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September 4, 2014 6:53 am

The Limits of Democracy in the Middle East

avatar by Albert Wachtel


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: World Economic Forum.

Programmatic do-gooders, people who think themselves morally bound to leap to the side of those who seem to be underdogs, unwittingly are asking Israel to commit national suicide. The do-gooders seek compromise, but terrorists do not compromise. Hamas and its ilk in Gaza, who have attacked Israel with rockets, mortars, and attempts to sneak into the country by sea and through tunnels, have explicitly declared the murder of all Jews to be their goal. But the do-gooders justify their actions, saying that Hamas was elected democratically, after all.

Indeed, it was, and it is a gang of terrorists. One election does not make a democracy. And Hamas are “democrats” in name only.

More successful terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State may fully open America’s eyes to the nature of the terrorists in Gaza. Other “democratically elected” regimes in regions where democracy has no history present a less devastating but correlate problem. The democratically elected Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, is an ally of terrorists.

Before Erdogan’s democratic ascendency, his nation functioned very differently. Geographically, the upper tip of Turkey is in Europe; the rest is in the Middle East. The founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, saw the limitations of democracy in his region. In opposition to a majority of Turks, he undertook to emphasize that upper European tip of his nation in defiance of the comparatively immense Middle Eastern part. Ignoring the will of some of the people in Turkey, who would not have supported his vision, he constrained religious displays and religiously motivated political activities. With the help of a Europeanized intelligentsia and the military he commanded, Ataturk brought Turkey into relation to the modern European world. Thereafter, the military forcefully maintained the country’s secularity, undoing governments that leaned toward religion and arresting some religiously oriented figures, Recep Tayyip Erdogan among others, for seeking to undermine the state.

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Born in 1954 into one of those religious Muslim families, Erdogan studied at a religious school as a youngster and in 1974, at 20 wrote, directed and starred in a play, Maskomya, condemning Masons, Communists and Yahudi, Jews, as evil. Ultimately, free of history, the play asserts that Freemasons and communists are Jews, condemning all in one. Some were, of course; all is an additional step.

There are choices to be made in Islam between honoring Jews as “people of the book” and branding them as infidels. The play grimly reveals the latter stripe of Fundamentalist Islam that the self-aggrandizing young Erdogan embraced, perhaps cannily driven by the belief that hatred is a more effective means than love of uniting people. The military kept figures of his ilk under control until, with Turkey seeking entry into the European Union, naïve Western Europeans demanded that Turkey constrain its military and have it serve a democratically elected government.

People inclined toward religious hegemony will elect religious autocrats, and Turkey elected Erdogan. Where worshipful Muslims are a majority, democracy can turn the nation away from secular tolerance. The hating fundamentalist Erdogan was elected prime minister. Perceiving grumblings from the military, he had scores of high ranking officers arrested, replacing them with officers to his liking. Once elected, he took despotic control of the country, steering it to economic heights by supporting the rich and rewarding himself and his political associates by serving their personal financial interests. His religiosity placated the Muslim poor and he undertook to reassert Ottoman grandeur. When his personal corruption was revealed, Erdogan, an elected despot, did with the judiciary and the police force what he had done with the generals.

Internationally, Erdogan embraced fellow fundamentalists at once, strenuously backing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the Brotherhood’s armed Palestinian wing in Gaza. Erdogan’s ploy of supporting a shipment of aid to Gaza to challenge Israel’s long since justified blockade of the terrorists was his means of declaring solidarity with the hatred oriented fundamentalist Islamists. Hamas’ aim has been his. His past actions and demands that Hamas be freed from blockade were intended to result in the destruction of Israel and the death of Jews, and the ploy won him support among fundamentalist Arabs, and back home among some fervent Turkish Muslims.

Logical consistency is not a problem for Erdogan. Having declared Jews to be evil, he had no problem with Hamas’ declared intent to kill all Jews, and at the same time he asserted that that Muslims are incapable of genocide. Self interest persuaded him to back away from his declaration that Turkey would back a second “aid” ship to challenge the blockade of Gaza, perhaps in part because he knew that Qatar would fund the ship. Erdogan remains a loose gun, loaded with the bullets of democratic support.

It is time for us to recognize democracy for what it is, a fine form of government for people of good will. It has worked well enough in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel over the years. But it is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the ill intended with supporters among the ignorant.

Albert Wachtel is a professor at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges whose editorials have been published and syndicated by the “Los Angeles Times,”,”The Wall Street Journal” and “San Francisco Chronicle,” among other newspapers. He is also the author of “Critical Insights: James Joyce” (Salem Press, 2013).

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