The way Ankara invented this crisis is similar to other manufactured crises pushed by Turkey’s far-right government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey has sought to leverage a crisis that Ankara largely invented with France to push its influence in the Islamic world by portraying Ankara as a “defender” of Islam. The manufactured controversy hinges on claims that France is “Islamophobic” and that France’s President Emmanuel Macron has defended cartoons that are offensive to Muslims. The cartoon controversy dates back half a decade and only arose because an extremist murdered a teacher in France. Rather than condemn the extremist and the murder Turkey’s president and media contrived to use the murder to bash France. The latest moves by Turkey include comparing Muslims in Europe to Jews before the Holocaust and calling for a boycott of French goods. The move is coordinated with Qatar and being pushed by Iran’s regime as well.
The way Ankara invented this crisis is similar to other manufactured crises pushed by Turkey’s far-right government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his regime’s support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliates across the Middle East, such as Hamas. Since last year Turkey has created a new crises every month, with the US in Syria in October 2019 and then with Libya and then Egypt, then Europe, Russia, the Syrian regime, Libya again, Greece, Cyprus, Iraq, then Armenia, Greece again, then Armenia and then Greece yet again and then with France. Turkey has bombed Iraq, invaded and ethnically-cleansed Kurds in Syria, invaded Libya, challenged the French navy at sea, harassed Greek F-16s, used Russia’s S-400 air defense system and prodded Azerbaijan into a war with Armenia, while sending Syrian mercenaries paid by Ankara to fight in Libya and Azerbaijan and using drones to attack Kurdish activists in Syria and Iraq, all while claiming Turkey is fighting “terrorism.” Turkey hosted Hamas twice for high level meetings and has threatened to “liberate Al-Aqsa” in Jerusalem and said that “Jerusalem is ours,” in reference to Israel’s capital, all while also threatening US Democratic President candidate Joe Biden and bashing the Trump administration for supporting Israel.
The origins of the attacks on France go back to November 2019 when Turkey’s leader condemned Macron as “brain dead.” The comments are part of a rising crescendo to comments by Turkey’s regime bashing Europe. In January Turkey’s foreign minister claimed Europe was full of “racist spoiled children” who should “know their place.” On October 25 he again said Europe was full of “spoiled racists.” The same Turkish regime that brands Europe racist has expunged 60 of 65 mayors from the opposition HDP party, targeting members of the Kurdish minority, and has systematically expelled Kurds from Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria. Ankara also frequently bashes Jews, comparing Israel to the Nazis in a speech at the UN in September 2019 and downplaying the Holocaust in comments this week in which Turkey claimed Muslims are the new Jews of Europe being subjected to a “lynch” similar to Jews faced during the Second World War. Turkey frequently compares European countries to Nazi Germany but Ankara rarely commemorates the actual Holocaust, instead repurposing Jewish suffering to leverage its own recent rhetoric against Israel and Europe today.
Turkey was increasingly in tensions with France over the Eastern Mediterranean and France’s willingness to speak out against Turkish aggression in the Mediterranean, Libya, Armenia and Iraq. In July an incident at sea led France to condemn Turkey and complain to NATO. The issue was so sensitive that NATO would not reveal details of the investigation in September. However it appears that Turkey also used S-400 radar to track NATO-member Greek F-16s in August, showing that Ankara was using Russian weapon systems against NATO. Ankara used the radar during an joint exercise between France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. On September 12 Turkey threatened France, saying “don’t mess with Turkey,” during near-daily threats by Erdogan against almost every country in the Middle East and Europe. On September 30 Macron slammed Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan’s war against Armenian forces in Nagorna-Karabakh.
This set the stage for the next manufactured crisis. In early October Turkey decided to shift its crises-policy from attacking Armenia to harassing Greece with the declaration of new naval Navtex drill with its navy near a Greek island. France condemned Turkey for harassing Greece, a NATO ally, on October 12. Ankara’s leadership then decided to push a new crisis with France over Macron’s comments about Muslims. Macron believes France is facing provocations by Islamist extremists and has called this “separatism” as he pushes French values of secularism. Turkey bashed France on October 5 over these comments. Macron had made the comments after yet another terror attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo that had published cartoons in 2015 that were considered offensive. Meanwhile a French teacher named Samuel Paty was murdered on October 16, accused of showing offensive cartoons in a class on October 6. France went into national mourning.
Turkey’s leadership set upon the murder of the teacher to attack France for “Islamophobia,” even though the teacher was a victim of Islamist extremism. Turkey’s President said that Macron needed “mental treatment” and France recalled its ambassador on October 25. Turkey mobilized its state media TRT and other media such as Anadolu to attack France, coordinating with Qatari media. Iranian media also followed suit, bashing France for “anti-Islam comments.” After France recalled its Ambassador Turkey realized the crisis could help benefit Ankara since Turkey was about the cancel the Navtex, fearing clashes with Greece. To create a crisis with France, to replace the Greek crisis, Turkey needed to portray itself as “defending Islam.” Turkey’s regime also knew the US had just brokered a deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia and that Turkey couldn’t continue to push Azerbaijan towards an escalating war, this left Ankara with only one option: Fan the flames of crises with France.
On October 26, Turkey’s president called for a boycott of French goods. This was an entirely invented crisis. France hadn’t done anything to Turkey and there were no new “anti-Islam” comments from France or any actions at all from Paris that related to the sudden “boycott.” The way Ankara coordinated the crisis with its pro-government media was clear from how Turkey’s president used similar themes from media commentators. On October 24 Anadolu had published an article saying that “Islamophobia is replacing antisemitism” in France. On October 26 Turkey’s President said the exact same thing, claiming Muslims were being treated in Europe the same as Jews had been. Turkey’s media is almost all pro-government and linked to the ruling party in Turkey because Ankara has imprisoned the most journalists in the world, silencing all dissent. This means that articles at TRT or Anadolu reflect the narrative put out by Ankara every morning, closely coordinated with the AK Party. There is no criticism of Turkey’s leadership in major media in Turkey, so every crises with countries like France can be pushed systematically from the top down. In this case Turkey revealed its narrative two days before the President pushed this story of “Muslims are the new Jews of Europe.”
Iran has followed Turkey’s narrative by calling in French diplomats for consultation. Pro-Turkish media elements have also pushed for protests across the Middle East, trying to transform the boycott of France into a global “Islamic” cause. This puts many Muslim countries in a difficult position, not wanting to defend offensive cartoons in France, but wondering why this is a sudden crises when France hasn’t appeared to actually do anything or change recently. Turkey, Qatar and Iran have coordinated, putting pressure on countries from Malaysia to Pakistan, Kuwait to the Kurdistan region, with many forced to respond in some way to the France “controversy.” Even in Israel and the West Bank groups have protested France.
This isn’t the first time an invented crises emerged in which people were told to be “offended” by rumors. In 2012 a video no one had seen in the Middle East was used by extremists as an excuse to attack the US embassy in Cairo and a US diplomatic annex in Libya, killing US ambassador Chris Stevens. It is now known the attack was planned in advance and had nothing to do with a largely invented “offensive video.” However, like the “France anti-Islam” comments, the actual details are less important than the result. Turkey is pushing for extremist reactions to France, perhaps seeking to show Ankara can destabilize Europe by activating its media machine, thus sending a message to European leaders to obey Ankara or face the wrath of invented “insults to Islam” stories that will case protests and boycotts.