Kemal Ökem (standing right) and me (standing left) in discussion. (Credit: Yoni Reif)
I participated yesterday in a conference about the eastern Mediterranean at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) just outside Tel Aviv; and because Tel Aviv is the diplomatic center of Israel, its events attract a good number of diplomats. Yesterday was no exception, with a foreign minister and other diplomats from several eastern Mediterranean countries, including Albania, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey.
My talk surveyed the role of Islamism in the region. In the question-and-answer period, Turkey's newly-appointed ambassador, Kemal Ökem, vigorously protested points I had made about his country. I defended these, then challenged Ökem (in a video that can be viewed here):
Pipes: I started going to Turkey in 1972. I studied Turkish, not very successfully, but I did study it. I've gone back many times. And at this point, I dare not go back to Turkey because I am critical, as you may have heard, of the government and, in particular, I supported the July 15th coup [a position] which is absolutely an outrage in Turkey. And so, I dare not go back to Turkey. And so, let me ask you, Mr. Ambassador, would it be it safe for me to go to Turkey and spend some time there or just go through the airport? You have a great airline that I would love to use but I dare not use it. Would I be safe going to Turkey?
Ökem: If you say that you support the failed coup attempt that killed 250 Turkish civilians and if you that say you support the kind of organization which we call a terrorist organization, which is a religious cult by the way, and trying to export something, if you say that, I would rather advise you not to go there because you be an accomplice, considered an accomplice. [laughter]
Pipes: That's what I was expecting.
Ökem: It's an expected answer but it's legitimate answer. I mean, I would advise you to find good legal advice before you travel to Turkey.
The name of that "terrorist organization" was not spoken, but Ökem was referring to the so-called Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü, or FETÖ (Fethullah Terror Organization). To the rest of the world, it's the Hizmet movement founded by Fethullah Gülen, a former close and important ally of Erdoğan's until the two of them split. No one else sees it as violent, much less terroristic. Erdoğan's accusation that it organized the July 2016 coup attempt is noxious and absurd.
This ambassador's statement has several interesting implications:
- Left unspoken was what would happen to me, were I foolish enough to venture to Turkey, so I'll make it explicit here: as someone deemed an accomplice of FETÖ, I would be jailed without charges and held for who-knows-how-long.
- This is despite my having a long record of being critical of the Gülen movement. For example, the Middle East Quarterly, a journal I publish, ran so important a critical article on Hizmet by Rachel Sharon-Krespin in 2009 that it was translated and prominently featured by the leftist Turkish daily Cumhuriyet.
- An arch critic of the Soviet Union, such as my father, Richard Pipes, had no problem visiting Russia in the still-repressive post-Stalinist era. In other words, Ankara, a member of NATO and a formal ally of the United States, imposes a higher level of thought control than did the U.S.S.R.
- Turkish Airlines would seem to be the only airline whose passengers must pass an ideological test if they hope to complete their journey without danger of getting thrown in jail.
My Cold Warrior father, Richard Pipes, could visit Leningrad in 1959.
I have visited Turkey, one of my favorite destinations, 10 times over 45 years, with the final trip in 2012. I shall miss the country. Like tens of millions of Turks, I look forward to celebrating the early termination of the Erdoğan regime.