Turkey’s strongman president is bent on creating a warped, 21st century version of the Ottoman empire. As former French President, Francois Hollande, has said Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ”seeking to militarise the eastern Mediterranean; he has breached Nato obligations by buying Russian missiles; he has imprisoned hundreds of journalists and political opponents; he is obsessed with Islamism”. But Europe has yet to wake up to the militarised, Islamist threat on it’s doorstep.
Having initially rebranded his AKP party as pro-market and pro-Western, it didn’t take long for Erdogan’s deep-seated Islamist ideology to emerge. Now he combines the Kemalist foregin policy of former President Özal with a more Islamist worldview. Europe is bearing witness to the fruits of that approach, with Ankara exporting jihadist fighters to Libya, potentially triggering another migrant crisis, and ratcheting up tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Whilst it may alarm, it should not surprise observers. President Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism is all about projecting Turkey’s power beyond it’s borders by disseminating a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired agenda in hotspots like Syria, Libya and Greek waters. Turkey has adopted Iran’s strategy of using deniable proxy activities to obscure the exact nature of its plans.
Western ignorance of this new hard-line Islamist ambition is nothing new. During the Arab Spring in the early 2010s Obama tacitly embraced the Muslim Brotherhood, fundamentally failing to understand their destabilising and undemocractic ethos. Likewise, European powers are not only failing to act upon Turkey’s expansionism, but appear not to have properly understood the ideology that motivates it.
Erdogan’s ties to the Brotherhood go back to the 1970s, when he was a pupil of Necmettin Erbakan, the father of Turkish Islamism. Muslim Brotherhood branches in the Gulf helped support Erbakan and Turkey’s Islamists during an era of secular dominance. When the AKP and Erdogan came to power, they were ready to repay the favour. This was further helped by the Obama administration giving Turkey a free hand, seemingly out of support for the democratic ideals they mistakenly thought the Brotherhood embodied.
As a result, we are seeing Turkey, in close partnership with Qatar and Iran, majorly expand its destabilising influence throughout the region. They have been instrumental in developing Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, all preaching a hard-line doctrine which aims to undermine the moderate and open approach taken by many Middle Eastern states. Examples include Islamic Action Front in Jordan, the Iraqi Islamic Party, Islamic Action Front in Lebanon, and Libya’s Justice and Construction Party.
Furthermore, Turkey and Qatar have funnelled money and resources into mosques across Europe which parrot Islamist messages, seeking to separate congregants from the fabric of the largely secular societies in which they live.
Turkey is running loose, with an effective free hand thanks to Europe’s failure to coordinate a response.
The lack of any concerted reaction to Erdogan’s reckless sabre-rattling against Greece is a case in point. If the European Union is meant to be an organisation of common interests that protects it’s member states, then it’s failing Greece. A recent European Council summit was stretched out as Greece and Cyprus rejected statements on the basis that there were no prospects of sanctions against Turkey. As the countries directly experiencing Turkish menace, their concerns have been largely ignored.
If Europe is to effectively push back against the problems Erdogan is sowing, then they need to start listening to those concerns. However, to truly understand how to push back against Turkish aggression, Western leaders must first get their head around its Islamist roots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
Michael Arizanti is an independent writer and researcher