Erdogan is making strong outreach efforts to woo Muslims in South Asia.


Post the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir, India faced a month and a half long diplomatic ordeal in various multilateral platforms. It was only Turkey that came up as the most active supporter of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Traditionally, Turkey has supported Pakistan on Kashmir in OIC and has always been a key instigator of resolutions against India. However, more recent activism on Kashmir is motivated by dangerous ambitions ranging beyond Kashmir.

In an article written for Haaretz (December 2018), the author discussed at length Erdogan’s broader geostrategic vision for the Middle East and his Islamist ambitions in South Asia. He wants to revive the institution of Caliphate by 2023 when Turkey celebrates 100 years of its becoming a republic. He wants to claim the spiritual, moral, religious, and political leadership of the Muslims all over the world. He and his intellectual support system have repeatedly emphasized that the Muslim community needs a strong leader like him.

#Erdogan: #Turkey is the only country that can lead the #Muslim world

(Headline in a pro-government newspaper, Yeni Safak, 15 October 2018)

Some of the deliberations in South Asia Strategic Research Center (GASAM, in Turkish), a think-tank, suggest that he has significant revisionist plans to alter the geography of the Middle East by reviving the old Ottoman Empire. For his Caliphate ambitions, he knows it well that Arab Islamic countries led by the Saudi monarchy and the state Wahhabi clergy will bitterly oppose his claim to a Caliphate. Hence, he has enormous hopes from non-Arab Islamic nations like Iran, India, Pakistan, and Malaysia. He has considerable expectations from the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent because of the historical ties with India. In the aftermath of the revolt of 1857, many Muslim clerics fled to Turkey to escape British persecution. Later, in 1919, M.K. Gandhi launched the Khilafat movement against the British, for the restoration of the Ottoman caliphate. Though Gandhi’s idea was to bring Hindus and Muslims together in the freedom movement against the colonial power, the movement laid a substantial edifice of Turkey’s bonhomie with Indian Muslims, and the “edifice” was entirely religious in nature. Though Indian Muslims supported the movement in large numbers, it petered out because the Turkish nationalists under Kemal Ataturk abolished Ottoman Caliphate and sultanate. The Khilafat movement played an instrumental role in communalizing India’s socio-political scenario (Pandya, Abhinav, “Radicalization in India: An Exploration”, Pg.28. Pentagon Press, 2019).

After the Khilafat movement, Muslim politics in India took a sharp communal turn and maintained distance from Congress-led freedom movement. Post Khilafat, the 1920s also witnessed bloody communal riots in various parts of India. Later, the Ali Brothers, who were the prominent Khilafat leaders in Punjab, drifted towards communal politics and supported the Pakistan movement.

Erdogan’s dubious and murky links with various terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir-Al-Sham (Al Qaeda affiliate in Turkey), and ISIS have been brought out by various intelligence agencies time and again. Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AVID) has claimed that ISIS is using Turkey as a strategic base to reorganize threats to Europe. The AVID report also claims that for a long time, Turkey was “a springboard for an unprecedented number of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria from all over the world”.

Turkey’s former chief of Counter-Terrorism Unit, Ahmet Yayla, said in an interview that jihadis of ISIS were buying all the explosives materials from Turkey, in addition to what MIT (Turkish intelligence) was supplying. He further revealed that Erdogan’s brother-in-law set-up a company viz. “power Tracks,” which was awarded a contract by the Turkish government to import oil from Syria. He bought oil from ISIS. Then, Erdogan’s son sold that oil through his company BMZ, as Turkish oil to Israel and many European countries. Most recently, Turkey hosted Hamas terrorists and provided citizenship with valid passport documents to them.


South Asia

On the condition of anonymity, a former Turkish foreign service official informed the author that GASAM’s caliphate strategy for South Asia aims to:

* Project Turkey as religious, political and cultural leader of Muslims in South Asia.

* Raise awareness among Muslims to motivate them to participate in the mainstream political and electoral process actively. However, the Islamic religious and cultural identity has to be the fulcrum of such an effort. For such an objective, the mainstream extremist and communal politicians offer the most desirable leadership model as the edifice of his politics is the religious and cultural identity of Muslims. Also, an essential constituent of their politics is an artificially manufactured sense of threat from the majority community. To this end, Turkey will have a significant focus on creating false narratives of Hindu extremism in India by blowing issues like beef-lynching cases, Babri-mosque demolition, triple talaq, and Article 370 out of proportion on global platforms. Such a strategy was evident recently in Erdogan’s speech at an event, “Combating Hate Speech,” jointly hosted by Turkey and Pakistan, where he denounced violence by Hindu extremists against Muslims in India for beef-consumption, urging respect for freedom and faith.

* Offer scholarships to South Asian Muslim students to study in Turkey. Several students from Kashmir and other parts of India are studying engineering, medicine IR, Human Rights and Islamic Studies in Turkey.

* Funding Islamic religious organizations in India.

* Unite the Muslims of Kashmir and rest of India.

* Unite the Muslims of India and Pakistan.

Erdogan is making strong outreach efforts to woo Muslims in South Asia. Its relations with Pakistan’s Islamist organizations like Jamaat-i-Islami are well known. In South Asia, Erdogan provided money and weapons to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and Jamaat-i-Islami (Bangladesh), an extremist organization with a belief in political Islam. Its several leaders are facing trial in war crimes.

In India, the extremist Islamic clerics are acting as the primary conduits for establishing a support base for Erdogan among Indian Muslims. Sheikh Salman Nadwi, a controversial cleric, who earlier issued statements supporting Baghdadi but later withdrew it after a backlash, emphatically supported Erdogan after the 2016 coup. Another controversial Wahhabi preacher, Zakir Naik, notorious for inspiring the Dhaka terror attack in July 2016, and currently facing an arrest warrant in India, has also been received warmly in Turkey several times. He reportedly enjoys cordial relations with extremist Islamist clerics like Yildiz and delivered a speech at TUGWA (Islamist group run by Erdogan’s son Bilal) in 2017. Turkey is also funding NGOs and leading religious organizations for outreach among Indian Muslims, which are likely to be used in the future on the lines of Erdogan’s initiatives with the Turkish diaspora in Germany and other EU countries (Pandya, Abhinav, “Radicalization in India: An Exploration”). Diplomats and consular officials (Hyderabad and Mumbai) are reportedly approaching prominent Muslim clerics, businesspeople, community leaders, Muslim politicians, and bureaucrats. Reportedly, Turkey’s Diyanet, the religious affairs ministry is extending generous scholarships to Muslim students from India to invite them to Turkey and indoctrinate them with political Islam and jihadist doctrines. Maarif Foundation, connected with Turkey’s President Erdogan, has replaced the Gulen schools in Africa and Central Asia, with its educational institutions teaching radical Islamist ideology.

In his outreach, Erdogan is focusing on specific areas and getting a warm response from those areas. Closer scrutiny will reveal that some of his focus areas have a history of active participation in the Khilafat movement. For example, as mentioned above, Salman Nadwi from Lucknow is actively supporting his caliphate dreams in India. Lucknow has a history of participation in the Khilafat movement. Maulana Abdul Bari of Firangi Mahal Madrasa in Lucknow played an active role in the Khilafat movement. His other focus areas are Kolkata, Hyderabad, Deoband, and Kerala.

Further, as compared to Saudi-funded Wahhabism, Erdogan has better prospects of acceptance among the Muslims of South Asia because he represents a moderate Islam that aligns well with Deobandis and Barelvis, the dominant Islamic schools of South Asia. Due to doctrinal differences, Barelvis and Deobandis are bitterly opposed to Wahhabism. Further, his focus is not on sectarian rivalries and disputes. He projects himself as a global political, religious, and cultural face of Muslims. To that end, he has voiced support in favour of Muslims everywhere—be it Palestine, Kashmir, and Rohingya. Contrary to the silence of the Arab nations, Erdogan has even condemned the Chinese treatment of Uyghur Muslims as a “great cause of shame for humanity”. That said, to South Asian Muslims, Erdogan provides a much more acceptable model of leadership and a pathway to Pan-Islamism.

Besides, a recent report by India’s intelligence agencies said that President Erdogan has allocated huge funds to Turkish intelligence to radicalize Indian Muslims with the help of preachers recruited from the surrendered ISIS cadres. The intelligence report also mentioned that Turkey is funding Islamist groups in Kerala and the separatist leaders in Kashmir. As per the report, Turkey funded Islamist groups in prolonging the anti-CAA protests. Turkey’s funding of anti-India propaganda and fake news operations is also very active in the West. In the US, Turkey has invested significantly in creating a robust anti-India narrative with the help of Jamaat-i-Islami proxies like ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) and MAS (Muslim American Society), after the abrogation of Article 370 and the passage of CAA. Democrat lawmaker Ilhan Omar, who was the member of a highly congressional hearing on Kashmir, alleged that the motive behind abrogation of Article 370 was Hindu nationalism. Interestingly, Ilhan Omar has robust ties with Turkey’s Islamist President Erdogan.


Mission Kashmir

In Kashmir, Erdogan has made deep inroads among the separatist leadership, business groups, religious clerics, and organizations like Jamaat-i-Islami. Hailing his election victory (2018), Kashmir’s separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farookh called him, “an ardent supporter of Kashmir’s right to self-determination”. Further, he observed, “be it Palestine or Kashmir, Erdogan has raised a voice in support of the suppressed people.” Recently, Turkish media outlet TRT World severely criticized India’s decision to ban Jamaat-i-Islami, an extremist organization functioning as an intellectual and religious arm of Pro-Pakistan terrorist organization Hizbul Mujahideen. Turkey has historical linkages with JI Pakistan. The author’s informed interlocutors said that JI leaders from PoK are regularly invited to Turkey for seminars and conferences on religious matters and Kashmir issue.

One casual glance at the titles of videos of Turkey’s official broadcasting service TRT World exposes their biased and propagandist nature. For instance, many of them have titles like, “Is Kashmir becoming Palestine?”, “Is India using Hindu pilgrimages to tighten its grip around Kashmir?”, “13,000 boys detained in Kashmir”, “India will rule Pakistan-administered Kashmir—India’s foreign minister.” Further, the videos are loaded with false and one-sided stories. One of the videos, “Kashmir Conflict in under four minutes,” blatantly lies that in 1947, RSS massacred Muslims in Kashmir with the figure ranging anywhere between 20,000 to 100,000.

The alleged release of ISIS prisoners in the recent Turkish invasion of Syria also poses a grave threat to India. With the American withdrawal on the cards and ISKP deeply entrenched in the Af-Pak region, the area is likely to emerge as the epicentre of global jihadism. Many Indians from Kerala have already joined ISKP in Afghanistan. There is a strong possibility of Turkey transferring some of the released ISIS prisoners to the Af-Pak region, which runs into Kashmir. From there, they are likely to be diverted towards Kashmir. Further, there is also a strong likelihood of Turkey helping Kashmir-centric terrorist groups with drone technology and training in advanced guerilla terror techniques on the lines of the operations run by Turkey’s Sadat commandos in Syria with terrorist groups like Jahbat-Al Nusra and Tahrir Al Sham. Quite expectedly, Pakistan is majorly using drones lately to drop weapons and narcotics in Kashmir and Punjab border.

Based on the analysis of the documents of GASAM and interaction with the intelligence officials, the author believes that in the future, Turkey’s Kashmir strategy can focus on the following:

* Mediation between India and Pakistan.

* To capture Kashmiri people’s hearts and minds and establish Turkey as their genuine leader-spiritually and politically. To this end, Erdogan is visualizing the creation of an organization genuinely representing Kashmiri interests. It will consist of representatives from the local politicians, NGOs, scholars, business world, diaspora, religious groups.

* Demand an immediate demilitarization of the region. Further, Turkey wishes to popularize the cause of the return of Kashmiris refugees to their homeland.

* To set up a multi-functional peace force for the security of the region.

* Find solutions to compensate for the economic losses of the people due to the conflict since the 1990s.

* To project the Kashmir issue as a grave international security issue, not a bilateral issue.

Hence, sooner India realizes the gravity of the threat presented by Turkey’s Islamist project, the better. The recent punitive actions by the government, such as cutting defence ties, cancellation of the Prime Minister’s visit, criticism of Turkey’s invasion in Syria, and a travel advisory warning Indians not to visit Turkey are praiseworthy. Additionally, the author will recommend that the intelligence machinery of India should have a significant focus on Turkish outreach activities in India. Also, it deserves mention here that Turkey is known to use its state entities like Turkish Airlines for supplying weapons to terrorist groups. Hence, either a complete ban or rigorous scrutiny, as an alternative option can be considered. Last but not least, India should also embarrass Turkey in international forums by highlighting its persecution of Gulenists, Kurds, and dissidents in the country by jailing and torturing them.

Abhinav Pandya is the founder and CEO of Usanas Foundation, a geopolitical and security affairs think tank. He is the author of “Radicalization in India: An Exploration” (Pentagon Press, 2019). Currently, he is writing his second book, “Terror Financing in Jammu and Kashmir”. He did his BA from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and post graduation in Public Affairs from Cornell University, US.