Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) literally rolled out the red carpet for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on January 21, as he began a three-day official visit to Turkey. Despite being a pariah to most of the international community as the result of his administration’s alleged support for the perpetrators of mass ethnic cleansing in Darfur, on his arrival in Ankara al-Bashir was accorded the full honors Turkish protocol bestows on a visiting head of state, including not just a red carpet but a military guard of honor and a 21-gun salute.
The AKP’s choice of Sudan as its favored African country, and one that party officials have vowed to make Turkey’s “window on Africa,” has inevitably raised questions about whether the decision was driven by ideological or practical considerations (see EDM, January 15). Turkey does not have a history of close economic, political, diplomatic, or historical ties with Sudan. It is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that the decision to select Sudan, which has the most rigid Islamist regime in Africa, for preferential status occurred after the AKP, which has its roots in the Turkish Islamist movement, first came to power in November 2002. During a visit to Darfur in March 2006 as a guest of the Sudanese government, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even famously dismissed claims that a genocide was taking place in the region on the grounds that the alleged perpetrators were Muslims and that the Koran forbade tribalism.
International human rights groups had opposed al-Bashir’s visit, warning that it would be interpreted by much of the international community as implicitly endorsing the Sudanese regime and could potentially jeopardize Turkey’s long-cherished ambition of securing a seat on the UN Security Council. They insisted that, if the AKP nevertheless went ahead with the visit, Turkish President Abdullah Gul should take the opportunity to call on al-Bashir to put an end to the human rights abuses in Darfur.
But Gul did no such thing. He merely referred to Darfur as “humanitarian tragedy” that “is not only a matter of politics, but also stems from poverty and environmental conditions” (Today’s Zaman, January 22). No one doubts that Gul has a point. But his failure to address the responsibility of the Sudanese regime for the ethnic cleansing in Darfur undoubtedly played right into al-Bashir’s hands. Nor did al-Bashir have any hesitation in using the public platform provided to him by his visit to Ankara to continue to peddle manifest untruths about the situation in Darfur, claiming that the only atrocities being conducted there were by groups supported by the EU. There was no word of dissent from either Gul or any of the AKP officials in attendance.
Conservative Turkish businessmen with close ties to Sudan were more forthcoming. Zeynel Abidin Erdem of Erdem Holding, who also serves as Sudan’s honorary consul in Turkey, commented: “No one should raise the subject of Darfur during this visit, because Darfur is a problem which has been created by those anti-Islamic forces who wish to show Sudan in a bad light exploit its energy resources” (Milliyet, January 22).
Al-Bashir’s visit divided the Turkish media on ideological lines. The pro-AKP daily Yeni Safak focused on Gul’s description of the situation in Darfur as a humanitarian tragedy, noting that al-Bashir had also invited “President Gul to pay an official visit to his second country, Sudan” (Yeni Safak, January 22).
However, the secularist press was less accommodating. Vatan newspaper bluntly described al-Bashir as the “bloodiest dictator in the world” (Vatan, January 22). Aksam expressed outrage at al-Bashir’s visit to the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the fierce secularist who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 and served as its president. The newspaper asked whether Ataturk would be turning in his grave at one of his successor’s honoring a visiting head of state who was committed to the implementation of a particularly harsh interpretation of Islamic Sharia law (Aksam, January 22).
All of the secularist media noted that Gul’s wife Hayrinusa attended the banquet hosted by her husband in al-Bashir’s honor in the presidential palace on the evening of January 21 (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, Vatan, Aksam, January 22). It was the first time that Mrs. Gul had attended an official function in the presidential palace since her husband was appointed president in August 2007. Mrs. Gul covers her head, and the prospect of an ostensible secular state having a headscarfed first lady was one of the main reasons for the massive public protests against her husband’s candidacy in spring 2007. Vatan carried photographs of the headscarfed Mrs. Gul and one of al-Bashir’s two wives, who also covers her head, under the headline “What a disgrace!” (Vatan, January 22). Significantly, once they understood that Mrs. Gul would be attending, the Turkish high command all declined their invitations to the banquet.
In addition to a sense of religious solidarity, there may be other reasons for Gul’s reluctance to confront al-Bashir over Darfur. During his visit to Ankara, al-Bashir received briefings from a delegation from the Turkish Energy Ministry and the state-owned oil company Turkish Petroleum. The liberal daily Radikal reported that, in return, al-Bashir promised to give Turkish companies priority in the awarding of contracts for the oil investments in Sudan, worth up to 700,000 barrels a day (Radikal, January 22).
Ironically, the subordination of concerns about human rights abuses to the quest for oil is precisely the main criticism that many in Turkey, particularly in the AKP, have long directed at U.S. policy in the Middle East.