It drives me absolutely bonkers to hear the buck-ignorant bigotry which people are coming out with about Islam in Turkey, writes Victoria White.

That the Turkish parliament yesterday considered reintroducing the death penalty is a tragedy. That Angela Merkel and the EU institutions were lining up this week to threaten Turkish president Recep Erdogan that the death penalty would mean Turkey could not join the EU is the ultimate irony.

Because it was the EU — notably Austria — that pulled the plug on Erdogan’s advancing accession process back in 2005, a year after the death penalty was banned in Turkey. Even today, Austria’s adorable presidential hopeful Norbert Hofer promises to lead his country out of the EU if Turkey accedes.

“Those in the EU who cannot digest Turkey being in the EU are against an alliance of civilisations,” said Erdogan in 2005. “The cost resulting from this will be paid by them.”

He knew that Turkey’s bid was scuppered by Islamophobia as old as Islam itself. It was scuppered by a primal fear of the other.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters gathered in front of his residence in Istanbul, on Tuesday. Picture: Kayhan Ozer/Pool Photo via AP
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters gathered in front of his residence in Istanbul, on Tuesday. Picture: Kayhan Ozer/Pool Photo via AP

Now Turkey considers becoming the other in a fit of rage at the attacks on its democracy from within and without. The attacks from within are more easily defined. Up to 3,000 members of the army took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara last Friday and proceeded to kill nearly 200 of their own people and wound hundreds more with tanks and gun-fire.

We do not need the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen to explain the coup. The Turkish army ran the Turkish state with very little interruption from its foundation by a military leader, Kemal Ataturk, to the election of Erdogan and his AKP Party in 2002.

They are used to power and can’t bear to be sidelined. I have seen them in action before. I wound up in Turkey as a teenager in the aftermath of the 1981 military coup when the country was run by goose-stepping soldiers in braided uniforms. Unlike most Western journalists, I do not harbour any nostalgia for Turkey’s “secular” past.

Secular Turkey was built around the cult of Kemal Ataturk and run by the army. It was — and still is — illegal to speak ill of Ataturk or his legacy and it is for a suspected infringement of this law that the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk is guarded by agents of Erdogan’s Turkey from secular, nationalist elements.

In fact, the AKP bears comparison with Fianna Fáil in the 1930s in that it represents the first opportunity that the working class and the lower middle-class have wrested power from an elite. Erdogan began his political life as a moderniser on the lines of Lemass. He has transformed the economic fortunes of his country. This is why the Turkish people have voted for him so overwhelmingly three times and his popularity is highly comparable to that of Bertie Ahern.

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern

The new tolerance of Islam which Erdogan initiated means girls can now wear headscarves to school and women can wear them to college. The past is no longer blotted out. Imams now learn Ottoman Turkish and can read the headstones of their ancestors.

It drives me absolutely bonkers to hear the buck-ignorant bigotry which people are coming out with about Islam in Turkey. Turkey has far less imprint of Islam on its structures than we do of Catholicism. Let’s be clear about this: By comparison with Turkey, Ireland is a theocracy.

It makes me laugh until I cry to see the international media lighting up with the news that there is a female Turkish judge who wears a head-scarf — when you’re asked to take an oath on a Bible in court in many countries of the Western world including the US, the UK, and Ireland.

Ah, but the Koran is different, isn’t it? Isn’t Erdogan secretly plotting to turn Turkey into a Muslim state and stop being the guard-dog on Nato’s eastern gate?

This is how the rule of Erdogan has been spun in the West and for months I have been saying: “They’re softening us up for a coup.” A caller to Marian Finucane’s show on RTÉ at the weekend asked why Western governments weren’t supporting the coup if it was against Islam.

But did they? Not for a minute do I believe that no-one in Nato knew the plans some thousands of their allies and counterparts in the Turkish army. France closed her embassies in Istanbul and Ankara on July 13 amid “security concerns”. French president Francois Hollande was warning of “repression” after the coup as early as Saturday when one would have thought a victory for the democratically elected leader might have been foremost on his agenda.

Turkish democracy deserves our support, not our condescension

Even the leading Turkish journalist Sevgi Akarcesme — not surprisingly a stern critic of Erdogan’s considering he closed down her Daily Zaman newspaper — was asking on Twitter on Friday night if the US knew the coup was going to happen.

There are clearly massive issues with Erdogan’s rule. His attacks on press freedom have no parallel in the Western world. His bid to change the Constitution to give himself presidential powers was a naked power grab, only foiled last year by a vote of parliament in what is still a democracy.

He and all of his apparatchik were formed in a military state which repressed their religion in terrible ways. He, and surely most of them, bear these scars. I have spoken to quite a few former supporters who think he has completely lost the plot.

But Islam is not and never was the issue. Muslims must have the right to democracy and they must have the right to elect Muslims. Muslims must have the freedom to practise their religion like anyone else. These are basic human rights and every time we attempt to deny them we give a license to some fundamentalist head-the-ball to do his worst.

The irony of Western countries that bray to the world about their democracy but fail to respect any result they don’t like is not lost on the Turkish people. It builds in them a fury of resentment which may yet have awful consequences.

Last Friday night, the people of Turkey showed the most astonishing courage as they took on the military force attacking their democracy. We watched them stand unarmed in front of military tanks in images reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. We watched them climb on tanks and “blind” the windows with tarpaulins. They massed on squares and in streets even though their own army greeted them with a hail of bullets.

The Turkish people deserve our total respect even if we would not vote for the same people and do not share their religion. They are not just “forces loyal to Erdogan” , they are valiant defenders of the democracy which is crucial not just for them, but for Europe, the Middle East and the rest of the world. They deserve not our condescension but our unblinking support in the difficult weeks and months ahead.

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