The Flotilla attack and Turkey’s views of Palestine

Protestors in Beirut carry Turkish flags and pictures of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a day after Israel’s attacks on the Freedom Flotilla. (Matthew Cassel)

Turkish society has been deeply divided over many issues, from political allegiances to cultural preferences. The public sphere in Turkey is more a realm of appropriation and exclusion than one of mutual agreement and consensus building. However, when it comes to Palestine — as the current furor of Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza — demonstrates, there is a surprising consensus.

The fact that the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) represents a sea change in the political structure only adds more intensity to deep seated social divisions; primarily between the Kemalist secularists — wedded to the Turkish Republic’s founding philosophy — and the Islamists of AKP and its predecessors. Media, as it is in many other contexts, is one of the main battlefronts of this ongoing struggle. The turf war has been particularly intense in the last few years after a number of the commonly perceived spokespersons of the Kemalist secularists were arrested. In addition, the judiciary has come under severe criticism for preparing the ground for regime change. Also on the political forefront have been the long awaited constitutional amendments, not to mention the continuing Kurdish problem.

Yet, poll after poll showed that Israel is one of the least favored countries for the Turkish population and there is overwhelming support for the Palestinian cause. When the Israeli commandos raided Mavi Marmara, the ship carrying over 600 activists in the early morning hours of 31 May, and killed, according to the latest news, at least 9 activists, and wounded around 30, the denunciation was also almost unanimous in the Turkish press. The details are still not clear as the Israeli forces cut all communications with Mavi Marmara, and the other ships in the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. What is clear is that this represents the most severe crisis between Turkey and Israel, perhaps the culmination of a series of tensions of the last two years.

The response of Prime Minister Erdoğan has been swift. In his first statement, he called the raid “an act of state terrorism,” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in its statement that “this deplorable incident, which took place in open seas and constitutes a fragrant breach of international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations.” Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu requested that the UN Security Council convene for an emergency meeting and called the Israeli raid “an act of piracy.” The two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party, and the Nationalist Movement Party, also condemned Israel and declared that they were in agreement with the AKP to take the issue to international organizations.

The streets have also been busy. Although the protests appear to have been actively supported mainly by Islamists, they have lasted until late in the evening gathering around 5,000 to 10,000 people. In short, from media to street politics, there has been a national mobilization against the Israeli raid since the news reached Turkey.

However, behind the facade of consensus, subtle nuances and minor reservations reveal the dividing lines in Turkish politics. Despite the fact that the condemnation of the Israeli raid is without reservation in the front pages, and that no major media outlet is taking the Israeli claims of “self-defense” or a planned strategy of “provocation” seriously, the nuances and their meanings are expressed by newspaper columnists. This peculiar Turkish form of “journalism” has traditionally been a strong venue for either making editorial statements, or engaging in public debate. Even though the editorials and columnists play important roles in the media and the public life in other countries too, they have come to exert an unprecedented influence in Turkish public life and consequently, even in Turkish politics.

In the influential daily Hürriyet, liberal columnist Hadi Uluengin appealed to Jewish common sense with quotations from and exegesis of the Old Testament. (“Israel and Exodus,” 1 June) Ertuğrul Özkök, a columnist known to create controversy and former general director of Hürriyet, wrote an open letter to “Israeli friends” asking them to stop the cycle of violence (“I am Appealing to You my Israeli Friends,” 1 June). However, writing in the same paper, columnist Fatih Çekirge placed the emphasis on the national interests of Turkey and warned the government and the public, not to fall into “the Israeli trap” of provoking a violent “Islamic response” in order to severe Turkish ties with the West. (“This is an Israeli Trap”).

It is in this vein, others argue, that Turkey is somehow forced to take on a role that is disproportionate with its capabilities or national interests. Writing in another major daily, Sabah Mehmet Barlas warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be seen as a personal fight for Erdogan, (“We Witnessed Two Terrorist Acts in One Day,” 1 June). Writing in Vatan, columnist Göngör Mengi, voiced a similar opinion albeit with a more nationalist emphasis. (“Israel is a Problem for the World, not for Us,” 1 June).

Voices more critical of the government also point out the contradiction that while Taksim Square, the main venue for making a public statement, had been closed to major demonstrations, (May 1st demonstrations had been a major source of contention between the trade unions and the successive governments and led to violent police repression only to be allowed this year after almost three decades), the “Islamist” crowd was almost welcome to the square (Mine Kırıkkanat, Vatan, “The Maturity of the State”, 1 June).

Situated further to the right of the Turkish political spectrum, columnist Hasan Celal Güzel argued that the Israeli raid was an example of “Zionist excess.” His analysis extolled the heroism of Turkish nationalism mixed with a nostalgia for the imperial state tradition (Radikal, “Zionist Rage,” 1 June). Regardless of their political affiliations, most of the columnists agreed that Israel had made its last big mistake and that this final act of brutality would be a turning point not only in the bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel, but how Israel is perceived by the world.

Behind the facade of consensus also lies another major weakness of the Turkish media; a genuine interest in the region. The front pages of the Turkish media may be adamant today about their political stand, and the columnists steadfast about their interpretations, the fact remains that there are very few institutionalized forms of information about the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. There are only a handful journalists from the mainstream media who could claim a genuine interest and in-depth knowledge about the region, let alone, adequate language skills to report from there.

So even though the Turkish media seems to be a united front against Israeli brutality, and shows strong support for the Palestinian cause, it is important to differentiate between a genuine commitment for a coherent political stand and journalism based on solid principles and a nationalist fervor that fuels empty rhetoric that could easily be forgotten. It should be remembered that the recent attack on a naval base by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which killed six soldiers, was carried out on the same day as the Israeli raid and created the ideal conditions for propagating a siege mentality that only aggravates nationalist discourse. It is unclear what the impact on public opinion will be as the activists from the Freedom Flotilla return home (three of the crew members of the cargo ship, Gazze, which was closely following the Mavi Marmara, have already returned and were interviewed by one of the major TV channels) and more of the details of the raid become public. Even more important will be the reaction of the public to the funerals of those killed by Israeli forces. The way the media and the government will represent and handle this reaction is also likely to determine the form and the content of the politics of crisis in the short-run.

The real hope, however, lies in the creation of a discourse and a practice of solidarity based on a genuine attempt to understand the circumstances prevalent in Palestine, which is at the same time a ground for self-reflection. Whether or not this can be expected from the mainstream Turkish media is highly dubious.

Murat Dagli is a PhD candidate in Middle East History at the University of California, Berkeley.