The Protocols of the Elders of Turkey

By Mustafa Akyol
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Look in just about any bookstore in Turkey, and you'll see some of the strangest bestsellers imaginable. The cover of "The Children of Moses," the first and most popular book in a series of four, shows the country's devoutly Muslim prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the middle of a six-pointed Star of David. Inside, you'll find a head-spinningly weird argument: that Erdogan and his conservative allies in Turkey's ruling pro-Islamic party are actually crypto-Jews with secret wicked ties to the conspiratorial forces of "global Zionism."

The books are hardly a fringe phenomenon. They're arrayed in chic bookstores along Istiklal Avenue, the funky pedestrian mall that's the heart of secular Istanbul. They're openly displayed alongside Orhan Pamuk novels at Ataturk International Airport. And they're even sold on tiny bookstands on the Princes' Islands, the vacation destinations in the Sea of Marmara that many well-off Turks view the way Manhattanites do the Hamptons. By the publishers' figures, they've sold about 520,000 copies since the books started rolling out this year -- a staggering figure for a nation of about 71 million people.

Of course, paranoid theories about Jewish conspiracies have never lacked for imagination. "International Jewry" has been blamed for destroying both czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, for cooking up both capitalism and communism. But dreaming up a conspiracy theory about a Zionist plot to create an Islamist state? That's a new one.

In fact, the politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) whom the books accuse of being Israeli stooges have strong Islamic identities. The cover of the first volume shows not only Erdogan in the middle of the six-pointed star, but also his wife, Emine, who is famous in Turkey for wearing a traditionalist Islamic headscarf -- perhaps the world's least likely crypto-Zionist conspirator.

Ergun Poyraz, who wrote the series, is a self-declared "Kemalist," the term used here to describe the committed followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the resolutely secular war hero who founded modern Turkey in 1923. The politicians whom Poyraz is out to skewer define themselves as sensible conservatives, but they're derided as closet fundamentalists by their foes among Turkey's traditional elites, who are still deeply suspicious of any intrusion of Islam into the public sphere. Poyraz's books argue -- apparently in all seriousness -- that "Zionism" has decided to steer Turkey away from its time-worn secular path and turn it into a "moderate Islamic republic." It is hard to believe that "Zionism" (let alone any sane Israeli leader) would prefer an Islamist Turkey to a secular one, but Poyraz is convinced that a mildly Islamic state would be more easily manipulated by foreign powers than a staunchly nationalist one.

Poyraz doesn't present evidence to support his bewildering claims, which aren't documented, footnoted or backed up with any credible facts. His method throughout is to cherry-pick irrelevant data, then build wild speculation on them. The series is among the most creative sequels to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the anti-Semitic classic propagated by the czarist secret service a century ago. So why are these lunatic books bestsellers, featured in the windows of virtually every grand bookstore in Turkey? And why are the supposedly open-minded secularists, not the alleged Islamists, the ones peddling anti-Semitism?

The answer, oddly enough, is connected to the anti-Europe sentiment that has exploded here in recent years. Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has accelerated Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Some Europeans aren't keen to let a Muslim democracy join their Christian club, but E.U. membership has proved widely popular in Turkey. In turn, that has encouraged Turkey's xenophobic and anti-democratic forces -- who fear that European liberties would be dangerous and corrupting -- to crawl out of the woodwork. Opponents of the E.U. bid insist that the Turkish Republic faces grave threats from enemies within and without, and warn that the only way to save the country is to keep it illiberal and closed.

What is most striking in this nationwide division is that the so-called Islamists are generally on the liberal pro-Western side, while the secularists are often on the other. In the general election held on July 22, the "Islamist" AKP had the most strongly pro-E.U. platform, whereas the ultra-secularist Republican People's Party tried to woo voters with Euro-skeptic rhetoric. (The AKP won the elections with a clear victory of 47 percent, while its main secular rival took 21 percent.) The AKP is also a strong proponent of free markets and foreign investment, whereas most secularist politicians see such things as "imperialist" and favor a state-protected economy. As Ziya Onis, a political economist at Koc University in Istanbul, said recently, the current power struggle in Turkey is between "conservative globalists" and "defensive nationalists" -- including the ultra-secular Kemalists.

In this context, the mystifying bestsellers make more sense: as a smear campaign cheered on by Turkey's spooked secularists, who hope that vilifying the AKP leadership as Jewish agents will help scare away the party's supporters, thereby staving off E.U. membership and limiting Turkey's exposure to corrosive European ideas.

The books' odd fusion of anti-Semitism and Kemalism also has a historical pedigree. When Ataturk raised modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, he wisely decided to orient it toward the West. But during his time in power (1923-38), the West included not only democracies such as the United States and Britain but dictatorships such as fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Ataturk never admired these tyrannies, but some of his aides and followers certainly did, and they incorporated numerous fascist elements into Turkey's state-sponsored brand of secular nationalism. Fantasies about the supremacy of the Turkish race soon became official rhetoric. Turkey adopted corporatism, Benito Mussolini's state-dominated economic model, and when Ataturk died, he was declared the country's "eternal chief." His successor, Mustafa Ismet Inonu, introduced a heavy "wealth tax" in 1942 that specifically targeted Jews. Unable to pay, many were sent to labor camps in eastern Turkey.

This dark episode of Turkish history ended after the Allies' victory in World War II, which forced the Kemalist elite to shift from single-party rule to democracy. But unlike other European nations, Turkey never engaged in much self-criticism of its interwar chauvinism -- which let ultra-nationalist themes persist as legitimate ideas. When the E.U. admission process pushed Turkey to liberalize itself, these skeletons came out of the closet.

Last February, the country was shocked by the exposure of a fascist gang called the Union of Patriotic Forces, led by Fikri Karadag, a retired colonel. The group's secret oath included the words, "I am of pure Turkish stock, and there is no Jewish convert in my blood," as well as a promise to "kill and to be killed" for the sake of "making the Turkish nation the lord of the world."

In June, police found 27 hand grenades and stacks of TNT in an Istanbul house belonging to another fascist gang with shadowy links to the country's security forces. The bust led the authorities to other cells, and Poyraz, the prolific anti-Semitic author, was among their members. After his arrest, the lawyer who rushed to defend him was none other than Kemal Kerincsiz, who has lately made a name for himself by suing dozens of liberal intellectuals -- including the Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk -- for "insulting Turkishness."

The trial of Poyraz and his comrades goes on. So does Turkey's own trial by radical nationalism. Many in Washington are concerned about what President Bush calls "Islamofascism." But that term too easily misleads us into assuming that there's a direct link between Islam and fascism. In fact, xenophobia and authoritarianism have their own complex roots in the societies where they thrive and may be mingled with almost any sort of religion or irreligion. In Turkey, they are becoming less linked with Islam and more with secularism.


Mustafa Akyol is deputy editor of the Turkish Daily News.

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