Turkey Walks Out of NATO Conference Over U.S. Freedom of Speech

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.”

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