This article was publiced at this blog:https://internationalaffairsanalysis.blogspot.com/2020/01/reccep-erdogans-islamic-foreign-policy.html
The recent visit of Turkish President Recep Erdogan at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for an Islamic Summit was indicative of the Turkish strategy towards the Muslim world which is almost the same with that of the Ottoman one. At the same time, it showed that the Turkish intensions might not be unanswered.
The Islamic Summit
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad organized in late December 2019 the “Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019”, a meeting of Islamic countries. The hosts were the leaders of Turkey Recep Erdogan, of Iran Hassan Rouhani, of Pakistan Imra Khan, that of Qatar Emir al- Thani and politicians of Algeria.
During the proceedings, issues concerning Islam were discussed such as the inhuman treat of Chinese Muslims from China, the case of an Islamic economy based on the consumption of Muslim products by the Muslims and the threat of the Islamic community from the Western world. On the other hand, some issues such as the rise of the Islamic State, the mistreatment of the Muslim community in Myanmar and the war in Yemen were not examined.
This Summit caused tensions inside the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia condemned the mentioned meeting because it seems that it tries to be an alternative to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) based on Jeddah. In addition, the Pakistani leader abandoned the Summit after Saudi pressure. The Pakistani government stated that it doesn’t want to be engaged at a political institution different from the OIC. The Malaysian government declared that it has not any intention to be a competitor of the other Muslim states and that it is not an alternative to OIC.
In a nutshell, the Malaysian initiative caused mixed reactions and it was not as important and successful as it was planned. It can be said that this Summit was a “victim” of the different geopolitical interests among the Islamic countries.
The Turkish designs
Despite the reactions, Turkey managed to show its intentions. They remind those of the Ottoman Empire. To begin with, the leader of the Ottoman Empire with the Title Sultan was at parallel the Caliph, the supreme leader of all the Muslims. So, Ottomans were the leaders of the Islamic world. Also, the Sultans were helping other Muslim countries- the Ottoman aid reached the Eastern Horn of Africa, the Indian shores and China. At the same time, the Sultans tried to exterminate any other challenge. For example, when the Saudis under the command of Saud doubted the Title of the Ottoman emperor, the latter sent an expeditionary force to destroy the Saudi Army. As a result, the Sultans proved that they were in position to protect the Muslim communities outside their lands and retain the title of Caliph for them. Last but not least, they managed to protect the Sunni Islam from the Shi’ ites. The Ottoman-Persian Wars were memorial and one of their targets was the domination over Islam. The fall of the Ottoman Empire was a combination of bad economic policies and the threat from the Christian world-Orthodox and Catholic.
Erdogan follows the Ottoman traits. First of all, he tries to become the most prominent representative of the Muslim world, especially of the Sunnis. The religious policies and the cultural diplomacy with the building of several mosques and the funding of numerous Islamic institutes in the Balkans and in Asia generally are signs that the Turkish leader aims at being an important factor of the Islamic community. As well as, as another “Sultan” he supports other Muslim states. The aid he provided to the Libyan government of Tripoli and the support of the Turkmen guerillas in Syria are some examples.
Furthermore, the rhetoric of Turkey regarding Islam marks a dichotomy between the non- Islamic and the Islamic world. So, from the one hand there is a non – Muslim West which is a threat for the Muslim community. On the other hand, there are other countries such as China which mistreat their Muslim minorities. Mr Erdogan talked about this at the Summit.
Moreover, Erdogan does not hesitate to confront with the leader of the Sunni Islamic faction, Saudi Arabia. The relations between the two Middle Eastern countries have been deteriorated due to several events. The only difference is the approach of Iran from Turkey. In contrast with the Ottoman leaders, Erdogan maintains good relations with the Shi’ ite Iran and both countries collaborate.
It is evident that the Turkish plan for dominance in the Islamic world is very ambitious. Not only there are different interests, but also the dynamics inside it can halt the Turkish policy. More specifically, the policy of Erdogan will be challenged by Saudi Arabia and probably by Egypt, two of the most powerful Sunni countries. It is known that Riyadh will not let Turkey to become a leader of the Muslims, especially the Sunni ones. Additionally, the Turkish support to radical Islamists in Syria has caused a suspicion among several Islamic states of the true intentions of the Turkish presidency.
What is more, the growing Turkish influence worries some of the Islamic governments. The policy of independence by those governments probably won’t allow the Turkish influence to be established. A basic example is the attitude of Imra Khan. Although the Turkish- Pakistani relations are very good, the Pakistani prime minister didn’t take part at the whole dialogue, while the Turkish president did the opposite.
Last but not least, any alternative political institution except the OIC is not going to have the appropriate nomination of the Muslim communities and their leaderships, while the “war” from the Saudi government will be very intense. In other words, if this Islamic Summit becomes an institution, it will not be in position to replace the OIC, not even will reach the resonance of that organization.
From the above, it is obvious that the Turkish government and its head Reccep Erdogan follow the road of the Ottoman rulers. Erdogan tries to project political Islam and become a prominent representative and a protector for the Muslims from the Balkans to Africa to Central Asia and the Far East. His stance during the Summit proved that. Already, he has taken important steps and Turkey is an important player in the Islamic political world.
However, a policy like that is not unchallenged. Erdogan is not alone. He has fearful opponents such as the Saudi dynasty, Egypt and other members of the OIC. Also, Iran for now has good relations with Turkey, but the Shia religious elite will not accept the Turkish influence over the Iranian territory. It is very difficult for Erdogan to achieve his goal and the future will show whether this plan will be successful or not.