Turkish journalist Mahir Zeynelov concerned President Trump ‘might be deferential toward’ strongman ruler

NOTE: Mahir Zeynelov was the first Turkish journalist deported from Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his crackdown on the free press there in 2016. He now lives in the eastern United States, and writes frequently for The Huffington Post. During his recent visit to Oklahoma City, he sat down with CapitolBeatOK editor Patrick B. McGuigan. That interview is posted below. A separate story with biographical information and context for the interview will be posted later.

What are your principle criticisms of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Zeynelov: I’m not sure if there’s anything positive to say about him. His lack of respect for human rights and his disrespect for the values in the Turkish constitution are well-known. He uses populist rhetoric to exploit the fault lines in our society. He is tapping into religious sensitivities. That helps him with his political base but does nothing for our country.

Why are you concerned about President Trump’s intentions concerning Turkey?

Zeynelov: The problem is that President Trump has never held electoral office. His primary aim is ‘America First’ and that is not always in America’s best interest. He might be deferential toward Erdogan, thinking of his relationship with him in a business-like way. He may turn a blind eye toward Erdogan’s behavior because Turkey has been a U.S. ally. But Erdogan does not respect democracy, the values of America. And now things are more troubling because of the Russian situation.

At the start of the Trump presidency, what do you believe should be the steps the U.S. takes toward Turkey?

I think of it like I have Syria. There, many countries failed to do something to stop the killing and oppression of (Bashar Al-Assad’s) opponents. So, chaos came.

Similarly, in Turkey, there is a problem with waiting too long to recognize what Erdogan has done. To be clear, there are limits to what the U.S. can do. Again, I look at Syria and at Turkey. Five years ago there were many possibilities for acting effectively, for putting down a red line and meaning it. Now, the U.S. needs, in Syria again, more help than what Turkey can provide, even if Turkey wanted to help.

For the United States, is Turkey presently a strategic ally or a liability?

Turkey was the only NATO member that did NOT join sanctions on Russia after that nation’s behavior in the Balkans. For years, Turkey dragged its feet concerning Syria. The U.S. faces many problems, including the fact that some of Assad’s opponents are considered, by Turkey, as terrorist organizations. The U.S. works very hard to keep Turkey on board. Now that’s falling apart.

Here in the U.S., why would a group like CAIR be so supportive of an authoritarian figure like Erdogan?

Muslims here have been acclaiming that civil liberties here are or may be curbed. That may be true to some extent. But a couple of months ago CAIR invited Erdogan’s daughter to speak. It is appalling to see those who enjoy civil liberties acclaim one of the most despotic dictators in the Muslim world. There is a tendency by some who believe they don’t have a country to acclaim, or to crave for, a strong man.

How can the U.S. be proactive against terror conducted in the name of Islam without harming peaceful adherents of Islam?

That’s very challenging. It is important to understand, as a recognition, that 99 percent of Muslim people do not adhere to and are not attracted by the terror done in the name of Islam. There are 20 or 30 or 50,000 ISIS fighters. There are perhaps that many who are sympathetic to ISIS. The recent ban on travel and immigration is being used to tell sympathizers ‘you see, these guys hate you.’ I don’t say this to be P.C. I simply point out that ISIS will, and has, exploited some of what is going on.

I will say that the caliphate ISIS has is very dangerous. ISIS needs to be destroyed or it will continue to menace all of us, including Muslims.

Some Erdogan sympathizers note that Turkey hosts Syrian refugees. But it’s been free Turkish people who have hosted refugees of their own free will, while Erdogan moves slowly if at all, and lives in palaces. There are a lot of complicating factors.

We are not fighting normal warfare. It is important that Muslim communities be free. It is important that Muslim leaders recognize and believe that no one should be left behind. You can’t anticipate the radicalization of people.

Muslim countries must assure that schools in their country teach the right form of religion, of Islam. What is taught in some of the schools in Pakistan is an example [editor’s note: of questionable teaching]. Now in a multi-media age besides education, videos online can help to radicalize populations in ways that harm us all.