We Need More Erdogans

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

Turkey’s Ottoman Empire died an unwept death nearly a century ago. But the country continues to enjoy a unique eminence of leadership across the Middle East and in much of the Muslim world.  And Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly justified this love and respect for his country with his political courage and candor.

From the lashing Erdogan gave to Israel’s Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos following the Gaza offensive earlier this year to his call this week demanding UN action on Justice Richard Goldstone’s report, Turkey continues to show rare leadership. Erdogan’s nation stands up for justice and fair play, rather than go along with the shameful double standards that the rest of the world seems to take in its stride.

This is remarkable for a country that enjoys close, strategic relations with the United States, is a NATO member and hopes to be the first Muslim country to join the European Union.

More important, it has full diplomatic relations with Israel and is perhaps the only Muslim country with which Israel has close economic and military ties. (So you can’t really throw the regulation accusation of ‘anti-Semitism’ against Ankara.) 

This is largely because of Turkey’s historical relations with the Jewish community. The Ottoman caliphs sheltered and protected the Jews for centuries while they were being hunted and killed all across Christian Europe. 

However, these close ties haven’t deterred Turkey’s present leadership from confronting Israel on its persecution of Palestinians.

Turkey, Erdogan told a huge public rally last week, had never been on the side of oppressors and it had always defended the oppressed: “We are not against any country, but we are against injustice.”

He stopped short of pointing out that yesterday’s oppressed had become today’s oppressors.

Meanwhile in an interesting interview with Britain’s Guardian this week, Erdogan turned the spotlight on another piece of international theatre involving Israel. Commenting on Iran’s nuclear conflict with the US and Europe, the Turkish Prime Minister has slammed the West for being unfair to Iran and applying double standards on the issue.

Dismissing the Western hysteria over Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons as ‘gossip,’ the Turkish leader pointed out that many of those lecturing Iran today on its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons had large nuclear arsenals at their disposal.

In doing so, Erdogan has given voice to an overwhelming majority around the world that has long felt that the West is unreasonably targeting Iran — just as Iraq had been – even as it turns a blind eye to Israel’s nukes.

This is not the first time Erdogan has underscored the international duplicity.  During the UN General Assembly session and the debate on nuclear disarmament in New York last month, he reminded the world that Israel has nuclear weapons and has used the banned phosphorous bombs against Palestinians. “Why are these not on the UN agenda? Why is it always Iran?” he demanded.  

If only more Muslim leaders could think and act like Erdogan and confront big bullies of our world, their people wouldn’t be in the mess that they are in today.

Speaking truth to power is never easy.  But it is especially difficult in the Middle East. The rest of the world may have bid farewell to colonial hegemony long ago. But the world’s most volatile and sensitive region remains a hostage of its imperial past and its divisive legacy in some way or the other. Which is why leaders such as Erdogan come as a ray of hope in an otherwise dark and dull Middle Eastern sky.

I wonder why no other Muslim leader has had the courage to hold a mirror to the West over Iran.  You didn’t hear a single voice of protest across the Middle East against this relentless campaign targeting Iran.

Is it because Iran is a Shia nation and majority of the Muslim world happens to be Sunni? Or do we truly believe the fiction that Iran’s nuclear program and its so-called expansionist ambitions are targeted at its Arab and Muslim neighbors?

How can we ignore the historical reality that until our colonial masters arrived, Arabs and Iranians and Sunnis and Shias had coexisted in peace and total harmony for centuries since the dawn of Islam?

The disastrous, 8-year-long war between Iraq and Iran, the only Arab-Persian conflict in post Islam history, that claimed nearly a million lives had been a gift of the West.

When will we realize that from Palestine to Pakistan the Muslim world is on fire today because of our silence and inaction over the games big powers have been playing in the Middle East for decades.  And we are silent once again even as the whole world debates the UN report on Gaza and demands action against Israel.

Hundreds of peace activists, human rights groups and bloggers around the world have been running a tireless campaign to hold Israel to account for its war crimes.   

It was thanks to their noble efforts that the UN Human Rights Council decided to refer Goldstone’s findings to the UN Security Council.  Defying the US pressure and boycott by the Europeans, the council voted 19 against three to send the report on Gaza to the Security Council.

The matter now rests before the five permanent members of the Security Council. The Big Five have to decide if Israel should be asked to probe the Gaza war crimes or recommend the International Criminal Court action against Israel.  But the US is likely to do neither.

Israel’s patron saint could simply veto any UN initiative against Israel, as it always has. The Gaza report stands no chance in the UN as long as the US is there to protect Israel. And it will continue to protect the Israelis even if their hands are dripping with the blood of innocents as long as the Arab and Muslim countries do not speak in one voice.

The report by the South African Jewish judge is not without its flaws.  First of all it puts Israel and Hamas on the same level for crimes against humanity during the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza.  Which is absurd. One is a nuclear power and the most powerful military in the Middle East and the other is a resistance group. All Hamas has at its disposal are its rudimentary rockets.

Even more absurd is Goldstone’s recommendation asking Israel to investigate its own crimes against Palestinians. How can Israel probe its own sins? And even if it does so to mollify the world opinion, how legitimate can be such an exercise and what would it achieve? Surely, Israel cannot resolve to punish itself!

However, the UN report is crucial in that it sets a historic precedent of confronting a criminal, ruthless power against an utterly defenseless and long persecuted civilian population.

Israel has got away with murder, literally, all these years because the world has failed to confront it and its protectors. This is why it keeps killing and terrorizing the Palestinians again and again.  This would stop only if the Israelis are made to pay for their appalling crimes. And the Goldstone report provides a rare opportunity to do so.

By a strange coincidence, the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and the larger General Assembly are with two countries that are sympathetic to Palestinians – Turkey and Libya.

UN chief Bank Ki-Moon is under intense pressure to end the world body’s inaction on the issue. So it is possible to confront Israel even if its friends try to protect it once again. All it needs is unity in the ranks of Arab and Muslim states. Only this can persuade the US from blindly protecting Israel. 

So can the Arab and Muslim countries, and all reasonable people everywhere, please stand up and speak out for a change? History will not forgive them if they fail to do so yet again.

-Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: aijaz@khaleejtimes.com.

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