Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's once hidden agenda of reviving a modern version of the Ottoman Empire is not so secret in light of recent moves. The world has watched Erdogan use draconian and oppressive methods to beat down domestic critics. The conversion of Hagia Sophia – formerly a Byzantine cathedral – into mosque last month was a symbolic step to inspire Islamists who are longing for a new caliphate. Erdogan's state-controlled media already are calling for the Muslim world's first superpower.
Erdogan's recent military campaigns in the Middle East especially in Iraq, Syria and Libya have been a source of instability and mayhem all across the Middle East, leaving thousands dead. Arab and European countries condemned Turkey's military adventurism, with French President Emmanuel Macron labeling Ankara's Libyan intervention as "criminal."
But Islamists and terrorist affiliates cheered. Last October, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas issued a statement expressing its approval of Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebel groups in northeast Syria.
Support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliated regimes and governments characterized Erdogan's earlier pan-Islamist policies. That includes Turkey's military support for Tripoli's interim pro-Muslim Brotherhood government. Turkey has dispatched 15,000 Syrian mercenaries to Libya, hoping for a decisive military victory for Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj's government over Libyan National Army. But the European Union rejected Turkey's intervention plans, particularly France and Greece, as well as a warning coming from Egypt.
"I consider today that Turkey plays in Libya a dangerous game and is in breach of all its commitments," Macron said in June. Greek Prime Minister Kryiakos Mitsotakis denounced Turkey's "aggressive behavior." The EU threatened on July 18 to impose sanctions on parties breaking the UN arms embargo in Libya, without specifying a country.
But Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar struck a defiant tone: "Turkey will stay in Libya forever, it will not withdraw from it."
Egypt will not allow any military units or Turkish backed militias to cross into oil-rich Sirte-Jaffra, which is close to its border, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced June 20. "This for us is a red line," Sisi said.
Libya's parliament in Tobruk last month granted the Egyptian army permission to intervene to protect Libyan and Egyptian national interests from terrorist militias that work for Tripoli's pro- Muslim Brotherhood government.
Erdogan used Turkish boats and planes to move 15,000 Syrian militia members to Libya. More than 3,000 Turkish army members are in Libya in what Libyan army spokesman Ahmed al-Mismary labeled as a "Turkish invasion." The army is loyal to Libya's elected parliament based in Tobruk, not the pro-Brotherhood government in Tripoli.
Moreover, Erdogan openly supports Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, and held military drills with Azerbaijani army. Russia then conducted what it called "routine" military drills near Armenia's border.
U.S.-based radical Islamist Esam Omeish praised the Turkish intervention in Libya in May. He thanked Erdogan for "his steadfast stance with Libyan people against tyranny and state militarization."
A Libyan parliament committee included Omeish on a list of terrorists in 2017. He also is a past president of the Muslim American Society (MAS), created by the Muslim Brotherhood, and has repeatedly endorsed jihad. The United Arab Emirates in 2014 similarly designated MAS and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as terrorist groups.
Erdogan's neo-Ottoman caliphate ambitions are no longer a hidden political agenda as he announced that his country is seeking to restore what he called the "Mavi Vatan," or the "Blue Homeland." This is the Turkish maritime domination during the Ottoman era in the East Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. The name provides Erdogan's regime with a false nationalist casus belli to interfere militarily in countries around the region.
Erdogan's conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque was a stunt that inspired Islamists who treated it as a victory for Islam by the likes of Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan was there for the July 24 reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, joined by Turkey's top imam, and president of the Directorate of Religious affairs, Ali Erbas.
Erbas climbed to the former Byzantine church's pulpit of the Hagia Sophia carrying a sword as a symbol of conquest, invoking an Ottoman tradition set by Mehmet the Conqueror. "Today ends the deep wound and sorrow in the hearts of our people," Erbas said in his sermon, "and the domes of Hagia Sophia tremble with the words of Allahu Akbar. And here is the wish of the descendants of [Mehmet The Conqueror] is fulfilled."
"[Peace] be to Akshamsaddin, the wise scholar who embroidered the love of conquest in Sultan Mehmed's heart and led the first Friday prayer in Hagia Sophia on June 1, 1453," added Erbas.
He carried a sword again during last Friday's Eid Al Adha sermon.
A government-linked Turkish Islamist magazine called for the founding of an Islamic caliphate in the wake of Hagia Sophia's conversion into of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque "Get together for a Caliphate," its cover said. "If not now when? If not you [Erdogan], who?"
Erdogan's AKP Party and Turkish politicians, including Erdogan consultant Maksut Serim, claim that Turkey will have new flexibility in 2023, when the century-old Treaty of Lausanne that established modern Turkey's borders expires. That sets the stage for Turkish expansionist ambitions under new pretexts and historical claims on countries and regions that Turkey gave up under the treaty. Erdogan's desired path contradicts the principles set forth by modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. Known as the Six Arrows, Ataturk stressed the secularism and nationalist entity of Turkey replacing the Ottoman Empire's pan-Islamism. Erdogan instead described the Turkish Republic as a "continuation of the Ottoman Empire" in 2018, and he is attempting to assert that notion through both military and diplomacy.
Erdogan's neo Ottoman/pan-Islamist policies run the risk of economic repercussions. For example, Turkey has a $23 billion bilateral trade agreement with China. Erdogan had spent years championing the plight of Uyghur Muslims under Chinese government repression. An estimated 1 million Muslim Uyghurs reportedly have been subject to prosecution and detained in "reeducation camps" to relinquish their faith.
Turkey led a large political campaign in February 2019 to rally Muslim support for the Uyghurs. Turkey hosted thousands of Uyghur Muslims and, since 2014, issued travel documents for many of them to enter Turkey. Erdogan likened the Uyghur plight to a "genocide" in 2009.
But faced with losing China as a key economic partner, Erdogan changed his tune and told Chinese President Xi Jinping that minorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang – home of many Uyghur Muslims – are living happily. Recent secret videos show of thousands of Chinese Uyghurs sitting blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs in Chinese detention and "re-education" camps.
Last week, Turkey extradited Uyghur Muslims back to China. China transferred $1 billion to prop up Turkey's Central Bank last year as.
Erdogan maintains relations with many Islamist groups and politicians globally, including in the United States. The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) includes a number of Muslim Brotherhood-tied groups and radical Islamist organizations, including MAS, the Islamic Circle of North America, CAIR, and American Muslims for Palestine.
Erdogan addressed the USCMO via video on May 24 to offer greetings for the Islamic feast of Eid El Fitr.
The attendees described Erdogan as a "leader of Muslim Ummah [people]."
"A leader who exemplified the hopes and the aspirations of many who lived in the Middle East, we are hopeful that Turkey will be a good example of human rights, equality, democracy, progress and opportunity of young people who are looking to have a decent life," said Mohsin Ansari of the ICNA board and Helping Hand charity.
Erdogan also maintains a number of relations with Islamist leaders, meeting often with Tunisian Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi and Qatari Emir and Islamist financier Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatar invested $80 billion in Turkey after signing a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding. Qatar made substantial investments in the Turkey's financial and real estate sectors. Qatari Emir Tamim Al Thani also gifted Erdogan a $500 million private jet in 2018. Erdogan and his family visited Qatar 56 times in the 12 years since the agreement.
Despite being a NATO member, Turkey repeatedly defied the alliance's strategies and policies, including last year's purchase of Russian S400 strategic defense systems, which jeopardizes the NATO defense protocols. Erdogan still defies American sanctions against Iran through oil purchases. The deal showed Erdogan's willingness to neglect his country's international commitments, especially its NATO membership, which has been the cornerstone of Turkey's international foreign policy since 1952. NATO Leaders and officials raised concerns about Turkey's commitment to the alliance values and goals.
Domestically, Erdogan's purges targeting dissidents and followers of his archrival Fethullah Gulen, intolerance toward religious minorities and repression against opposition have irked Turkey's Western allies. Erdogan is on a collision course with many European leaders, including France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Angel Merkel. President Macron accused Turkey of playing a "dangerous game" in Libya and said Sisi had a "legitimate concern" about troops near his border.
Macron also called for sanctions against illegal Turkish oil and gas exploration in Greek and Cypriot waters.
Turkey's economy has suffered a series of recessions in recent years. Erdogan seems to be betting on Libya's enormous oil wealth to kick start an economic recovery.
By converting the Hagia Sophia cathedral into a mosque, Erdogan again played up his image as a global Islamic leader. He is paving the way to restore what his Islamist followers deem as the glories of the Ottoman caliphate through aggressive social, political and military actions.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt's Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.
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