought that most Middle Eastern women had been covering up their heads since the dawn of history.

As far as I know, Persian women wore head covering in the fifth century B.C., if not before.  That was a millennium before Islam was born. Many Byzantine Christian women used to wear headscarves as well. Arab women have been wearing them, especially when outdoors, since time immemorial.  Headscarves protected their long hair from getting messed up by sand, wafted by winds.  In arid deserts water was scarce, and most of them could not afford frequently washing their hair. The scarf also protected their fair skin (a symbol of beauty in Asia) from the scorching 110°F-115°F sun.  For the same reason, Arab men, since long before Islam, have been wearing the kaffieh scarf around their heads and cheeks.

When Islam came to Arabia in the seventh century, Muslim men and women kept most of their pre-Islamic dress code: men’s beard, turban and robe; women’s body wrapper and hijab.  But, as Ms. Nomani has rightly pointed out, the Quran does not specifically enjoin Muslim women to wear the hijab.

The Islamization of hijab began with an unremarkable incident.  One day, in Medina, some women from Prophet Muhammad’s family went shopping, some bareheaded.  Several rowdy men from the street jeered at them and made snide remarks about their physical features. When Muhammad heard of the incident, he instructed them to cover up their heads and bodies when they went outdoors.

Muslims the world over try to emulate many social practices associated with the Prophet and early Muslims, and many attach religious merits to them. It is like Christians wearing the cross around their necks and Jewish men putting on the kippa.

Since the late colonial era, many Muslims have attached new significance to the hijab and other Islamic symbols: pride and authenticity.  Anti-colonial movements spurred identity consciousness among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other colonized peoples. They expressed that consciousness through the revival of their native religious cultural symbols.

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were Hindus who led the struggle for India’s independence from British colonial rule. Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan were Muslims who spearheaded the movement to create the Muslim Pakistan out of British India. All four were Oxford-educated barristers (lawyers), and during their years in Britain all donned Western clothing.  As the four barristers plunged into their independence struggles, Gandhi and Nehru switched back to the Hindu dress code, and Jinnah and Liaqat to Islamic clothing (although Jinnah waited longer to do so).

In time, the trend toward religious and cultural revival permeated among the masses in societies colonized by the British, French, Dutch and other European powers. Elements among their elites, however, hung on to the lifestyles of the colonial rulers. They included Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey; Riza Shah (father of Muhammad Riza Pahlavi), who launched a Westernization campaign in Iran; Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the Tunisian independence movement; and others.

The Islamization of most Muslim societies has continued steadily, alongside their modernization and pursuit of Western education, knowhow and political models. It has surged again with a vengeance in response to the Jewish occupation of Palestine, American invasion and domination of Muslim countries, and U.S.-sponsored coups and U.S. support for oppressive governments in several of these countries. The current wave of Muslim militancy and terrorism against the United States and its allies is largely part of that reaction.

So is the hijab’s popularity among Muslim women, many of them Western educated.  In most non-Western countries, including Muslim ones, male domination of women is a tradition, and the virginity of unmarried women is a cherished value. Many Muslim men, no doubt, require their wives and daughters to wear the hijab in public, as typical Hindu men would bar their daughters from socializing with Muslim or Christian men. But most Muslim women wear the hijab with pride, and take offense at any criticism of the practice.

I encountered some of them during trips to Turkey. Strolling the upscale Istiqlal Caddsi in Istanbul, the tree-shaded Ataturk Bulvari in Ankara, and other Turkish urban centers, I would often come across young women in hijab chatting away with their older, bareheaded female companions, sometimes locking arms.

I engaged some of them in chitchats, and learned that the older women grew up during Turkey’s “Kemalist” era (mid-1920s through mid-1990s). Turkey was then going through an intense, if controversial, Westernization campaign, launched by the ultra-secularist Ataturk. Ataturk and his followers, the Kemalists, banned many Islamic symbols, including the hijab, from many public institutions.  Many Turks who grew up then still feel uncomfortable about adopting those Islamic symbols.  Among them are some of the older, uneducated, Turkish women. Many of their daughters and nieces, on other hand, resent the Kemalist Westernization drive, even though they may have acquired a secular Western education and appreciate Western values of freedom and democracy.

These young women believe that the abandonment of Islamic symbols and embrace of European ones by the Kemalists were an uncalled for insult to their proud Turkish Islamic heritage and culture.  One of them told me that the Kemalists were social “parasites,” and herself an authentic “heir” to Ottoman Turkey. The Ottomans, she reminded me, were the dominant European power for “two hundred years,” (actually from 1453 to 1529) and one of the greatest Islamic empires. These Muslim women’s worldview was explained by, among others, the renowned British social anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1925-1995).

“Contrary to what outsiders suppose,” wrote the Cambridge University professor, “the typical Muslim woman in a Muslim city doesn’t wear the veil because her grandmother did so, but because her grandmother did not [emphasis original]: her grandmother in her village was far too busy in he field, and she frequented the shrine without a veil, and left the veil to her betters. The granddaughter is celebrating the fact that she has joined her grandmother’s betters.”

I would encourage Asra Nomani to go on an extended trip to our native India and Muslim countries and communities elsewhere.  She would, I believe, better appreciate Muslim women’s attachment to the hijab.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).