LESS than 48 hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan airily offered to become engaged in the Kashmir conflict, and “stay involved through multilateral dialogues”, the crisis sparked off by the beheading of two Indian soldiers would have provided lesser men with a salutary lesson in the perils of grandstanding. Leaders who have built careers on self-promotion, though, tend not to be deterred by such small matters—all the more so because Erdogan isn’t, in fact, interested in solving anything.
The Turkish president’s Kashmir remarks are intended to signal, to his Islamist-leaning constituency at home, and among the religious right-wing worldwide, his credentials to lead Muslims globally: an elected caliph, as it were, to rival the upstart Islamic State and other jihadists.
Large swathes of the Indian media have reacted with ire, but New Delhi’s done the right thing: to ignore the comments, and deny Erdogan the pleasure of a spat which would help buttress his credentials even further.
Few will dispute Erdogan’s argument that the Kashmir conflict hurts both India and Pakistan, or that dragging it out is a disservice to the next generation. His reasoning, though, tell us something important, dyed as it is in communal colours. “There are certain aspects”, he told the television station WION, “which contribute enormously to our ancient relations. In terms of faith, in India we have followers of the Muslim faith. And in Pakistan, there are Muslims, and this brings us even closer together”.
Erdogan’s bizarre line of argument wouldn’t, in fact, have surprised Indian diplomats—even though it appears to have ambushed the Indian media. In 2016, on a visit to Pakistan, the Turkish President lamented that “our brothers and sisters in Kashmir are suffering because of the escalating tension along the Line of Control. The Kashmir issue needs to find a solution”. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif clapped loudly, though he likely knew the words meant very little.
The Turkish President appeared to have no doubt in his mind, back then, on how one might be found. He went on: “When people look for mediators, why don’t they talk to me? I have great mediation skills. Look at how I have effectively dealt with the Kurdish problem”.
For those familiar with recent Turkish history, the ironies will be evident: Erdogan’s “effective” handling of the problem includes jailing almost the entire democratically-elected Kurdish leadership, and sparking off a war in which 2,500 people have been killed and 500,000 displaced since July, 2015. Entire city centres have been levelled in military strikes, while Kurdish militants are again carrying out attacks in the heart of Istanbul and Ankara.
There isn’t, in fact, quite as tidy a convergence of interests between Islamabad and Ankara as the polemic might suggest. For example, Turkey has long provided none-too-covert support to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an ethnic Uighur jihadist group targeting China’s Xinjiang province. The Inter-Services Intelligence, for its part, accords high priority hunting down ETIM jihadists.
Similarly, Turkey backs groups linked to the pre-2001 anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. It has all the more reason to do so now, as its key regional adversary, Iran, reaches out to the Taliban. Islamabad, however, is joined at the hip to the ethnic-Pashtun Taliban.
“Heroes”, Gore Vidal once said, tongue firmly in cheek, “must see to their own fame. No one else will”. Erdogan evidently took that advice to heart.
To understand why Erdogan is acting as he is, one needs to understand the long-running battle over Islam in Turkey. Since at least 1950, the signs of a backlash against the republicanism of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk were evident. The victory of Adnan Menderes’ Demokrat Partisi saw a boom in mosque construction; state-run Quran classes and theological colleges were ushered in. In 1960, the Generals struck back, instituting a grim, Kemalist order—and resistance was led by the patriarch of Turkey’s Islamist movement, Necmettin Erbakan.
From 1980 on, though, the military itself began to use Islam as an instrument of legitimacy. Prime Minister Turgut Özal’s regime saw Islam accorded never-before space in public life; in 1996, Erbakan became Prime Minister, and set about initiating battles over the long-standing ban on headscarves, and other issues dear to the religious right’s pious constituency.
The experiment ended, in 1998, when a constitutional court held Erbakan’s party was illegal, since it blended religion with politics. Erdogan was elected, in 2002, as a “post-Islamist” politician—only to lurch steadily rightwards, after dismantling the power of the military, and secularist civic institutions.
Foreign policy is just one more tool for Erdogan to beat back secularism in Turkey. India shouldn’t give him the pleasure.