Speaking to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations forum in Vienna on Wednesday, Erdoğan made the following remark: “Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become impossible not to see Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”
The statement occurred during a speech in which Erdoğan was complaining about worldwide prejudices against Muslims, the Associated Press said.
Turkey is a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim -- 99.8 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook. The current population of Jews in Turkey is estimated at 23,000, or .0003 percent of Turkey’s 73.6 million people. Most of the tiny Jewish community lives in Istanbul.
Given the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel stances among the leaders of predominantly Muslim and Arab countries, Erdoğan’s comments are not exactly surprising, and other Turkish officials have made similar controversial remarks about Jews and Israel in the past.
"These are objectionable statements, and this one was particularly objectionable," said James Jeffrey, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute. "[U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry and the U.S. government have made that very clear."
Jeffrey also said that such statements were probably reflective of Erdoğan's true feelings on Israel; they were not just politically based. "I don't think there's any particular electoral or political motive," Jeffrey said. "This is his belief. We’ve heard very similar things, although not this strong, from PM and other Turkish officials before.
"Anti-Zionist attitudes, as we saw in the U.N. General Assembly, are broadly based in what we call the third world, and he often puts himserlf in a third world context as opposed to a NATO context," Jeffrey explained. "I don't think he has a positive attitude twoard Zionism, but 'crime against humanity' threw me back, because the Turks are often accused of genocide in the case of the Armenians."
Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, agreed that this was probably a peek into both Erdoğan's and Turkey's true mind on Israel. “I think ... this reflects unfortunately his deep ideas and at the same time it is an electoral calculation," Balci wrote in an email. "He knows that in terms of domestic politics (Turkish electorate is very pro-Palestinian) and regional politics (Turkey wants to be the leader in the Middle East, against Iran and Egypt) these declarations are unfortunately good for his political future.”
Right-wing, pro-Israel blogger Daniel Pipes wrote in 2010 that Erdoğan’s “Islamist outlook” was “self-evidently obvious for the whole word to see,” following the Turkish-led attempt to violate the Gaza blockade. At least one Russian source claimed that the blockade run was allegedly a deliberate attempt on the part of Turkey to aggravate Israel and win Turkey some Middle Eastern friends.
Nonetheless, Erdoğan has drawn criticism from some of the higher-ups in the international community for his latest verbal volley.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesperson released a statement on Friday, strongly condemning Erdoğan’s statement and noting that the Alliance of Civilizations exists to “promote mutual tolerance and respect and speak out against extremism and bigotry of any sort, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
“[Erdoğan’s comment] was not only wrong but contradicts the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilizations is based,” the spokesman said, who emphasized that Ban was in the room when the statement was made and heard it through an interpreter.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration “rejects Prime Minister Erdoğan's characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity, which is offensive and wrong. We encourage people of all faiths, cultures and ideas to denounce hateful actions and to overcome the differences of our times.”
It is unclear what, exactly, “differences of our times” means, but, meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chimed in, calling the statement “a sinister and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had disappeared from the world.”
Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow and the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, told the daily Israel Today in an email that Erdoğan's comments were probably veiled anti-Semitism.
"This is an ignorant and hateful attack on the Jewish people and against a movement with peace at its core, which relegates Prime Minster Erdoğan to the level of [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to Soviet leaders who used anti-Zionism as a euphemism for anti-Semitism," Goldschmidt said.
Israel’s foreign ministry also called on Erdoğan to apologize, but that has not yet been forthcoming.
Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is on his first official trip to Europe and the Middle East, is still keeping his scheduled meeting with Erdoğan on Friday, primarily to discuss the situation in Syria. It is unknown whether this incident will also be discussed, but an official speaking for the Department of State did tell reporters that the U.S. had concerns about the “corrosive effect” comments like Erdoğan’s could have on Turkish-U.S. relations.