My Response to the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Last Tuesday (August 20) in Ankara, Turkey's prime minister, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made a startling statement. He claimed to have "proof" that "Israel and a Jewish intellectual" were responsible for the Egyptian military's removal from power of President Mohamed Morsi. When asked about the identity of the intellectual in question, both the prime minister and his spokesmen gave my name. The purported proof of the conspiracy was a short video that has been circulating on YouTube for two years showing me in an open debate with Tzipi Livni, now Israel's minister of justice, in which I expressed my deep antipathy for the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Because this outburst of paranoia on the part of a leader of a G20 member state caused a minor furor in Turkey, Israel, and around the world, I felt compelled to clarify the situation in the form of an extensive interview with the Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet. The interview appeared in Istanbul on August 24 and 25 and is reproduced here in its entirely with the kind permission of the interviewer, Ms. Duygu Guvenc.

Why do you think that Erdogan mentioned you by name and held you responsible for the overthrow of the government in Egypt?

He's out of his mind. He's come unhinged, flipped out. Sorry, but in France, in the United States, people can't stop laughing.

Do you have the power to do that? Is there anybody in the world powerful enough to change the government of another country?

Of course not! That's what makes this business so grotesque. It's a classic scenario. You're faced with a situation that you don't understand. You've lost your grip on the tiller. You've also lost a client, the Muslim Brotherhood, on which you had bet heavily and for which you had great ambitions. And boom, in the panic, you look for a simple explanation. A diabolical one. And in the category of "the devil's work" no one has ever found better than the indestructible "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which, I remind you, has been a bestseller under Mr. Erdogan's regime. Pathetic.

Nevertheless, they say that Israel is backing the military ...

Maybe, I don't really know. But Israel is Israel, and I'm me. And Erdogan's stupid attack came on the same day that a column of mine appeared in various papers in Europe and elsewhere in which I said how horrified I was at the bloodbath that Cairo had become.

Yet you said, at an event where you appeared with the Israeli minister, Tzipi Livni, that you were opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt.

I said that a great people (and the Egyptian people are a great people) should have other choices beside the return of Mubarak's generals and the revenge of the bearded, obscurantist Islamists who hate women and every sort of freedom. That is my personal position. And it is also the position of most of Egyptian society today.

Do you recall that event? Where was it? In Paris or Jerusalem? Were any Turks present?

Of course I remember it. It was at the University of Tel Aviv. It was indeed a debate with Mrs. Livni, but at the time she was not a minister. We had a scholarly, academic discussion. A serious one, about principles.

What was your main message during that debate?

That the democracies need not be afraid of the Arab spring. Israel being a democracy, the message was also meant for it. It's always good news for a free country to see other peoples, neighboring peoples, take up the torch of freedom. As a member for four decades of what is known as the "peace camp," as one who favors a Palestinian state along with a secure Israel, I was saying: Don't be afraid. Seize the historic opportunity offered to you by the revolts of the Arab spring.

Did you say that "the Muslim Brotherhood should not be allowed to take power, even if they won the elections"?

I said that it was clear, given their ideology, that they would suborn the power of government to ideological ends; that they would, step by step, establish a totalitarian religious state; that they would infiltrate the state and the bureaucracy; in short, that they would do away with the nascent democracy that had allowed them to take power.

What made you think they would do that?

They weren't hiding it! Elections and democracy were only a stepping stone for them, nothing more than a means of gaining power. That's always been true of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Islamists in general.

So we're in agreement: You said that democracy was not only a question of ballot boxes?

It was an open, live discussion of the sort I engage in everywhere, all the time, and would one day like to have in Istanbul, fielding questions from the audience. So obviously I don't recall my exact words. But, yes, I believe that democracy is more than elections alone; it is also a set of values, foremost among which are the freedom of thought, the plurality of opinion, secularity, and respect for the rule of law.

Are elections indispensable to democracy? What is indispensable to democracy?

There is no democracy without elections, of course. But I repeat: Democracy is also an open and pluralistic society, respect for individual freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of lifestyle. It is also the resolution of conflicts, class conflicts in particular, through law. It is a nonpartisan and secular civil service. Last but not least, democracy requires respect by the ruling party for the opposition and minorities. Is there anything on the list I've just given you that you recognize as dear to the Muslim Brotherhood?

Was the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood a coup? And what is the difference between a good coup and a bad coup?

I'm not fond of the idea of a "good coup." But there is one example: the coup of April 25, 1975, in Lisbon, in which Portuguese officers overthrew the post-Salazar dictatorship. I was there. I lived those events hour by hour. It was a bloodless coup in the course of which we saw the captains fraternizing with the people and reestablishing democracy. In Cairo today, we are very far indeed from that model.

Is there a relation between your Judaism and your antipathy for the Muslim Brotherhood?

I am indeed Jewish, profoundly so. But at the risk of disappointing you, I do not believe that this is the source of my antipathy. Are you aware of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood? Its origins? The organization was founded in 1928 as a sort of Arab version of Nazism. It is widely assumed that Nazism was an exclusively European phenomenon. Not true. There was also an Arab Nazism, embodied at the time by the first Muslim Brothers, those of Hassan al-Banaa. Much water has spilled over the dam since then, of course. And today's Muslim Brothers are not the same as those of the 1930s. But for me, their origin is a sufficient reason to mistrust them.

What is your assessment of the turmoil in the Muslim world? And do you think the Muslim countries are as united as they should be?

Why should they be "united"? Is it that one must be for "unity" at any price? The Muslim world consists of at least three civilizations: Arab, Persian, and Ottoman. And it harbors at least two great political aspirations, the aspiration, first, toward peace, democracy, and human rights; the second the temptation of obscurantism. Is it really desirable, under the pretext of "unity," to mix all that together? Do the Turks want to let the AKP tie them up in petty rules in order to present a united front against a world that a paranoid leader sees as uniformly hostile? In Turkey, as in Iran and Egypt, I believe in the salutary power of division--that is, of political difference--and I believe in the long-term victory of secular forces and of the spirit of enlightenment and progress.

After this affair and these allegations will it be possible for Israel and Turkey to work together again?

Yes, of course. Relations between two great countries don't hinge on fits of temper or minor quarrels.

There were negotiations after the Mavi Marmara incident, but nothing was resolved.

Yes. Because of Erdogan. And despite the fact that Shimon Peres apologized the day after. No, believe me, and excuse me for putting this so bluntly: You Turks have a real Erdogan problem. If Turkey is going to resume normal relations with its natural partners--which is to say, with the democracies and with Israel in particular--it's going to have to turn the page on Erdogan.

Do you have ties with the Israeli intelligence service?

Is that a joke? Or are you serious?

Some here wonder.

The same people who prosecuted individuals like Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak, who assassinated the great Hrant Dink on the pretext that he was a traitor to his country. In Turkey, as elsewhere, there are idiots who can't quite understand the idea that there may be such a thing as free and independent thinkers. I'm one of them. And, in that capacity, I defend Israel's right to exist, but also the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own. I fight against anti-Semitism in my own country, but I also founded SOS Racisme. I struggle against Le Pen in France, but it was in Libya, alongside the Libyan revolutionaries, that I put my life on the line. Not to mention my time in Bangladesh in 1971 or my love for Afghanistan. Nor the years I spent in defense of Bosnia, which have just earned me--and I'm very proud of this--the title of honorary citizen of the city of Sarajevo. Nor the most recent position I have taken (which Mr. Erdogan ignores but which I invite him to consider), where, despite my distaste for the Muslim Brotherhood, I have stood up against the carnage being wrought as we speak by the Egyptian military government.

Can you tell us a little about your work in Bosnia?

It was four years of my life. A book. Two films, one of which (Bosna!) was filmed in the trenches of Sarajevo, on the front lines, where the Bosnians were standing up to the savagery of the Serbs. It was a friendship with President Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian de Gaulle whose memory I revere and who was the only head of state in the world into whose service I have ever placed myself.

What can be done to stop the bloodbath in Egypt?

Threaten the military with a cutoff of all aid, military or otherwise. Then make further aid conditional on the holding of free elections--as soon as possible and with international oversight.

And Syria?

Syria is something else entirely. Whatever happens, it will be the shame of our generation. I am appalled by the failure of the international community to act to stop a massacre that has already claimed 100,000 people. I favor military intervention to overthrow Assad, who has lost any shred of legitimacy to rule Syria. Obama said, almost a year ago to the day, that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." We're there. The red line has been crossed. And, faced with images of gassed children, suffocating, in agony, we do nothing, we sit on our hands. It's monstrous.

What is your assessment of Turkey's policy in Syria?

The same as ours. I mean the same as the rest of Europe. Hugely disappointing. Turkey might have been expected to take, as it did in Bosnia, some leadership in the fight for freedom and against barbarism. Turkey's powerful army might have secured buffer zones and sanctuaries for Syrian civilians along its borders. But no. It nearly happened but then didn't, as if the holy alliance of dictators won out in the end. As if Mr. Erdogan decided that he preferred to play the potentate at home, to persecute democrats and the left, to fire on his people when they showed their dissatisfaction in demonstrations, rather than to help save a nation in peril. Instead of raving about a lone French intellectual, he would do better to focus on Assad. The enemy of Turkey is not Bernard-Henri Lévy, it's Assad.

The Russian and Chinese vetoes have stymied the Security Council.

Then you have to act without the Security Council. That is what President Sarkozy had resolved to do in Libya if he couldn't get the Council's endorsement. And it is what Obama, Hollande, Erdogan, and the countries of the Arab League ought to do right now in Syria to stop the slaughter.

Have you met Mr. Erdogan?

No, never. But I would be happy to have the chance, in Ankara or elsewhere, so as to be able to discuss all this with him. And to try to understand what the leader of a great country could possibly have been thinking when he uttered a stupid remark like "Israel, through Mr. Lévy, is at the origin of the plot," etc. The foolishness of it is fascinating. It is fascinating (and worrisome) that a person of such importance could resort to such childish explanations to account for events of the magnitude of those unfolding today along the banks of the Nile.

Is childish the right word?

If not childish, then anti-Semitic. Of course, the two often go together. Mr. Erdogan is an overgrown child who was playing a game of Ottoman Empire in which the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a powerful card. Then all of the sudden the game is over. At which point the king stamps his foot and falls back, as I've said, on the old story of the Jewish conspiracy.

Do you think Erdogan has charisma? What sort of leader is he?

He must have had a certain amount of charisma to have been able to rule a country as rich in history and culture as Turkey for 12 years. But it seems to me that he's lost it. I don't know him, as I say. But, from afar, I see him as a leader at the end of his rope, exhibiting the reflexes, the panicky reactions of someone on his way out.

Do you see him as a dictator?

Journalists and intellectuals have been arrested. Places that serve alcohol have been closed, supposedly to protect public health. Writers, humorists, pianists have been prosecuted for blasphemy. The Kurds and other minorities have been repressed. Then there is the obsessional, almost crazy refusal, not only to acknowledge but even to mention the Armenian genocide. All that makes an odd cocktail. It's a blend of state Islamism, Ottomanized Putinism, and stark fear of modernity that I believe could be likened to a form of dictatorship.

Do you agree that Turkey is becoming increasingly isolated?

Yes. But whose fault is that? The country's growing isolation was Erdogan's choice. It is he who has isolated Turkey--by turning his back on modernity, unraveling Kemalism, and not budging on the Armenian question. And that will be his great failing in the eyes of the history of your country.

Erdogan's advisers like to talk about "splendid isolation."

I didn't know that. But it confirms what I just said. This mix of Ottoman nostalgia and blinkered nationalism has indeed isolated the country. I admire Turkey; it deserves better.

Do you think that the West has abandoned Turkey, which it used to see as an example of moderate Islam?

Europe has a problem with Turkey, certainly. But equally certain is the fact that Erdogan has a problem with Europe and, for 12 years, has done everything he can, absolutely everything, to turn his back on Europe and pull away from it.

Right. And, at the same time, western leaders have never been overly hostile to Erdogan.

That's the paradox. It was we Europeans who created for Erdogan this concept of "moderate" Islamism that was supposed to resemble--with a little more muscle, but not too much more--a Christian democracy like those of Italy or Germany. And that was, as we now realize, a terrible illusion accompanied by bad policies. So why the indulgence of Erdogan? And why the error of analysis concerning his Islamism? There was NATO, first of all, which justified, in the eyes of European practitioners of realpolitik, compromises with morality and logic. And then there were the future pipelines from Central Asia, which we thought would help us get Moscow's hands off the energy faucet. For that reason, too, we primly closed our eyes to the trampling of freedoms, to the suffocation of little Armenia next door, to expansionism in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, to Turkey's unflagging and unscrupulous support for all the local potentates. For that, we--meaning western Europeans--bear the responsibility. And it's disgusting.

Do you personally favor Turkey's admission to the European Union?

Yes. Provided the country reconciles itself with its own memory--provided, in other words, that it undergoes, with regard particularly to the genocide of the Armenians, the mourning process that the French and the Germans, for example, went through with regard to their own fascist past. Doing that would be a great opportunity for your country. But it would also be an opportunity for mine as well, because Europe is mired in crisis and needs the growth, the dynamism, and the great culture of Turkey. But I'm afraid that Erdogan will not be the man of that moment. He was the man of the West's diplomacy and realpolitik. He is not cut out for the democratic challenge that is the true precondition for Turkey's return to Europe.

Why do you say "return"?

Because Europe was born in your part of the world. At least, that's what the Greek language, the language of nascent Europe, told us when it gave the name "Europa" to a goddess born in Tyre, in Phoenicia, who was abducted by Zeus and made to cross the straits.

That's a myth ...

Sure. But, several thousand years later, look at the war in Bosnia, which was not the least bit mythical, alas. Europa died in Sarajevo. And it was the Turks who, in Sarajevo, alongside us, the free consciences of France and Europe, were in the front lines defending the values of Europe. For that if nothing else, for this moment of shared greatness, I owe a debt to the Turkish people. A debt I will remember until the end of my life.

How do you view the events of Gezi Park? Do you support them?

Absolutely. I came out immediately and enthusiastically for this peaceful act of civil disobedience. With apparent resignation, the country had been watching the methodical deconstruction of its Kemalist legacy and the achievements of its civilization. And suddenly a land-development project, a simple if Pharaoh-like development project, put a spark to the powder and precipitated a revolt that had been brewing quietly without finding a means of expression. It is a strange but compelling story.

Do you believe that the movement will continue?

Yes. Because a revolt such as that in Gezi Park is like a veil being torn away, a mask falling. It reveals the truth of a state that, after 12 years of increasingly stifling rule blows up before everyone's eyes. It is King Erdogan exposed in his nakedness, with his benign Islamism dissolving like a mirage. Phenomena like this never stop mid-way through. There are not only Arab springs; there is, there will be, a Turkish spring led by this same collection of students, intellectuals, representatives of the liberal professions, pro-Europe advocates, and lovers of cities and democracy who, six years ago, after the assassination of journalist Hrant Dink, demonstrated under the motto of "We are all Armenians." What do you think of the Turkish left?

Who were the demonstrators in Taksim Square? Who were those who followed in their footsteps in the other cities of the country? They were environmentalists who mobilized to save century-old trees. Secularists who knew that their city was already home to some of the most beautiful mosques in the world and didn't see the need to build another one on that high spot--which was not just protest but an expression of Istanbulite comity. It was cultured men and women, appalled at the prospect that this mosque, along with a commercial center, would replace the Ataturk Cultural Center that bordered Gezi Park and that was for them a point of pride. It was the Alevis, who felt that the proposal to name a third bridge over the Bosporus after Selim I, the sultan responsible for the massacres that decimated their people five centuries before, was a provocation. It was democrats who saw in the combined commercial and religious center planned by a new, Putinized sultan the consummate expression of the business cronyism with an Islamist face that lies at the heart of the Erdogan regime. Taken together, all that transcends left and right. Seen from a distance, it appears to be a much broader movement that crosses traditional political borders and brings together everything that is best about your country. It is the Turkey I love, the Istanbul I love. It is an Istanbul on which the eyes of the world are once again focused because they know that something essential to civilization is at stake.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy