Erdogan Pitches Himself as Muslim World’s New Leader - OZY | A Modern Media Company
The Turkish leader wants to supplant Saudi Arabia as the so-called leader of the Islamic world.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

The Turkish leader wants to supplant Saudi Arabia as the so-called leader of the Islamic world.

By Laura Pitel and Mehul Srivastava

  • For decades, Saudi Arabia has played the role of the leader of the Muslim world.
  • Now, as Riyadh and its allies move closer to Israel, Turkey’s leader is racing to fill that void.
  • His embrace of Hamas in particular is worrying Israel and the U.S.

At Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, the faithful often hold up portraits of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, worshipping under the gleaming gold crescent on the Dome of the Rock that was paid for by Turkey.

Erdogan’s popularity with Palestinians reflects his long championing of their struggle for nationhood and comes as their cause has slid down the list of regional concerns, sidelined by Israel’s wooing of the Gulf states. He has stepped into that vacuum, coupling his adventures in Libya and Syria with a desire to wield influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Israel the most troubling aspect is his embrace of Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the EU and the U.S.

The U.S., a close Israel ally, has also voiced concerns. Last month, in a rare public statement on this relationship, it strongly objected to Erdogan hosting two Hamas leaders in Istanbul, chiding him for his “outreach to the terrorist organization.”

The U.S. rebuke came after Erdogan tweeted a photo of his meeting with Hamas figures, including Saleh al-Arouri, a prominent military commander who worked in Lebanon, Syria and the occupied West Bank.

There’s a broader struggle still underway over the contours of the regional order, and that is partly what motivates him.

Sarah Feuer, Washington Institute for Near East Policy and INSS, Tel Aviv

“There are both geopolitical and ideological considerations here,” says Sarah Feuer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, referring to Turkey’s regional rivalry with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

“Erdogan sees emerging alliances in the region as a threat, but he’s also presenting himself as the leader of the Muslim world and flag bearer for Islamist movements, to counter the Emirati-Saudi-Egyptian camp. There’s a broader struggle still underway over the contours of the regional order, and that is partly what motivates him.”

“It fits in perfectly,” says a U.N. official, who has mediated between Israel and Hamas for nearly a decade. “Find the one thing that Israel doesn’t have an answer to, doesn’t know how to manage and can’t get rid of, and make it your own personal vanity project.”

In the past decade, Turkey has funded hospitals, schools and economic projects both in the Gaza Strip, run by Hamas, and in the occupied West Bank, moves that have irked the Israeli government but been welcomed by Palestinians, who have long sought a champion unmoved by Israel’s anti-Iran posture and untamed by American foreign policy demands.

The Turkish president has regularly scolded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led Israel’s most right-wing government in years. Erdogan has made the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine and perhaps the most sensitive of issues dividing the Jews and Arabs, a centerpiece of his pledges to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation.

Erdogan’s embrace of Hamas makes ideological sense. The Islamist militant group emerged in 1987 as a rival to the secular, left-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization, drawing inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood of neighboring Egypt. The Turkish president, whose own roots lie in Islamist politics, views the Brotherhood and its offshoots as fellow travelers. “There is this sense of kindred spirit and solidarity,” says Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington.

It also works politically for Erdogan, who has increasingly melded foreign policy with domestic considerations, and strives to cast himself at home as a champion of Muslims across the world.

Erdogan inherited a strong relationship with Israel when he swept to national power almost 20 years ago. Turkey, which was the first Muslim-majority nation to recognize the fledgling Jewish state, forged close cooperation on defense and security with Israel in the 1990s. Trade with Israel was $6 billion last year, according to the Turkish official statistics — up from $4.3 billion in 2016.

But a fiery clash between Erdogan and President Shimon Peres on a Davos stage in 2009 marked the “dividing line” between two chapters in Turkey-Israeli relations, says Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Shimon Peres, Israel's president, right, looks towards Recep

Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, right, looks towards Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, while speaking during a session on day two of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009.

Source Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty

For Israel, Turkey’s ideological support of Hamas had until recently been a manageable irritant. But a 2019 meeting between Erdogan and Ismail Haniyeh, the chief of Hamas’ political wing and who polls say is the most popular leader in the Palestinian territories, signaled a shift in Turkish strategy, from moral support to material, according to people briefed on the issue.

As well as financial help, over the past two years, Turkey has also granted citizenship to dozens of Hamas members, according to one person briefed on the issue, allowing them to travel without visas to more than 100 countries. This brought the relationship between Turkey and Israel to a near halt, according to two others briefed on the situation — and was what triggered the recent reprimand from the U.S.

The Israeli security establishment had already been suspicious of Turkish passport holders, subjecting them to stringent scrutiny the Turks describe as targeted harassment. Turkey insists that it never grants citizenship to people with proven links to terrorism or violence.

Turkey argues that Hamas — which won the last election in 2006 — is the legitimate representative of the people of Gaza. Officials stress that they also have strong ties with the secular Palestinian party Fatah, which runs the West Bank.

Ankara believes that Israeli pressure on Turkey stems from a sense of emboldenment built on the basis of strong support from Donald Trump and the recent deal to normalize relations with the UAE. “They [the Israelis] have been isolating Gaza for a long time physically and politically,” says a senior Turkish official. “And now they are targeting countries that have contacts with Hamas.”

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By Laura Pitel and Mehul Srivastava

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