Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to position himself as the “Islamic champion” of the global Muslims’ rights. After any calamity falling on Muslims anywhere in the world, Erdogan emerges as the “rescuer”. The Rohingya crisis is a fresh case in point.
Amid the scathing criticism against the Muslim countries not coming forward to aid or absorb the Rohingyas, Turkey has drastically emerged as the “saviour” of the Muslim minority suffering an ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It has reportedly offered 10,000 tonnes of aid to the distressed Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Myanmar. Recently, in the annual conference of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as the OIC’s current chief, urged the Muslim world to “intensify the efforts” to help the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He called the persecuted Rohingyas’ plight a “collective shame” for the entire Islamic world turning its back on the Rohingya refugees. Notably, the OIC, which is considered as the “collective voice of the Muslim world”, held the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) meeting at the OIC’s headquarters in Jeddah. Now, it plans to hold a ministerial meeting on the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, as officially stated on its website.
But many analysts believe that Erdogan’s keen interest in the Rohingya crisis reeks of his “ulterior motive” to be the global Muslim Caliph. His keen interest in the plight of Rohingya Muslims appears to further his political ends, as Simon P. Watmough has pointed out: “Indeed, much of Erdogan’s public posturing on the Rohingya issue is entirely self-serving. The image of a strong Turkey reaching out to Muslims everywhere in the world plays very well at home.”
After Turkey’s vocal response to the Rohingya crisis, Islamist columnists in the Turkish, Arabic and Urdu press are hailing him as the present-time Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi—the 11th century iconic Muslim fighter, who freed Jerusalem of the Crusaders. But his Muslim critics, many fleeing the detention and torture in Turkey and living in exile, call the Rohingya crisis a “tool in the hands of the Islamist President who abuses it to channel his own ambitions”. Ankara’s journalist, Abdullah Bozkurt, former editor-in-chief for Today’s Zaman—Turkey’s leading English daily which the government has shut down, writes : “Turkey’s Islamist rulers have not only spread fabricated news and planted false stories in the Turkish media, which is now pretty much controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but have also disseminated fake news abroad to influence Muslim communities...I’m sure Erdogan’s spin doctors will use this Myanmar point in the MGK declaration to show how Erdogan is interested in the plight of Muslims as the undeclared caliph of all Muslims in the world.”
Remarkably, Erdogan’s call for the Rohingyas’ rights came at a time when the Muslims the world over were on the lookout for a “Muslim messiah” or “global Islamic leader” raising a strong voice for them. Therefore, he strongly voiced the concerns of the Muslims in the recent “anti-Muslim” incidents. At his ruling AK Party’s Eid al-Adha celebrations in Istanbul, Erdogan stated that the problems in the Muslim world had made it difficult to observe the Eid al Adha festival. He slammed the death of hundreds of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as “genocide” aimed at the Muslim communities in the region and denounced the passivity of the Muslim world and the alleged indifference of the South Asian, Western and European countries. He asserted , “There is genocide there. They remain silent towards this...All those looking away from this genocide carried out under the veil of democracy are also part of this massacre.”
Erdogan has also called on the international community to pressurise the Myanmar government to end the persecution and displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claims that Ankara has taken the lead in raising awareness about the plight of the Rohingya. It stated: “A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, while the international community pays lip service to the slaughter and forced migration of Muslims, Ankara couldn’t remain silent over the plight of Rohingya Muslims” as the Jeddah-based English daily, Arab News reported.
“Erdogan deepened the divisions among Palestinians by playing favourites and sabotaging reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah. He sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to take to the streets.”
Thus, both at the local and international levels, Erdogan sought to lead the global Islamist campaign for the “Rohingya rights” in a bid to craft his image as the much-awaited messiah of the Islamic ummah. This is precisely how Erdogan has studiously made a political capital out of the human crisis. And this is not the first time Erdogan pursued his geo-political motives by meddling in the Central or Southeast Asian countries’ issues. Earlier, his government publicly slammed the Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina over a crackdown on the radical Islamists in Bangladesh. Russia accused him of leading the notorious charity group, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), which smuggles arms to jihadist groups in Syria. He also tried to be the Third Party in peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Most particularly, Erdogan has made political gains out of the two big Muslim crises, one in Egypt during the Morsi regime, and the other in Palestine. Rania Abouzeid, noted Arab journalist and a Middle East expert, explained how Erdogan was seen as a “hero on the Arab streets” during his visits in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. He was received like a “rock star” by thousands of his adoring supporters at Cairo’s airport, when he visited Egypt in September 2011. Ironically, Erdogan left no stone unturned to exploit even the Palestinian crisis—one of the most sensitive issues for Muslims worldwide. But in reality, as many Turkish critics observe, Erdogan has never harboured sincerity in redressing the issues of the Muslim nations or Muslim minorities in other countries. Rather than working out the issues through legitimate governments, competent authorities and international allies, what he chooses to do is exploit the sensitive issues for his own vested interests, to the detriment of the people in need of help. “He did the same to the Palestinians by deepening divisions there and playing favourites and sabotaging reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah. He encouraged and sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to take to the streets, fuelling clashes and disrupting the order in that most important Arab nation. He poured arms into Libya for Islamists, helping shed more Muslim blood there as he did for Syria. When asked, Erdogan maintains he did all this for the good of Muslims,” writes Abdullah Bozkurt.
Tellingly, global Muslims got enchanted by Erdogan’s Islamist rhetoric, especially when he loudly criticised Israel’s military operation, Cast Lead, in the Gaza Strip in 2008. It was the time when several Arab journalists in their columns in the Arabic press declared Erdogan to be the “new Nasser”, hailing his “pro-Palestine” and “anti-Israel” or “anti-West” utterances.
However, a number of Arab scholars and researchers have critiqued Erdogan’s strategy to appear as the “role model” (namouzaj) for the Muslim world. For instance, Amr Kouch, a Syrian scholar, described Erdogan’s grand strategy as a way to build an “Ottoman commonwealth”. The chief editor of the leading Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal, Michel Naoufal, who has an expertise in Turkish-Arab relations, characterised Turkey’s agenda in the region as a manifestation of soft power (quwat na’ima). He argued that, though this new “Ottomanism” is not geographically oriented, and is not pursuing direct hegemony, but what Turkey seems to achieve is “soft power”. Several other intellectuals and researchers on the Middle East have also endorsed this premise. Jean-Loup Samaan, a researcher at the Middle East Department of the NATO Defense College, notes that ever since Erdogan came to power in Ankara, Turkey’s geopolitical inclinations have created growing fascination among the world’s Muslims. “This grand strategy revealed Ankara’s ambitions as not only a regional player, but also as a democratic ‘model’ for a liberal political system able to incorporate a strong Islamic party”, he wrote in his paper, “Rise of the ‘Turkish model’ in the Arab world” in the Turkish Policy Quarterly.
Given Turkey’s “proactive” engagement with the Rohingya crisis, the most crucial question is: While Erdogan champions the cause of Muslims’ rights in Myanmar, why does he overlook the grave human rights violations in his own state? The Gulenists—a moderate Muslim community—in Turkey face dreadful plight and brutal persecution by the Turkish authorities for two years.
Ever since the Gulenists criticised injustice and corruption under Erdogan’s rule, the Turkish government has publicly called for an anti-Gulenist witch hunt, accusing them of plotting the coup. Scores of Turkish academics, teachers, businessmen, doctors, police officers, philanthropists and even pregnant housewives accused of being linked with the Gulenists have been brutally harassed and detained. Torture, threats, arrests and other brutalities have now become a routine for the volunteers and supporters of the Hizmet movement or the Gulenist network. A recent article in the Economist has quoted Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and the President Erdogan’s son-in-law, as stating that he was tempted to “strangle Gulenists whenever he saw them”: Tellingly, while Erdogan asked the Myanmar government to rehabilitate the Rohingyas, he wants Myanmar to deport all Turkish nationals working for education and dialogue institutions run by the Gulenists in Myanmar. Recently, a Turkish national in Myanmar, Muhammet Furkan Sökmen, who volunteered for two Gulenist schools, was forcibly deported to Turkey despite his cries for help on social media. He was handed over to the Turkish authorities at Yangon International Airport by Myanmar police on 26 May. Even his wife Ayse and daughter Sibel were detained by local immigration officials who told the family that Turkish government had invalidated their passports. Human Rights Watch has condemned the forced return of this Turkish family from Myanmar.
Erdogan has urged all foreign governments to punish the Gulenists in their own countries. Some Islamist countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, seem to have complied with his appeal.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a scholar of classical Islamic studies, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication studies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org