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Has Erdogan turned his back on the Arabs and Muslims?

August 14, 2023 at 9:57 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a protest rally in Istanbul on 18 May 2018, against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem. [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]

Ever since he first came to power in the early 2000s, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a courageous supporter of every aspect of Islam in his country. This support overflowed into the Turkic nations and Arab countries.

After a decade in power, Erdogan became the spearhead of many issues affecting the Muslim world. He defended Palestine and the Palestinians living under Israel’s brutal military occupation. He supported Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem and the sharia classes held in the Noble Sanctuary.

Erdogan was the first and last head of state to tell an Israeli president that he was “guilty” regarding the killing of the Palestinians, including children. “You kill people,” he told Israeli President Shimon Peres on stage at the Davos Economic Forum in 2009. “I remember the children who died on the beaches… I remember two former prime ministers in your country who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestine on tanks.”

This was Erdogan’s response to Peres who had attempted to justify the 2008/9 Israeli military offensive against Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians and wounded 11,000 others. “I find it very sad when people applaud what you have said because there have been many people that have been killed,” he added. “I think that it is very wrong, and that it is not humanitarian to applaud any actions which have had that kind of a result.”

Following the Israeli commando attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the killing of nine Turkish humanitarians on board the Mavi Marmara (a tenth died later of his wounds), Erdogan cut his country’s ties with Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador. He did not reinstate ties before getting Israel to apologise and pay compensation to the victims’ families, a first for the occupation state.

Erdogan offered real support for the Arab Spring and supported the democratic transition in the Arab countries that removed some dictators. He maintained his support for the people in Egypt following the military coup against the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi. He supported the opposition in Syria, and his intervention in Libya backing the legitimate government helped end the military conflict there.

READ: Erdogan condemns opposition’s ‘inhuman, un-Islamic’ aim to forcefully expel Syrian refugees

Under Erdogan, Turkiye has become a safe haven for Arabs and Muslims fleeing oppression in their countries, including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, the Gulf States and China. Turkiye has become the destination for Muslims looking for investment and job opportunities, or education.

The issue of refugees, however — most of them from Arabic-speaking countries — affected the result of the latest elections in Turkiye. The presidential election went to a run-off, before Erdogan squeezed over the line against a secularist candidate who had no real electoral programme except cooperation with the West to depose him.

Despite all of this, observers have claimed that Erdogan is turning his back on the Arabs and Muslims. They cite as evidence the harsh treatment meted out by Turkish security officials against Syrian refugees, and the suppression of the opposition Egyptian media broadcasting from Turkiye.

Erdogan's win in the presidential election provides a lifeline for refugees in the region - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Erdogan’s win in the presidential election provides a lifeline for refugees in the region – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

They have also cited Turkish orders to the Palestinian resistance leaders to tone down their actions when in Turkiye after Erdogan’s links with Israel improved. A number of senior Hamas members, mostly former prisoners who were released and deported, were also asked either to leave the country or stay silent.

At the same time, Erdogan backed down on his hostility to the authoritarian regimes which he had criticised severely for their human rights abuses, and normalised relations with them. Most of the restrictions put on the nationals of those countries followed this normalisation, triggering fears that he was turning his back on the people.

The Turkish president also changed his tone towards the Syrian regime at the same time that details of the harsh treatment of Syrian refugees started to go viral on social media. Some Palestinians from Gaza who have visited Turkiye recently told me that the situation has changed there.

However, I am reluctant to believe that Erdogan has changed his policy or ideology. He is the only Muslim leader who opposes America’s colonial policies leading to a lot of pressure from Washington on one side and US collaborators on the other. He has been under a lot of economic pressure that led to a massive decline in the value of the Turkish Lira. Erdogan is obliged to deal with the situation in a way that convinces his political opponents within Turkiye and his new friends outside. Nevertheless, hundreds of Palestinians and Arabs continue to live and work in Turkiye; go to the Basaksehir district of Istanbul, for example, and you will see that this is the case.

“None of the Arab or Muslim countries is hosting Hamas members and leaders except Turkiye,” explained senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk, who is visiting Gaza. He named some countries which are hosting a number of Hamas leaders, but are unable to host the movement’s members. Turkiye, he stressed, hosts both.

Erdogan did not turn his back on the Arabs and Muslims, nor did he sell them to the dictators ruling their countries. But he has to deal with national issues in a way that does not anger the latter because he needs them at the moment.

He is well aware of the defamation campaigns against him and his party and recognises that these have led some people to fear him. Hence, his efforts to refute the allegations made against him and the party. In doing so, he invited Muslim scholars from around the world to meet him so that he could explain the situation to them. To deal with the problems facing Arabs and Muslims in Turkiye, he ordered a live channel to be opened between him and the scholars to report any abuses to be followed up.

During the meeting, Erdogan reiterated his pledge to stand up for every Muslim issue. This was very clear in the practical political steps that he took after the burning of copies of the Holy Quran in parts of Europe, whereas most of the Arab and Muslim leaders either remained silent or just issued mild condemnations. It is hard to believe that this is a man who has turned his back on Arabs and Muslims.

READ: Will Erdogan hand the refugees back to the Syrian regime?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.