By challenging Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos on January 29, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan captured the imagination of millions of people, especially Muslims, around the world. His 56-word response to Peres echoed globally: “You are older than me and your voice is very loud. The reason for your raising your voice is the psychology of guilt. I will not raise my voice that much. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on the beaches.” While the American moderator, David Ignatius tried to cut Erdogan off by advancing the excuse that dinner was getting late, the Turkish premier’s insistence on responding to Peres and then walking out in protest from the forum catapulted him among Muslims worldwide, not least in Palestine where he has now joined President Ahmedinejad and Hizbullah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah as the most popular Muslim leaders. He returned home to a hero’s welcome.
Together with Erdogan, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa also participated in the television chat show during the annual World Economic Forum at Davos but each was allocated only 12 minutes. Peres, the final speaker was given 25 minutes. What irked Erdogan was that Peres proudly talked about killing Palestinians for which he was applauded. Erdogan insisted on responding to Peres’s diatribe.
What made Erdogan so popular, especially among Muslims? First, there has been universal revulsion at Israeli barbarism against the defenseless people of Ghazzah. Second, far from coming to their rescue, most Middle Eastern rulers sided with Israel against the Palestinians. Erdogan’s stand came as a breath of fresh air. It also reflected a newfound confidence among Muslims that they need not fear Israel or its backer, the US. Iran and Hizbullah have already demonstrated that but others needed to speak out. And Erdogan did.
Some Westerner commentators have speculated that Erdogan acted out for electoral reasons citing local elections due in Turkey this month. True, his stand at Davos has elevated his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) standing among the electorate but it would be unfair to suggest that Erdogan did not feel any empathy for the Palestinians. Whether this will translate into change in Turkish policy vis-à-vis Israel is a different matter.
Turkey is among the few Muslim countries to have diplomatic relations with the Zionist State dating back to 1950. Throughout much of Turkey’s modern history, it has been staunchly secular. Thanks to the imposed ideology of Kemalism, Islam is not allowed any say in state affairs despite the vast majority of Turkish people being observant Muslims. Wearing hijab among Turkish women is widespread, of whom at least 60 percent observe it but secular fanatics prohibit them from wearing it in universities, State-run schools and government departments. This has not deterred Turkish women. Those who can afford to go abroad to study do so; others enroll at private schools and universities in order to continue to wear the hijab.
Erdogan has not been able to lift such silly restrictions imposed by the secular fanatics although he attempted to do so last year. At a more crucial level, he has not and will not be able to cut the deep military links between their two countries. The Turkish military holds regular exercises with the Israelis. There are also plans to purchase Israeli weapons. Nor will the crisis in Ghazzah or the sharp exchange in Davos lead to downgrading of trade relations much less breaking diplomatic ties. These sectors are controlled by the secular establishment that maintains a tight grip on vital state sectors because of military backing despite their narrow support base among the masses.
There was also a personal reason for Erdogan’s displeasure with the Zionists. He had acted as mediator between Israel and Syria as well as passed messages to Hamas. And on December 23, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Turkey where he met Erdogan but did not inform him of the impending military assault of Ghazzah. He felt betrayed. How could the Zionists indulge in peace talks while preparing for a murderous assault against the defenseless Palestinians?
Regardless of the reasons for his displeasure, Erdogan has shown that those who stand up to the Zionists would immediately enjoy support of the Muslim masses. This is an important development.