The recent row with France further established Turkey’s role as an ideological instigator of tension between Islamist elements and the West, and its capability of appealing to Islamists globally. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rallies Islamists by promoting the notion that Europe is at war with Islam and says that his government “is determined to protect the rights and security of its citizens,” declaring his intent to interfere in other countries in the name of religion.
This strategy leads to an Islamist International, led by Erdogan. The Islamist International has a core of three states: Turkey, Qatar and Iran, and a nexus of diplomatic support provided by other Islamic countries, such as Pakistan and Malaysia, and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Islamist International was initially formulated during the Islamic Summit held last December in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Turkey wants to supplant Saudi Arabia and create an Islamic bloc opposed to the now pro-Western nexus of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Jordan. The group has extended its influence inside the EU through the network of Islamic migrant communities and entities influenced by Erdogan’s Turkey, such as the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe and the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations.
Turkey’s bid to head the Islamist International is seen through a series of actions targeting the Islamic community. First, Turkey has proved its ideological purity by affiliating itself with the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, Turkey has become involved on the ground in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. Turkey has supported radical Islamist fighters in all these countries or facilitated their transport to the war zones. Third, Turkey initiated the symbolic cultural war of militant Islam with the West in July, when it turned the Hagia Sophia, an iconic Christian church, into a mosque. Fourth, Turkey tries to appear as the leader of the Islamic resistance against “Western imperialism” and accuses the West of no longer feeling “the need to cover up their hatred toward Islam anymore.”
A spiral of Islamist terrorism and violent activism has unfolded in Europe and is connected to the increased tension between Islamists and Western states. Last Monday in Vienna, an ISIS-affiliated terrorist unleashed havoc, killing at least four people and injuring 23. ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. Investigators are trying to determine who provided the terrorist with help.
Again in Vienna, on October 29, a violent group of 50 Turkish men staged a riot at the historic Catholic church of St. Anthony of Padua, shouting “Allahu Akbar.” That same day, the Turkish Ministry of Interior announced that Turkey would consider an asylum request by French Islamist Idriss Sihamedi, founder of a Muslim charity shut down in France over its ties to radical Islamism. French authorities shut down BarakaCity — ostensibly a humanitarian aid group — on October 28, saying it “incites hate, has relations with the radical Islamist movement and justifies terrorist acts.”
Sihamedi posted his asylum request on Twitter, specifically addressing Erdogan. The Turkish Ministry of Interior quickly responded: “Hello Sihamedi. If you and your colleagues were to personally apply to our institution with your surname, first name, identity information, petition for an asylum request and your passport number, your request will be assessed.”
In many Western countries, including the United States, groups of Muslims and mosques organized protests against the French authorities’ attempt to resist the rise of parallel societies. In Pakistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Somalia, and the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Muslims staged anti-French protests after Friday prayers.
Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Turkish government has been on the forefront of tension with Europe and now aspires to be the standard bearer of Islamist extremism. It was Turkey’s decision to create a civilizational crisis with France that increased tension between Islamists and Europe, as this spiral of Islamist terror attacks and activist protests unfolds. Erdogan went so far as to claim that “Macron needs mental treatment” — and called for a global boycott of French products in all Islamic-populated countries. Erdogan has warned European countries that their citizens will not be able to “walk safely in the streets.” Turkey has coordinated an incitement campaign against France using pro-government media outlets, such as Daily Sabah, Anadolu Agency, and TRT.
France is the main battleground in this fight due to its leading position as representative of secular values and its attempt to curb rising Islamist separatism. On October 2, President Macron presented a five-point plan to address Islamist radicalization in a televised address. To Macron, Islamist separatism is a “conscious, theorized, politico-religious project that manifests itself in repeated discrepancies with the values of the Republic.” Responding to the numerous Islamist attacks, Macron called Islam “a religion in crisis.”
Both the terrorist attacks in Europe and the global protests over the cartoons are part of a greater Islamist strategy to rekindle the confrontation against the Western world. Rather than a reaction to the republishing of the Muhammad cartoons, these attacks are part of a calculated violent reaction by Islamists against any notion of incorporating Islam into the fabric of secular Western society. The real issue is the rise of Islamic parallel societies and attacks on Western freedom of speech.
Usual interpretations of Turkish foreign policy presume that, with its embrace of Islamist activism, Erdogan is focused on internal issues in a bid for popularity with an increasingly conservative electoral base. This premise is not only outdated, but dangerously naïve. Turkish embrace of political Islam is not a play at internal politics; it is an attempt at a new hegemonic form of political Islam and militant jihadism that shall subdue the West. Turkish neo-Ottomanism focuses on revival of a “greater Turkey” that aspires to be the focus of the Islamic world.
Although Turkey is the vanguard of the Islamist International and fomenting tension with NATO allies, it is still considered by the United States to be an integral part of the security structure of the West. The West needs to realize the fundamental importance of culture as an underlying factor in state behavior and the new world that is being shaped, and inject a basis of core values in its power structures to withstand the assault on its fundamental premises.
Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics, University of Athens.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.