On 21 November, Turkey hosted an international conference on Kashmir that severely criticised India’s revocation of Article 370 and raised serious concerns about the future of Kashmir. The invitees included Pakistan Senator Sherry Rahman, its former diplomat Shamshad Ahmad Khan and chairman of the Lahore Centre for Peace Research — that jointly organised the conference with Turkey’s Institute of Strategic Thinking. Another name with dubious and shady credentials, UK-based Kashmiri lobbyist Lord Nazir Ahmad, was also an invitee.
After the revocation of Article 370, India faced a challenging diplomatic ordeal for over two months on various multilateral platforms. India successfully navigated the dire diplomatic straits, reasonably convincing most of the western countries of the necessity and legality of its move. However, it was Turkey that emerged as the most ardent supporter of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Although Turkey has traditionally supported Pakistan in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) against India on the Kashmir issue, its recent activism in South Asian affairs emanates from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s larger ambitions of leading the Islamic world.
Erdogan, it appears, wants to revive the Ottoman Caliphate by 2023 when Turkey celebrates 100 years of becoming a republic. This author has discussed Erdogan’s caliphate ambitions in detail in his article written for Haaretz, By reviving the institution of the Caliphate, Erdogan wants to claim the moral, political, spiritual, and religious leadersip of the world. The revived Caliphate as an institution is most likely to be symbolic only. However, it will give Erdogan immense control over Muslims around the globe.
The declining economic might and legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s leadership in West Asia are further whetting the revisionist political ambitions of Erdogan. It is pertinent to mention here that Saudi Arabia, under the rule of the Saud dynasty with its puritan Wahhabi brand of Islam, had wrested the leadership of the Muslim world form Turkey after the First World War with the help of the western powers. Interested readers may refer to this author’s article in Haaretz, for a detailed analysis.
Before delving deeper into the South Asia-centric operations, a brief mention of Erdogan’s shady world merits a mention. Most of the people in India see him as an elected president of the Turkish Republic, which he is, like any other national head. However, it may baffle their reason to learn that Erdogan is not just a president, but also an aspiring Caliph and even an enthusiastic supporter of dreaded terrorist organisations and Islamist organisations. He is creating deep assets across the globe who can cater to his geostrategic and political interests by investing in radical Islamist groups and terrorist organisations.
Also, it projects his image as a benefactor and leader of the Muslim causes all over the world, among the extremist groups. Erdogan’s dubious and murky links with various terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir-Al-Sham (Al-Qaeda affiliate in Turkey), and the Islamic State have been brought out by various intelligence agencies time and again. An operative of Turkish Intelligence sent $600, 000 to the Somalian terrorist group, Al Shabab. Turkey’s dubious links with the IS have been under debate for quite some time now.
Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AVID) has claimed that IS is using Turkey as a strategic base to reorganise 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”. Democratic Presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, tweeted that “Erdogan has been helping [IS] and [Al-Qaeda] for years. He has denied this but now is openly using militias of former [IS/Al-Qaeda] terrorists exposing him for what he is: A radical Islamist megalomaniac who wants to establish a caliphate with himself as a caliph-the supreme ruler.”
Turkey has supported Syria’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has significant influence among most of the anti-Bashar al-Assad opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army, and terrorist groups like Jahbat-Al-Nusra and Ahrar-al-Sham. Turkey-backed Islamist proxy group, Free Syrian Army, raided Kurdish areas in North-Eastern Syria, killed unarmed civilians and deliberately released IS detainees, as told by two US officials to Foreign Policy.
Hopes from South Asia
Erdogan knows well that his caliphate claims will meet fierce resistance from the Arab Islamic nations, so he is pinning his hopes on the Muslims of the non-Arab countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Malaysia. He has taken up the causes of Muslims all over the world, whether Palestine, Kashmir, the Rohingya, Yemen, or Uighur Muslims. 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 deceased IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but later withdrew it after a backlash, is one of them.
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 on several occasions. 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 organisations 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.
Diplomats and consular officials are reportedly approaching prominent Muslim clerics, business people, community leaders, Muslim politicians, and bureaucrats. The worrying concern is that there are enough buyers for Erdogan’s Islamism in India. He propagates a narrative that Muslims in India are going through a lean phase due to the domination of Hindu-nationalist forces in the country’s socio-political set-up. The narrative projects the Indian Muslim community as weak and leaderless. That said, if he projects himself as Caliph, there will be enough takers for that in the Indian Muslim community as they will see it as a source of strengthening their religious identity. The jubilation over Erdogan’s return to the presidency in the June 2018 election witnessed among the Muslim community across the country speaks volumes about his popularity and outreach in India.
Indian National Congress’ Overseas unit opens office in Turkey
The foreign wing of India’s main Opposition party, the Indian National Congress, the Indian Overseas Congress, has announced that it will open an office in Turkey. Traditionally, the Congress has projected itself as a secular party. Muslims have constituted its most significant votebank. Lately, with waning electoral fortunes and the rise of new leaders among the Muslims like Asaduddin Owaisi, the Congress is losing its support base among the Muslims. That said, the decision to open an office in Turkey may be aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Muslims. However, given Erdogan’s bitter anti-India quasi alliance with Pakistan, his dubious links with transnational terrorist groups, and an Islamist agenda in the Indian subcontinent, the Congress’ newfound love for the Turkish may be very threatening for India’s national security.
In Kashmir, Turkey is poisoning young minds through rabid Islamist propaganda. Secular-minded youngsters are being instilled with a narrative that Hindu extremism is on the rise in India, and it is no more a secular nation. Turkey’s primary vehicle to carry such hateful narrative and biased propaganda is its official broadcasting service TRT World. It presents one-sided, false, and fabricated stories of gross human rights violations by India’s security forces. In the video, ‘Kashmir off-grid- fault-lines in the valley‘, humiliation by security forces is mentioned as the most critical factor pushing people towards militancy conveniently disregarding the Jihadi radicalisation and the role of Pakistan in promoting and sustaining militancy in the state. One of the videos, ‘Kashmir Conflict in under four minutes‘, claims that in 1947, the RSS massacred Muslims in Kashmir with the toll ranging anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000.
One can discern a deliberate attempt to internationalise the Kashmir issue by making unwarranted comparisons in videos like ‘Is Kashmir becoming Palestine?’. The video predicts the possibility of India creating West Bank-like settlements of Hindus in Kashmir. Further, Turkey supported Pakistan in the FATF and UNGA. In the most recent international conference on Kashmir, the statements expressed by various speakers have an explicit intent to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Senator Sherry Rahman said, “India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir are a slap on the face of the international community and United Nations.”
Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) lawmaker Erkan Akcay said that the world faces six key problems: Jerusalem, Cyprus, Kashmir, Crimea, Kashgar (Xinjiang), (equating Kashmir with global conflict zones). He also coupled India’s growing relationship with Israel with the Kashmir issue with the intent of projecting India as an anti-Muslim country. Former Iranian prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi said, “[The] Kashmir dispute has affected many aspects of the region, including development, and the people of Kashmir, as well as Pakistan, have suffered a lot for 73 years now.”
That said, India needs to be extra vigilant against Turkish propaganda machinery and its outreach to India’s Muslims. Turkey’s alleged support to transnational terror groups like the Al-Qaeda and IS and Pakistan, a terror-sponsoring nation facing FATF action, can be a grave threat to India’s national security. Also, Turkey’s Islamist propaganda can significantly harm the communal harmony of India.
The author is a Cornell University graduate in public affairs, a policy analyst specialising in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitics