Obama in Turkey: Another Missed Opportunity?

President Obama’s coming trip to Turkey will not feature his first “major speech” in a Muslim nation.  But, as Secretary of State Clinton explained, the trip was “a reflection of the value we place on our friendship with Turkey.” She spelled out the substantive reasons for that friendship: “We share a commitment to democracy, a secular constitution, respect for religious freedom and belief and in free market and a sense of global responsibility.”

For Obama to stand for those things in the Islamic world would be good. But does Turkey?

For decades, Turkey has been a cornerstone of NATO, essential to the defense of Europe and America’s most underrated ally.  But that stature and our relationship have eroded.
Compared to the Turkey of the 1970s and 1980s, today’s Turkey is far less committed to democracy and secular government.  

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), while Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced Turkish secularism: “If the people want it,” he declared, “of course secularism will go away. You cannot rule this people by force; you don’t have the power to do that. This [i.e. secularism] cannot work in spite of the people.”

And the people, he suggested, wanted Islamic law: “But the fact is that 99% of the people of this country are Muslims. You cannot be both secular and a Muslim! You will either be a Muslim, or secular!…For them to exist together is not a possibility! Therefore, it is not possible for a person who says ‘I am a Muslim’ to go on and say ‘I am secular too.’ And why is that? Because Allah, the creator of the Muslim, has absolute power and rule!”

Erdogan was imprisoned for four months in 1998 for his agitation for the restoration of Islamic law in Turkey: he had declared that “mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, believers our soldiers. This holy army guards my religion. Almighty our journey is our destiny, the end is martyrdom.”

Islam has historically always been a political and social system as well as an individual religious faith. Islamic law, Sharia, is a comprehensive system governing every aspect of individual behavior. It also contains laws for the governance of the state and the ordering of society. If it is imposed in Turkey, women and non-Muslims would be subjugated under a system of institutionalized discrimination; the freedom of conscience and of speech would be restricted; and the relatively Westernized aspects of Turkish society would wither away.

In light of all this, and especially given Clinton’s statement, Obama in Turkey could deliver a ringing defense of secular government — that is, of the First Amendment principle of non-establishment of religion as being the only workable basis for any genuinely pluralistic society. And given Clinton’s praise for Turkey’s “respect for religious freedom,” Obama could speak out for the rights of the embattled Christian minority in Turkey, which faces increasing harassment with the complicity or indifference of government officials. But will he?  Probably not.

In 2005, journalist Sando Magister reported that “apart from lacking legal recognition, in fact, these [Christian] minorities are prevented from constructing, and even from restoring, their places of worship, from possessing buildings and land, and from opening schools. Christians are forbidden from taking up some offices and professions, particularly in the military.” In southeastern Turkey, Muslims are now disputing the centuries-old boundary line of the Mor Gabriel Monastery — local Christians charge that the dispute is part of a larger pattern of anti-Christian activity that is sanctioned by Turkish officials. Sometimes Christians are also physically threatened: just two weeks ago, a Christian bookstore in southern Turkey was threatened and then twice vandalized by Islamic jihadists.

In earlier talks with Russian representatives and in speaking of coming talks with the Chinese, Clinton has spoken derisively of human rights concerns, saying those issues “can’t interfere” with economic or security matters.

It’s hardly believable that Obama would say different things to the Turks. It is much more likely that he will ignore the attacks on Turkish secularism and the rights of non-Muslims in Turkey and make his address there part of his ongoing attempts to reach out a conciliatory hand to the Islamic world.

Unfortunately, there have not yet been any signs whatever that his conciliatory gestures have been taken as anything but signs of weakness and naivete, and consequently they have been reciprocated only with the contempt and aggressiveness with which oppressors always meet appeasers. Thus Obama’s address in Turkey is, both for the President and for Turks who are concerned about the assaults on Turkish secularism by the Erdogan government, another opportunity missed.