Turkey And Islamism In India: How Erdogan’s Ambition To Become Supreme Leader Of Muslims Is Driving His Kashmir Stance
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday (24 September) raised the Kashmir issue in the United Nations.
"Despite the resolutions adopted, Kashmir is still besieged and eight million people are stuck in Kashmir," he said and criticised the international community for failing to pay attention to the Kashmir conflict.
Soon after, the hashtag #OurVoiceErdogan praising Turkish president’s advocacy for welfare of Muslims all around the world, from Palestine to Kashmir, started trending on Twitter.
The goodwill generated between India and Turkey on the basis of common struggle against colonial rulers didn’t translate into friendly relations after India’s independence.
But with Pakistan it’s a different story. In the 1950s Turkey and Pakistan signed a Treaty of Eternal Friendship. This partnership was largely founded on the basis of Islam.
Both Turkey and Pakistan are majority-Sunni Muslim countries. Like Pakistan, Turkey also considered Islam instrumental in achieving consensus among its diverse ethnic groups.
Like Pakistan, “Muslimness” and political Islam has remained a core element of the modern Turkish nation.
Turkey’s historical poor treatment and ultimately a genocide of Armenian Christians after World War I closely parallels Pakistan’s poor treatment of non-Muslim minorities based on institutionalised religious bigotry after its formation in 1947.
Turkey and Pakistan also have a historical connection that goes back to British Raj in India when former indirectly aided the formation of Pakistan.
During World War I, Muslims in India had sent aid to the declining Ottoman Empire while it fought allied forces. Ottoman defeat in the war spurred the Khilafat movement in India which aimed to unite all Indian Muslims to stand in solidarity with their Turkish brothers.
Despite the leadership of Gandhi and his attempts to include Hindus in the movement, Khilafat ended up being a pan-Islamist, fundamentalist platform that legitimised Islamist goals of Muslim leadership.
Pakistan today recognises the movement as a major step towards its establishment and regards the Ali brothers as its founding-fathers.
Turkey and Pakistan became members of the US bloc during the cold war and joined Baghdad Pact, also known as the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO).
Both were disappointed by the perceived reluctance of the West to support their causes in Cyprus and Kashmir respectively and later formed Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) in 1964.
As a fellow-member of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Turkey consistently supported Pakistan on Kashmir, raised the issue of Babri mosque demolition and opposed India’s nuclear test.
It also called Pakistan’s nuclear tests a reaction to India’s nuclear program and advocated for its membership in the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG).
While the rising Economic prowess of India forced Turkey to soften its stance towards it, Erdogan’s statements in UN show that the Kashmir issue will remain a thorn between the two for times to come.
Turkey and Jihad in South Asia
Besides the Pakistani state, Turkey also has a close relationship with Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Pakistan’s oldest religious party.
An Islamist party with the goal to implement Shariah, JeI served as the "regime's ideological and political arm" during Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s rule.
JeI maintains close links with different terror groups including Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Latter is widely considered as JeI’s militant wing founded in 1990 to carry our Jihad in Kashmir.
With his personal ambition of becoming the political leader of the Muslim world, Erdogan has also reportedly provided money and weapons to Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh as well as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
In 2016, Turkey had criticised Bangladesh for executing a convicted member of the Jamaat.
In an eerie similarity to what Pakistan did with Afghan refugees in 1990s, Turkey is running maqtabs for Rohingya refugee children wherein they are being taught about “enemies of Allah” and that Rohingyas can return to their ancestral land in Myanmar only when “these un-Islamic forces are defeated” by the “angels of Allah”.
A 2018 Outlook report called Erdogan the “latest favourite of Kashmiri separatists”. Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq hailed Erdogan’s re-election and called him "an ardent supporter of Kashmiri right to self-determination”.
Farooq further stated that Turkey was the only country after Pakistan that had “unequivocally supported” self-determination of Kashmir and also called it the most vocal member of the OIC.
“Be it Palestine or Kashmir,” said Mirwaiz, “Turkey under Erdogan has raised a voice in support of suppressed people.” The Jamaat-e-Islami leadership also described Erdogan as “a great leader of the Muslim world.” and Turkey as “the hope of the Ummah”.
What the future holds
While India’s promise as a economic powerhouse is one reason for Turkey to soften its stance on Kashmir, Erdogan’s personal ambition to become the leader of the Muslim world may pose a roadblock.
It is for this ambition that the Turkish leader also criticised China’s treatment of Uighur Muslim minority despite seeking better economic relationship with it.
Turkey’s susceptibility to temptation to use proxy-groups to further its ‘strategic depth’ in South Asia, and using Madrassas and religious foundations as an instrument also works against India.
The people-to-people contact between Turkey and India is much lower than that with Pakistan. Latter is one of the most eager consumer of Turkish television and cinema and Erdogan has personal ties with Sharif family.
In Turkey, where all Pakistanis would be treated as “brothers”, most Indians would usually be mocked as “cow-worshippers”.
The emerging geopolitical realities of Turkey moving away from United States; its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, a close ally of US; a disdain in the Islamic world for Trump’s treatment of Iran as well as Islamisation of Turkish polity are trends unfavourable to India, which may worsen with further economic slowdown in Turkey.
Note: An earlier version of the story contained a typo involving the year when Turkey and Pakistan signed their pact of eternal friendship. It has now been rectified.
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