By Barry Rubin
Without realizing it, Westerners constantly empower Islamism and other reactionary forces in the Muslim-majority countries. Here’s a good example, thanks to a Turkish reader, Okan Altiparmak. Speaking at the Bosphorus Conference in Istanbul, November 2, 2009, former President Bill Clinton thinks he’s being a nice, genial, non-arrogant, sympathetic American while blithely handing out ammunition to an anti-American regime.
As far as Clinton knows, I presume, he is being interviewed by a friendly and liberal-minded Turk. In fact, this man is the head of a construction company known for two things: being close to the regime and—according to one reliable source--disregarding environmental considerations. By the way, it should be mentioned that although Bill holds no official position in everything he says he is reflecting Obama Administration policy, which is of course implemented by his wife, Hilary, the OC (Other Clinton).
Clinton discusses a variety of issues openly but when he comes to Turkey itself the whole content is one of flattering the current regime. He thinks of it as a moderate Islamic-oriented government which proves that you can combine Islamic politics and democracy. I, and many Turks, think of it as an Islamist wolf in moderate sheep’s clothing that is continually narrowing the margin of freedom in Turkey and taking anti-American stances (for example, by supporting Iran and Syria).
But there is no hint that Bill understands any of this. Naturally, if he were to criticize some regime policies, the government wouldn’t like it. The regime, and those who support it, would say that Clinton is an arrogant American bully who wants to tell Turkey what to do.
Yet if he praises the regime--without even a hint of balance, much less criticism--he is still telling Turkey what to do, though unfortunately it is to do things quite dangerous for U.S. interests and regional stability. Moreover, the opposition—which includes a wide spectrum of political views--has good reason to conclude that Clinton and America is against them and pro-regime. This demoralizes them, especially after the lavish favor President Barack Obama has shown to the regime, honoring it with his visit and praising it as a great model in his own speech given in Istanbul.
At the same time, even among those who have voted for the AK, many are nervous about its intentions and wonder whether the regime is as its critics warn. (I've even met members of the party's parliamentary delegation who would like to see U.S. policy be more critical. The approach taken by Clinton and many other in the West helps convince them that it is safe to back the current government. Of course, seeing that U.S. policy supports the regime also makes the army forget any thoughts of pressuring or even overthrowing it some time if things get out of hand.
Yet as far as Bill is concerned, Turkey under the AK party regime is a big success. In the last ten years, he says, Turkey’s role in the world has grown and many of its domestic problems have been solved. He praises the AK’s leaders for moving from the historic secularist state to a society which respects freedom of religious expression.
Actually, secularists have been put on the defensive, facing harassment and also poor job prospects if they hold government jobs. Journalists and media have been intimidated. The small Jewish community is frightened as the government whips up passions which often cross the line from attacks on Israel to inciting antisemitism. I've seen all these things first-hand. Many are scared to criticize the regime, though others show courage, albeit without no encouragement from Western democracies.
In other words, the former U.S. president is praising the destruction of the Kemalist state and society in favor of an increasingly Islamic and Islamist-dominated one. He makes the new Turkey sound like the United States whereas the trend is actually (though one shouldn’t exaggerate it) in the direction of Iran.
What are the other things Bill sees as great accomplishments? The list is strange to say the least.
1. Turkey has a better position in the world. Really? The main forces with which Turkey has improved its relations are Iran, Syria, Sudan, Hamas, and Hizballah. Have U.S.-Turkish or Turkish-European relations improved? No.
2. There is more support for Turkey becoming a member of the European Union. This makes it sound like the Europeans are rewarding the current government with the great prize, so why should any Turk oppose it? Of course, opposition to Turkey’s membership has grown even stronger despite Turkey’s attempts to meet the EU’s demands for reforms. Only recently has it been clear beyond doubt that Turkey will never be admitted into the EU.
3. Turkey has a more mature policy toward Israel, criticizing it when it is wrong and praising it when it acts constructively. There hasn’t been too much praise under the AK, but to Turkish ears this sounds as if Bill is giving U.S. endorsement for the regime’s anti-Israel policies. In effect, Bill is praising the collapse of an alliance which benefited and was supported by the United States.
4. Turkey has made “progress toward building a more just society.” What has the regime done to make Turkey a fairer society? One might argue that things have not gotten much worse but it is ridiculous to say they have gotten better.
Then, his interviewer lays a trap for him by asking: "Turkey will constitute the middle road in the clash of civilizations. How do you see Turkey's place in this role?"
What does this mean in the Turkish context? Not the traditional idea of Turkey being a bridge between east and west in cultural terms—which Turkey was sometimes said to be doing when it was staunchly pro-Western in political terms--but rather the Islamist path as an alternative (a third way) to Communism and capitalism.
Basically, the interviewer is asking subtly whether Clinton will endorse the regime’s Islamist world view! Anyone who has closely followed Islamist rhetoric should understand this point. The question is a virtual paraphrase of the kind of thing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's revolution, used to say all the time.
And Bill falls right into the trap: "You are in a position to help the US and EU understand what is going on with those countries that are predominantly Islamic. You are also in the unique position to explain to the Islamic nations how they are viewed in the West."
In other words, he is telling Turks to define themselves as neutral at best rather than pro-Western. He is arguing that Turkey is better off seeing itself as an Islamic nation acting as a bridge than as a Western ally. More subtly, a Turkish listener sees this as a suggestion to define themselves in Islamist rather than as ethnic Turks. And the whole concept is silly any way since anyone who has really studied the Middle East knows, Arabic speakers never think of Turkey as a role model.
But there’s something far worse here, far far worse! Look at Clinton’s wording: Turkey will help the West understand Islamic countries and tell Islamic countries how the West views them. What’s missing? How about advocating Western values and interests in the Islamic world? Clinton doesn’t tell the Turks to spread democracy or liberalism or the views of the NATO alliance, or even democracy. He instead suggests that they act as the Muslim press agent in the West and the Muslim public relations’ advisor to the Muslims!
Again, this is so startling that it should be underlined: It is as if he is counseling the Turks: abandon the idea that you are part of the West and share the same interests. Think of yourself as mainly Muslims and join the other side.
Now, many anti-regime Turks will view this as a conspiracy, as Washington's way to back the Islamist regime to keep Turkey weak, or—more accurately—because the United States wants to create a model of a “moderate Muslim” regime at the cost of their freedom.
There is some truth in the latter view. But we understand that the main explanation of Bill’s view is simple ignorance. And this is what we too often see in the Obama Administration: praise the “Muslims” meaning praise the Islamists; praise the “Arabs” meaning praise the dictatorships; exalt engagement with Iran by turning your back on the democratic insurgents; and so on.
It is a form of multi-culturalism, telling Third World peoples to be your authentic selves; in this case: don’t be just an imitation of the West as Turks but instead act as real and proper Muslims.
Not only is all this profoundly shocking but it is profoundly shocking that the current U.S. leadership and large portions of the American elite don't realize that it is profoundly shocking.
In the name of apology, modesty, empathy, this is a policy that does terrible evil to the people supposedly being gratified, appeased, and helped. Yes, Turkey is a model, but it’s a model of a badly mistaken U.S. policy that assists a camouflaged advance of anti-American and radical Islamist power under the guise of moderation.
Note: Thanks to Okan Altiparmak, a Turkish filmmaker whose work can be found on his production company's website
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.