Trump Finds Allies in Turkey Despite Anti-Muslim Ban

U.S. President Donald J. Trump sparked a worldwide outcry and drew swift rebuke from European leaders after his executive order barred refugees from entering the country for 120 days, and travelers from 7 Muslim countries for 90 days. With the stroke of a pen, the American president blocked acceptance of Syrian refugees indefinitely, honoring another promise from his divisive campaign trail.

Trump’s immigrant ban, or known as the Muslim Ban, has unsettled America’s deepening fragmented socio-political landscape, and jangled nerves of allies and foes alike, pushing the Islamic world into a state of weariness and confusion. According to senior Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and counter-terrorism experts, the controversial move was bound to harm the U.S. interests abroad and only won additional criticism for the new president from European friends.

But he appeared to find new allies in a place normally the least expected: Turkey, a majority-Muslim country. Unlike other Muslim countries in the region who felt deeply offended and seek retaliation for the U.S. immigration ban, the Turkish government has adopted a measured and mild criticism, trying to chart its way out with a balanced tone in its official statements. The only sharp condemnation came from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Saturday during a joint news conference along with his British counterpart Theresa May.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who braggingly portrays himself as the leader of the Islamic world has largely remained silent and avoided remarks criticizing Mr. Trump’s perceived Muslim ban. For someone acting as a self-proclaimed leader of the Muslim world who revels in his favorite pastime of West-bashing, this silence seems to be odd and unusual but is not unprecedented.

Mr. Erdogan has an uncanny political acumen to adopt core tenets of realpolitik when his political future seems to be at stake. For that reason, the Turkish president has reserved a particular feeling and expectation for the new Trump administration to cultivate cordial relations between two leaders who display similar signs of a strongman mindset.

This has become clearly evident when Mr. Trump bashed CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference earlier last month. Mr. Erdogan wholeheartedly praised the thin-skinned American president for “putting media in its place.” Their contempt and disdain for critical media are of the same fashion, but the Turkish president masters unrivaled powers at his disposal to muzzle the independent media. Such measures and powers are not available to Mr. Trump, at least not yet.

The scale of rage and fury over the ban, which was on display in many American cities and airports, was not enough to bring blushes in Islamist and pliant media loyal to President Erdogan in Turkey. While Muslims around the world have been incensed by Mr. Trump’s latest policy, with his tweets and rhetoric laced with xenophobic rants, it made little change in Mr. Erdogan’s advisors and loyal media’s love affair with Mr. Trump.

“It is the day of rational interests and diplomacy, not love or hate,” wrote Burhanettin Duran, head of Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) and advisor to the government, in a column on pro-government Sabah daily on Tuesday in an apparent dismissal of value-based assessment of foreign policy matters.

SETA is a key think tank that provides policy prescription and reports for Turkish foreign policy. Many SETA analysts work as advisors and counselors to President Erdogan and cabinet members, thus wielding significant influence over decision-making in domestic and foreign policies.

Mr. Duran suggested that Turkey should focus on fostering close ties and cooperation with the Trump administration in areas that concern both countries. His intentional blindness and indifference to Mr. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric against Muslims or immigration ban reflects a broader, widely-held position among Turkish government circles. Whatever outrageous Mr. Trump says or does, the Turkish pro-government media prefers to downplay it.

Consumed by its domestic agenda, Turkey’s leadership now views every world event or foreign policy matter through the prism of domestic needs and internal political challenges. The looming referendum over the constitutional changes that expand Mr. Erdogan’s powers indefinitely will also be an approval vote by people over his political future. Mr. Erdogan has put the upcoming referendum as the foremost priority.

The president and his entourage are less concerned over their image abroad and more interested in harvesting benefits of a possible partnership with the Trump administration.

They covet a spot in Mr. Trump’s high esteem and friend list, not praise or acclaim from worldwide Muslims for Turkey’s expected principled stance. Gone were the days when Ankara cared dearly about what people in the Arab streets or across the world feel and think about Turkey.

“Global Gang’s refugee outcry blows up in their faces in the U.S. While the majority support the decision, there is some talk over mistakes in its execution,” journalist Cemil Barlas, a staunch Erdogan loyalist, tweeted on Tuesday. His choice of the language about “Global Gang” takes swipe at global capitalist elite, the same discourse cultivated by Mr. Trump’s chief White House strategist Steve Bannon who injected anti-globalist sentiment and “America First” approach into Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

In another tweet, Barlas jubilantly praised Mr. Trump’s firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she defied the president’s executive order by telling Justice Department lawyers not to defend the ban on immigrants at courts.

“The case of dismissal of the prosecutor who did not apply Trump’s immigration order would be the first step to hold Global Gang accountable,” he said on Twitter, adopting the anti-globalist rhetoric of Mr. Trump’s inner circle. 

Pro-government journalist Kayahan Ugur offered an unapologetic and strong support for Mr. Trump’s ban on travelers from Muslim countries. On Tuesday, in a column on Gunes daily, an Erdogan mouthpiece, he said there are tens of thousands of terrorists in those Muslim countries and Mr. Trump is right to protect Americans. Criticizing Mr. Trump for new immigration policy is unfair, said Mr. Ugur, arguing that the new president inherited the problems regarding terrorism threat from strategic blunders and mistakes of the previous administration.

Mr. Ugur clung to a widespread conviction entrenched among Mr. Erdogan’s loyalists that global powers work hard to undermine Mr. Trump and paralyze his administration as they had tried to do the same against the president in Turkey in the near past.

During a visit to African countries last week, Mr. Erdogan expressed a willingness to reset relations with the U.S. and open a fresh chapter under the Trump administration. His remarks echoed throughout the Turkish media. One of the recurring theme in pro-Erdogan media is how Turkish-American relations hit to the bottom during President Barack Obama‘s second term. Obama-bashing in the Turkish media had become a daily sport during his last days at Oval Office. Talk about Mr. Trump always took form of a comparative analysis with the Obama era, a practice that led Islamist journalists to make a hero out of the incumbent president.

In an article on hardline Islamist and pro-government Yeni Akit daily on Jan. 31, Merve Kavakci, a former female lawmaker who was expelled from the Turkish Parliament after she took parliamentary oath with her headscarf in 1999, even went to portray Mr. Trump as an honest politician who “tells the truth like it is.”

Kavakci, an Islamist political scientist who taught at American universities and familiar with the American politics, cast Mr. Obama as a dishonest figure, while praised Mr. Trump for his straightforwardness. Such a portrayal of the new president whose daily whoppers forced the American media to establish fact-checking mechanisms to catch up with his falsehoods runs counter to what many in the U.S. would agree to be his erroneous statements.

Mr. Obama’s 2nd term at office saw faltering of relations with Turkey, which has steadily slid into creeping authoritarianism after Mr. Erdogan has tightened his grip on power at the expense of democracy and rule of law since 2013 Gezi Park protests. Obama administration’s criticism of Mr. Erdogan’s handling with opponents and critics generated resentment and anger in Ankara.

The relations took a more nasty turn after an abortive coup last summer. The U.S. has become a usual scapegoat for everything that went wrong since then, and whatever the Obama administration did to soothe concerns of its NATO ally only produced the opposite effect.

Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents, his sweeping purge of the military and bureaucracy has injected additional source of friction between the two allies. For the Turkish president who abhors any form of criticism, Mr. Trump’s election was a blessing and created a jubilant mood in Ankara.

Kurtulus Tayiz, another journalist who declared fealty to Mr. Erdogan, also broached the subject of potential strategic partnership to be built under the Trump administration.

To what extent, expectation of the Turkish leaders and pro-government journalists will translate into reality is a matter remains to be seen.

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