A new kind of unholy trinity appears to be forming across the globe that threatens one country in particular, the whole continent around it, and has implications for the entire world. The tightening alliance between Pakistan, China, and now Turkey is hell-bent on weakening India, mobilizing tools of political and economic warfare, tactics also used in Europe. A recent report published in India’s Hindustan Times has highlighted one of these political instruments: in parts of India, including Kerala and Kashmir, radical Islamists are receiving funds from outfits connected to the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The article quoted an Indian government source expressing concern that these efforts could radicalise Indian Muslims and said Turkey was becoming “the hub of anti-India activities”, second only to Pakistan.
In the last six years, since India’s ties with the Arab world—especially with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have improved by leaps and bounds, Pakistan and Turkey have moved closer together in counter-reaction. Pakistan is one of the legs that Erdogan needs for his non-Arab “Islamic” platform, along with Malaysia and Iran, and for Pakistan anyone that can empower it against India is a friend. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been looking to curb the Islamist trend region-wide, not only suppress the terrorist movements but fight it ideologically to prevent it recruiting the young and impressionable, Turkey and Pakistan have instrumentalized Islamists in their state policies.
Erdogan’s policies, domestically in Turkey and across Europe and Asia, with a little help from Pakistan, have targeted young audiences to further his political agenda. In Turkey, an entire generation has not known any other political leader except Erdogan; half the country’s population is under-32. This generation has been caught in the undertow as Erdogan has shifted his political stance since about 2012 to emphasize a brand of nationalism that has ventured into the “civilizational”, highlighting Turkey’s imperial Ottoman past and the great competition with the Christian West. This is of a part with Erdogan’s gradual undoing of the secular system left in place by the Turkish republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Here it might be noted that just as Turkey tries to reach inside countries to sway their populations, so does China—and arguably on a vaster scale. The case of Australia, where governmental and societal institutions fell under serious Chinese influence until recent efforts were made to reverse this, is notable, and Chinese espionage in India is a major factor, too.
Erdogan has on many occasions alluded to imperial ambitions that give him the right to interfere with Muslim minorities around the world. In his United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speech, Erdogan was critical of the Indian Parliament’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of its Constitution that gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In some cross-country chatter picked up Indian intelligence agencies, it was found that Pakistani operatives with the help of Turkey, had pumped in money to prolong the demonstrations against the humanitarian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that was passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2019. The CAA fast-tracked the process of giving citizenship to non-Muslim minorities that were persecuted on account of their religion in India’s three neighbouring theocratic countries, namely, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
Turkey’s anti-India stance incorporates, then, both an external dimension, the alliance with Pakistan and support for Islamabad’s agenda, and a dimension within India’s boundaries, where Islamism is being promoted. India has begun to take some steps to curb this Turkish behavior towards it. India had officially asked Turkey to refrain from commenting on its internal matters at the UNGA, and, when this was defied, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a two-day official visit to Turkey. New Delhi has also begun strengthening its ties with Cyprus, Armenia, and Greece, three states that neighbor Turkey and have deep rivalries with the country related to historical grievances and contested contemporary political ambitions.
Radicalization and Regional Power Plays
The unease about the Internet from many governments is not unreasonable: it allows the direct transfer of information from, and communications with, people half a world away, including radicals. This has been a notable problem for Western countries dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey has a sophisticated online messaging apparatus, and it is able to target Indian Muslims in Kerala and draw on its open support to Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir to create a heady concoction that is influential to some. Like Turkey, India has a young population and its online ecosystem includes jihadist and other temptations, of which Erdogan’s agenda is now one.
It’s worth noting that Turkey is not just an online power. Turkey has the second-largest military force in NATO and its geographical location gives it many other advantages. While Turkey is not a member of the European Union, it does have a customs union arrangement with Brussels and is a transit point for many illegal immigrants trying to reach Europe; the scale of this problem reached proportions not long ago that allowed Erdogan to flex his muscles by threatening to cease policing this border.
Turkey has also turned to a more overtly assertive foreign policy. In October 2019, Erdogan made his latest move into Syria against the Kurdish militants the U.S.-led Coalition had used against ISIS and which have waged a long war against Turkey. Erdogan’s Turkey has become the biggest global supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic revivalist movement that a number of Arab governments regard as a terrorist organization. And most recently Turkey has been engaged in a struggle in the Mediterranean, from a hot war in Libya to a political war over gas drilling rights near Cyprus, that drawn in many competitors, including Israel and Russia.
The End of the World As We Know It
COVID-19 has disrupted the entire globe, putting many economies into stasis. The damage for this will be long-lasting and can be traced back to China, where the government—through incompetence or malevolence—unleashed a pandemic. Beijing has, under the cover of this crisis, advanced its interests against the liberal world order. Turkey has not yet done anything as impactful, but its nostalgic emphasis on the Ottoman past and attempts to reshape the world of Islam point to grave concerns in the future. The increasing alliance of these two states compounds the problem. Pakistan is important as a geopolitical chess-piece that both are increasingly utilizing, and their enabling of Islamabad’s rogue behaviors like sponsoring terrorists threatens regional security, but Pakistan is in no sense a peer or driver of this new axis.
It might appear that officially Communist, militantly secular China would be at odds with a Turkish state trying to rekindle past religious glory, but power is the central motive of both governments. This is most easily seen in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) running a campaign that some describe as “genocide” against its Uighur Muslim minority, and Erdogan—who represents himself and Turkey as the saviour of Islam, using issues like Kashmir and Palestine to rally support—not only doesn’t protest but deports Uighur refugees back to China (via third countries).
There are two further ironies one might note. First, one of the key areas in India targeted with Islamist propaganda, Kerala, is a Communist bastion. And second, Erdogan’s nearly two decades in power, trying to re-Islamize Turkey, has led to increasing numbers of Turks turning to atheism.
The ideological challenge, therefore, while it cannot be ignored, since Erdogan’s weaponizing of religion is becoming a powerful factor in world affairs, should not be misread as the central issue. For the democracies targeted by China or Turkey or both, their subterfuge and lust for power has to be countered regardless of the ideological cloak it wears to advance itself. Responsible countries need to come together to stop the destabilizing revisionism internationally and the domestic meddling of Communist China and an increasingly Islamist Turkey.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.