On Tuesday afternoon, representatives of Turkey stormed out of a NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) conference when Emre Çelik, a critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was invited to address the conference, hosted by the Middle East Forum (MEF).
Çelik, president of the Rumi Forum, is a supporter of Turkish Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey claims led a failed coup d’état against Erdogan in July 2016.
The controversy began a week ago Wednesday when the NATO PA demanded that MEF remove Çelik from the program. MEF was given an ultimatum: comply or NATO PA would pull out of the program. The order came directly from the Erdoğan government, according to MEF.
After months of preparation and thousands of dollars invested, MEF had a decision to make.
“We stand for Western values, so we couldn’t just agree to let Ankara censor us. We believe Islamists pose a great danger to our society, and this is a great example,” said MEF director Greg Roman. “I’m sorry that people got upset, but free speech is too important to sacrifice on the altar of politeness.”
MEF removed Çelik from the list of speakers, but still intended to have him address the conference.
Prior to the fireworks, event participants, including the Turkish delegation, offered praise and appreciation for the program.
“We touched many important issues, like regional realities such as what’s going on in the Middle East. We had comprehensive discussions on Syria, extremism and terrorism. So, it’s been a beneficial discussion for our parliamentarians,” explained Turkish parliament member Ahmet Berat Çonkar, to the Haym Salomon Center.
Çonkar added that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly “shares core democratic values.” He went on to explain the “coup attempt” that would play a role in the walkout minutes later, insisting, “Democracy is our core value in NATO and we should be very firm in defending democratic governments. We cannot legitimize any kind of military attempt — coup attempt. This is not good, this is not correct. Everyone has to be very careful about supporting democracy and our values together.”
At the final plenary, “How the Middle East is Important to NATO,” MEF President Daniel Pipes took the stage with Thomas Michael Jopling, a Conservative Member of the UK House of Lords.
Pipes took to the podium first, noting why NATO was created and its role in defending Western values. He quoted former NATO Secretary General Willy Claes, who stated in 1995, “Fundamentalism is at least as dangerous as Communism was. With the Cold War over, Islamic militancy has emerged as the single greatest threat to the NATO alliance and Western security.”
Pipes went on to address threats posed by Islamic extremism and those who identify as Islamists. He dove into what he perceives as an internal threat to NATO, naming Turkey, with its delegation sitting front and center in the room.
The MEF President went on to say, “We had an argument earlier, about whether the AKP (Current Turkish political party in power) is Islamist or not. That was a reasonable argument to hold a decade ago, but no longer today. The AKP is unquestionably an Islamist party.”
With a new tone for the conference set, Pipes went into the story of why Çelik was forbidden to speak, including the demands made by Ankara and pressure put on MEF from NATO PA.
We at the Forum, having committed to this meeting in terms of time, resources, publicity and reputation, felt we had no choice but to accede or remove his name from the program. But recalling [pointing outside] Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, just down the street, as Americans, that troubled our conscience. Plus, this goes against the principles of NATO. Remember, safeguarding freedom.
A dictator in Turkey must not be allowed to tell us in Philadelphia, who may or may not speak. Simple as that. Accordingly, I’m very pleased to inform you, that Mr. Çelik has agreed to speak and that he is here and will address us.
When Çelik entered the room, the Turkish delegation, led by Çonkar, loudly protested his attendance, offered a point of order with what appeared to be a procedure to allow him to speak immediately. Lord Jopling took control of the event, asking the Turkish delegation to stay and hear his remarks first. After some pleading, Çonkar agreed.
Jopling would go on to chide Pipes for his decision to break a “verbal agreement.” The 86-year-old lord then went on to give a ten-minute speech on NATO and the Middle East, which only prolonged the imminent walkout by the Turkish delegation.
Jopling attempted to have Çonkar address the crowd, but Pipes stepped in and vehemently demanded that Çelik speak.
Jopling thanked Pipes for hosting the conference, shook his hand and left the event. The Turkish delegation walked out, joined by a handful of NATO counterparts.
The conference concluded with Celik addressing the remaining attendees.
Note: The Turkish delegation has not responded to a request for comment made after the walkout.
Paul Miller is President of the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow @pauliespoint