On December 18-21, 2019 the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur hosted an Islamic summit. It was not a routine meeting of the heads of state of Muslim countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In fact, it had nothing to do with the OIC. It was a meeting slated to bring the Muslim world together and improve its outreach to the non-Muslim world. It was attended by the leaders of Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. Pakistan and Indonesia had originally been slated to attend the gathering but both countries pulled out on the eve of the summit.
The summit’s website describes it as an “international platform for Muslim leaders, intellectuals and scholars from around the world to discuss and exchange ideas about the issues revolving in the Muslim world.” It lists the objectives of the summit as follows: To revive Islamic civilization; to deliberate and find new and workable solutions for the problems afflicting the Muslim world; to contribute to the improvement of the state of affairs among Muslims and Muslim nations; and to form a network of Islamic leaders, intellectuals, scholars, and thinkers around the world.
In the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad — whose country hosted the summit: “The five countries (Indonesia and Pakistan being part of the original plan) will be pioneering the beginning of broader Islamic cooperation that includes several fields facing the Islamic world.” The question that arises, then, is when a well-established platform for Muslim countries in the world already exists in the Saudi-led OIC — whose avowed aims are also similar to those listed above — what is the need for yet another such platform?
The idea for the summit was floated in July last year in Ankara when Mahathir was on an official visit to Turkey. After discussions with Erdogan, both leaders announced the summit at a joint press conference. Mahathir pointed out that there was once a great Islamic civilization, but it was no longer the case today. “Today, we cannot claim to be a great civilization, we are all oppressed and many of us are very backwards to the point of not even being able to set up the government of our own countries,” he said, adding that Muslim countries should do something to address their weaknesses and their dependence on others. “So, by working together, countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan should be able to put our minds and assets together so as to tackle this problem and help resuscitate Islamic civilization. I am sure that cooperation between Malaysia and Turkey will help us move in that direction to free the Muslim Ummah from being subjugated by others who are not friendly towards us,” he said.
On his part, Erdogan said that solidarity between Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan was necessary for the unity of the Islamic world. Mahathir echoed the statement saying: “Cooperation between Malaysia and Turkey will help to relieve the Muslim Ummah from being subjugated by others. If you look at the past, Turkey was the savior of the Muslim Ummah in those days, but for reasons that few are able to understand we now have no Muslim country to stand up and protect us, but that doesn’t mean that this should be forever.”
ERDOGAN’S OBSESSION WITH LEGACY
Implicit in these words and in the summit itself was the inability of the OIC to resolve issues facing the Muslim world. This neatly fits into Erdogan’s aspirations to leave behind a legacy as a leader of the Muslim Ummah. In this regard, he has left no stone unturned, making use of the slightest opportunity offered to him. Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dreams are no secret. Erdogan uses nostalgia for empire and Islamist ideology through his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Development (AKP) party to position Turkey as the rightful heir and inheritor of the Caliphate legacy with himself as Caliph. This was clearly articulated in a speech he made in 2016 to commemorate the centenary of the Kut Al Amara Victory (in modern Iraq), where Erdogan stated that he rejects any understanding of history that considers 1919 as the start of the 1,000-year history of his nation and civilization. “Whoever leaves out our last 200 or even 600 years, together with its victories and defeats and jumps directly from old Turkish history to the Republic, is an enemy of our nation and state,” he stated.
With Arab leaders from Iraq’s Kut region by his side, Erdogan noted: “Just a century ago, there was no difference between Bursa and Skopje, just as Baghdad, Mosul, Damascus, Aleppo, Salonica, Batum and Kardzhali didn’t have any difference. However, political schemes aimed at drawing artificial borders according to oil resources and taking advantage of the Ottoman state’s pluralistic structure separated these lands from each other.” In the speech, he also went on to say that there were no spiritual borders between the Arab world and Turkey or between Shi’ite and Sunni sects. “Our physical borders might have been separated but our spiritual borders have never been separated. We don’t have Shi’ism or Sunnism. Our only religion is Islam.”
To this end, Erdogan has been trying long and hard to position himself as the leader of the world’s Muslims, trying to straddle the sectarian divide in the Middle East, as well as to insert himself in Arab affairs (of which Turkey is not a part).
FURTHERING THE ISLAMIST AGENDA
In furthering his party’s agenda, Turkey has lifted rules banning women from wearing head scarves in the country’s state institutions — with the exception of the judiciary, military and police — ending a decades-old restriction. Critics also pointed to Erdogan’s failed bid to criminalize adultery and his attempts to introduce “alcohol-free zones” as evidence of his alleged Islamist intentions. “No Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning. We will multiply our descendants,” Erdogan — who is a father of four — said in May 2016. He has extolled motherhood, condemned feminists and said men and women cannot be treated equally. Erdogan also introduced educational reforms that banned Darwin’s Theory of Evolution from curricula; at the same time, to Islamize the syllabi, Islamic teachings have been incorporated.
With a mix of soft power — through cultural exports like TV serials, tourism, humanitarian aid, a flotilla to Gaza — and hard power, Erdogan has been steadily trying to push his Islamist agenda, primarily by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in various forms and in various countries.
The Arab Spring presented an opportunity for him and he threw his support behind the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He also supported the Islamist government of Sudan’s now-toppled president Omar al-Bashir with whom he had discussed the renovation of the Red Sea port of Suakin Island which had thrived during Ottoman times. Additionally, he maintains strong ties with Hamas in Gaza.
BUILDING PROXY ARMIES
Under Erdogan’s watch, Turkey became a conduit for recruits from across the globe for the Islamic State’s “Caliphate”, which had risen in parts of Syria and Iraq. Following through with the same agenda, Turkey, more recently, sent troops to Libya to shore up the fragile Islamist government there — many among them are jihadist recruits who had been fighting in Syria. Turkey had also in November 2019 moved its troops into Northeastern Syria, where it is currently engaged in military operations against the Syrian government. Erdogan has since vowed to not let Idlib fall to the Syrian army.
However, the dynamics within the Arab world put the spanner in Turkish ambitions. For one, many in the Arab world view Turkey as a former colonial power. Next, popular rejection of Islamist ideology — in Egypt, Sudan and Libya — has made it imperative for Erdogan to look beyond former Ottoman territories to fulfill his legacy. This is evident in the outreach that Turkey has been making to — for instance — Central Asian countries with which it shares ethnic and linguistic ties, while also reaching out to non-Arab Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and to Muslim communities in countries like Myanmar and India.
Yet, another reason for Turkey to look to other regions is the fact that while the spiritual center of Muslims remains in the Arab heartland, the demographic centre has long shifted to South and Southeast Asia— the most populous Muslim countries today are Indonesia and Pakistan. It is within this context that the Kuala Lumpur Muslim summit should be viewed. With its outreach to countries like Pakistan or to causes like that of the displaced, stateless Rohingyas in camps in Bangladesh, as well as with its support in the cultural and intellectual sphere through its hosting of international conferences on the Muslim Brotherhood or on Kashmir, Erdogan is looking for cause after cause to further both his Islamist agenda as well as position himself as the champion and leader of Muslims around the world.
‘CHAMPIONS OF THE MUSLIM WORLD’
For instance — together with Malaysia and Pakistan — Turkey had, during the UN General Assembly in New York in September last year, announced its decision to launch an English-language television channel dedicated to confronting Islamophobia and dispelling “misperceptions” about Islam. The headquarters of the channel are in Istanbul. According to Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director, the channel will be aimed at fighting anti-Muslim sentiment. “We will establish a strong media and communication center and channel under the umbrella of combating Islamophobia,” he told the Andalou news agency. He added that the TV channel project was “only one element of the struggle against anti-Muslim sentiment” which he described as a “serious issue” and that more resources would be invested in combatting Islamophobia. During the UN assembly, Turkey also co-hosted a high-level roundtable discussion at the UN on countering hate speech.
Turkey’s nostalgia for empire has found common ground with Malaysia’s Mahathir — who harbors his own dreams of leaving behind a legacy. Anyone familiar with Malaysian politics knows that under Mahathir’s watch the country has steadily Islamized with university campuses providing the platform to what Malaysian academic Farish Noor termed ‘juvenile theocracy’. New state institutions have proliferated such as the Institute of Islamic Understanding and the International Islamic University of Malaysia. Primary and secondary education curricula were revised to include more material on Islamic civilization — radio and television programs were accordingly tailored. Malaysia also passed legislation to reflect this change by implementing Shariah law, especially in divorce and religious conversion cases.
Mahathir wants to be remembered as a champion of Muslims — at least in the region. He had long complained that the OIC did not take up causes with the attention and vigor that they required. Former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said the summit had to be understood as an “extension of Malaysian domestic politics” rather than a Middle Eastern or Islamic event. “It is a time-tested, domestic political tactic to pose as a leader of the Islamic world to rally the Malay ground,” he said on Facebook.
A HIDDEN AGENDA
The summit in Kuala Lumpur gave him the visibility that he desired even though some key members like Pakistan and Indonesia pulled out of it. While major OIC members like Egypt and Saudi Arabia were not initially included as a part of the summit, an invitation was eventually extended to Saudi Arabia which turned it down. In a video conference with Saudi King Salman, Mahathir stressed that the summit was not an alternative to the OIC. However, much of the world has perceived it differently. The presence of Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, who has had a falling out with the other GCC members and is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, was viewed as proof that the summit’s hidden agenda was to challenge Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Muslim world.
The summit saw the participation of many Muslim Brotherhood allies and members like Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hassan Ould Al-Dadou Al-Shanqiti of Mauritania, Dr. ‘Abd Al-Razzaq Maqri, head of Algeria’s Movement of Society for Peace and Islamist ideologues, controversial Indian preacher Zakir Naik, who is banned in many Muslim countries and wanted in India, thus setting its ideological direction. The summit did not deal with any of the major ‘Muslim’ issues like the plight of the Rohingya refugees, the Kashmir issue, Uighur oppression or even the Palestinian issue. Instead, it dwelled mostly on fissures within the Muslim world. The participants stressed the need for an Islamic identity which steered clear of Sunni and Shi’ite schisms and divides, thus, undermining Iran which positions itself as the leader of the Shi’ite world. While Mahathir denied that the summit was trying to challenge the OIC, Erdogan dispelled all doubts by claiming that “the biggest problem of platforms that bring together the Islamic world under a single roof is the issue of implementation. This is the reason why we have not covered any distance in the Palestinian cause, are unable to stop the exploitation of our resources and cannot say stop as our region is torn apart through the rhetoric of sectarianism.” His prescription was prevention “through cooperation and proper leadership”. He also pitched for a reformation of the UN Security Council, no doubt with Turkey in mind as the likely contender.
Erdogan also pitched Turkey’s hard power at the summit, underscoring that Turkey reduced its foreign dependency to 30% in the defense sector, down from 80% in 2003. “We are one of the four most developed states in the world in armed, unmanned aerial vehicles,” he said. “We take care of our defense needs by producing warships, helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles, missile technology and even export them to friendly nations and allies.”
While tangible results of the summit remain to be seen, its biggest achievement was emboldening both Erdogan’s — and to a lesser extent, Mahathir’s — ambitions. It made it clear that both leaders will continue to seek new causes and geographical hotspots to further the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda, along with their own personal aggrandizement.