Since the early 2010s, Turkey has been on a political roller-coaster ride that has left many observers, both internal and external, bewildered and dismayed. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) determination, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his changing political alliances, to remake Turkey into a regionally and globally influential actor has overwhelmingly marked this decade’s political landscape. In nowhere other than the deployment of religion in foreign policy has this calamitous tenacity become more salient.
Recent soaring academic and public interest in the topic validates this assertion. The debate has so far mostly focused on those who are now seen as the "usual suspects": the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its European extension DITIB, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and humanitarian NGOs with close ties to AKP officials. For sure, such a focus on government institutions and related organizations implementing this new religion–foreign policy nexus is timely and important. Yet, it overlooks the wide of range of soft-power strategies that Ankara deploys in accordance with the main premise of its new foreign policy outlook, that is, public diplomacy.
It is our contention that these strategies systematically target gaining global recognition and validation for Turkey as the leader of the Muslim world and patron of the Muslim masses worldwide. Since the early 2010s, the AKP has been deploying numerous tactics including mobilization within diaspora communities–Turkish and non-Turkish alike, network-building among pro-Erdoğan intellectuals in different Muslim communities, and “counter-hegemonic” knowledge production. If a cunning rhetoric of combatting Islamophobia constitutes the discursive backbone of these multiple tactics, the Arab Spring and the de facto disintegration of Saudi Arabia’s decades-long coalition with Sunni Islamists through the Muslim World League (MWL) initiative (est. 1962) has provided Turkey with the opportunity structure to claim a hegemonic position within the Muslim world.
Garnering Mass Support: The Formation of a Muslim Diaspora
Even though the Turkish state’s interest in migrants from Turkey and their foreign-born children is anything but new, a visibly distinct approach has emerged since the late 2000s/early 2010s. Marked by a rapid institutionalization and systematization of soft-power strategies, this new phase has seen the creation of new state agencies; an open interest in youth mobilization; a transnational penetration by various state and civil society actors into educational, cultural, and, religious arenas; and, last but not least, a broader understanding of the diaspora defined by religious unity.
For the first time in modern Turkish history, in 2010 a separate government agency, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), was founded under the aegis of the prime ministry, and now functions, since the launching of the presidential system in 2018, under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. According to its mission statement, YTB primarily aims at fostering Turkish migrants’ participation in the societies they live in without losing their cultural heritage. Improving Turkish language skills and acquiring a good grasp of Sunni Muslim teachings and practices are seen as essential. A broader approach to welfare provision, notably as regards to family and education, distinguishes the current policies.
Youth seems to be the most important target group. The YTB provides, among other services, scholarships and special quotas at Turkish universities, internship opportunities at Turkish public institutions, and youth camps and heritage trips to Turkey. Ironically, these mass mobilization strategies build on Islamist–especially Gülenist–methods that successfully recruited youth masses for decades into Muslim organizational structures at home and abroad. Unsurprisingly, after many of the Gülenists’ overseas educational networks were confiscated in the aftermath of the putsch of 15 July 2016, they were handed over to the Turkey Maarif Foundation (TMF). Founded in 2016, less than a month before 15 July, TMF functions as the sole entity “authorized to provide educational services abroad.”
However, current policies do not only address migrants from Turkey and their foreign-born children, but also extend to what YTB calls “related communities” that are implicitly defined by religious unity. The objective here is to increase dialogue and co-operation “between Turkish diaspora and related [Muslim] communities” and to support collaborative work in order to “overcome problems and discrimination that they all encounter in areas, including religion, culture, and education.” As part of this strategic move to extend Turkey’s appeal beyond migrants from Turkey and their foreign-born children, for instance, non-Turkish Muslims are encouraged to contact the call centers at Turkish consulates to report verbal and physical attacks and any other discriminatory practices that they experience.
Combatting Islamophobia is extensively adopted by government officials and civil society partners as a powerful rhetorical tool to mobilize diaspora communities, Turkish and non-Turkish alike. Apparently, this approach aspires to form a solely Muslim diaspora, regardless of one’s ethnicity or cultural heritage, as well as to position Turkey as the Muslim world’s patron. This was made clear when Bülent Bilgi, the current president of the Union of International Democrats (UID), the AKP’s main lobby organization in Europe, noted in a December 2018 interview that the organization’s name (formerly known as the Union of European Turkish Democrats) was changed to have a wider appeal to non-Turkish migrants in Europe and beyond.
North America is one such place where Turkey’s new interest in the Muslim communities beyond Europe’s Turkish population has recently become increasingly visible. Given the absence of a sizeable Turkish presence in American Muslim organizations, Ankara stepped up its efforts, especially after the putsch of 15 July to enlist American Muslim support for the AKP and Erdoğan. Primarily organized against Erdoğan’s archenemy Fethullah Gülen as well as regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, these campaigns have also embroiled established Muslim organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in intra-communal controversies about Ankara’s involvement with them.
Numerous methods have so far been tried to increase Turkey’s profile among American Muslims. Although ethnic and foreign-run mosques are much fewer in North America, compared to their widespread prevalence in Europe, the newly built Maryland mosque and social complex foreshadows a path that Diyanet America has chosen to pursue. Currently, the number of Diyanet mosques in the US under Turkish-American Religious Foundation (TARF) amounts to several dozens.
Cultural appropriation is another mobilization strategy. The recent historical TV series Resurrection: Ertuğrul has, for instance, been surprisingly popular among non-Turkish Muslims. Along with The Last Emperor (Payitaht: Abdülhamid), critics characterize these series as legitimizing Erdoğan’s autocratic style through historical and religio–nationalistic precedents. Interesting enough, these series are rather geared towards domestic consumption to frame current conflicts that Erdoğan face as the last phase of a trans-historical struggle between “good Muslims” (represented by the leadership of Erdoğan) versus their internal and external enemies.
A good example to this is a dialogue between Ertuğrul and Ibn Arabi in an episode of Resurrection, that was broadcasted right after Selahattin Demirtaş, the currently imprisoned co-leader of the pro-Kurdish and leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP), visited Russia during the 2016 Turko-Russian diplomatic crisis. When Ertuğrul asks “And what about those who cooperate with the infidel to stab us in the back?,” Ibn Arabi responds, in a heavily Qur’anic lexicon, “Verily, they are the oppressors.” Similarly, the scene in The Last Emperor where Abdülhamid brings the bull analogy to put the American diplomat “back to his place” came after President Trump threatened Turkey via Twitter over a potential attack by the latter against Kurds in Syria.
Notwithstanding the cultural advocacy work that these TV series carry on to promote Turkey’s military ambitions, on the one hand, and their divisive language that deploys Manichean antinomies to theologize political conflicts, on the other hand; they seem to appeal to some of their Western Muslim audience as seamlessly inculcating “Islamic guidelines,” promoting important values, and providing vision and perspective.
Another illustration of Ankara’s bid to worldwide Muslim leadership can be observed in the efforts to get Black Muslim constituencies on board by creating affinities between Erdoğan and black liberation figures. At the kernel of such association are Turkey’s efforts to present itself as the just and benevolent power that stands up against the “oppressor West” to protect the “oppressed” worldwide. An initial opportunity that Erdoğan wanted to take advantage of towards this end came up at Muhammad Ali’s funeral in June 2106, where he would pose as the leader of the Muslim world honoring Ali’s legacy. However, as Erdoğan’s gift, the piece of cloth from Kaaba had to be rejected “because it came with conditions,” he was unable to “join the ranks of eulogists.”
His aides in the country had to wait for other occasions to make up for this scandalous public relations campaign. Erdoğan’s UN General Assembly visit in September 2018 was one such occasion. During his visit, Anadolu Agency, the Turkish state news agency, interviewed Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X’s daughters, and inquired her about one of Turkey’s top worldwide public relations campaign items, that is, the Syrian refugees. Erdoğan’s men were not disappointed this time, as Shabazz said: “Turkey is an exemplary place of how we treat the disenfranchised, to carry [on] my father’s legacy.” Complementary to this was a family meeting with both of the daughters, which was televised and reported in pro-government media outlets.
To top these with a much more popular move, Erdoğan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın announced in late December 2018 that Ankara had renamed the United States. Embassy street Malcolm X Ave. The announcement raised eyebrows, especially given Erdoğan’s own ultra-nationalist alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose program and discourse has more parallels with the white supremacists and nationalists in the United States. than with the black minority’s civil rights struggles. Yet, it arguably succeeded in attracting the attention of Black Muslims. Another major move came in January 2019 when Muhammad Ali’s former farm in Michigan was reportedly purchased by Türken Foundation, the United States-based consortium of Erdoğan’s family foundation TÜRGEV and the controversial Ensar Foundation. Türken will use the farm as a “summer school for the Muslim youth,” a combination of both recruitment strategies laid out above with the added symbolism of black liberation struggle.
Garnering Elite Support: A Transnational Pro-Islamist Network
Mobilization within diaspora communities, Turkish and non-Turkish alike, through a claim for the patronship of the Muslim world, does help the AKP and Erdoğan to garner popular support abroad. The party’s tactics to gain global recognition also extend to attempts to form a community of scholars, public intellectuals and pundits. The SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research has been an important actor in this regard. Currently presided by Erdoğan’s extended family members, this think tank was conceived by the former president Abdullah Gül and initiated by the ousted prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in 2005 as a prestigious partisan think tank. Kalın, while still closer to Davutoğlu, served as its founding director, before joining bureaucracy as the first coordinator of Prime Ministry Office of Public Diplomacy. Currently, SETA has offices in Ankara, Istanbul, Washington DC, Cairo, and Berlin–regularly publishing opinion pieces and reports about Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. Besides these activities to form and influence public opinion abroad about the AKP and its policies, SETA has also been allegedly part of a patronage network of private companies, universities, and civil society organizations that are directly or indirectly connected to the AKP-related foundations which controversially received funds from the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.
Transnational network building attempts are not limited to the realm of policy advocacy, but expands to other segments of associational life as well. In the realm of media, for instance, the most striking example is the launching of TRT World in 2015. Notwithstanding its tainted reputation in Turkey for its clear pro-government bias and provision of little airtime for opposition parties even during election campaigns, its international channel TRT World has rebranded itself to join the ranks of BBC and Al Jazeera. It tries to keep a highly professional veneer with competitive salaries to attract especially Western Muslims, which may be interpreted as another recruitment strategy to act as natural advocates of Turkish policies vis-à-vis the diaspora communities and Western governments.
In addition to regularly publishing and broadcasting about foreign affairs with a particular focus on Turkey, in 2017 TRT World launched an annual conference: “Forum.” The first conference, entitled “Inspiring Change in an Age of Uncertainty,” featured a plenary panel on the rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia and hosted academics and public figures such as Fareed Hafez, Brendan Cox, and Ilyassah Al Shabazz.
(GO)NGOs and universities are also influential actors in these systematic efforts to establish a network of scholars and intellectuals. In addition to the leading role that TÜRGEV’s Ibn Haldun University (est. 2017) plays in Ankara’s agenda to establish a transnational educational hub, AKP officials seem to have designated Istanbul Zaim University, a smaller privately endowed university, as a venue to host international academic events to bring together Western Muslims.
To this end, AKP’s most strategic decision so far was perhaps to provide Professor Sami al-Arian, a former Palestinian-American professor at the University of South Florida, safe haven in Turkey in 2015. After his lengthy tribulations with the American legal system during a controversial trial, his ordeal became a textbook case for post-September 11 Islamophobia for many of the country’s civil rights activists. By giving him citizenship, Turkey gained both Muslim sympathy and al-Arian’s well-established networks among the Muslim communities, which proved important to setting up Zaim University’s Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA).
CIGA could thus bring together prominent Muslims in Istanbul, now, alongside Qatar, serving as a hub for pro-Erdoğan Muslim intellectuals worldwide. So far, it has organized numerous international events, primarily on Islamophobia, hosting a large number of international scholars in fully funded trips, a generosity well beyond the small Turkish college’s own resources. And yet there has been scant acknowledgement of the apparent contradictions about using the language of liberation through Islamophobia while hailing “from a deeply repressive state” whose crackdown on thousands of academics with prison sentences on farcical terrorism charges are not quite incomparable to al-Arian’s own ordeal.
Knowledge Production: Sponsor of an “Anti-Imperialist” and “Anti-Western” Resistance
Besides garnering elite support, Ankara’s high-profile efforts to bring together international scholars, public figures, and policy experts in these communicative spaces signify a parallel goal. These spaces, together with the mobilization attempts within diaspora communities, appear to be designated as the loci of the production and circulation of a form of “counter-hegemonic” knowledge that frames Turkey as a benevolent and humanitarian sponsor of “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Western” resistance. By doing so, the AKP systematically co-opts the emergent Islamophobia discourse as a legitimizing tool for its foreign policy ambitions.
“Islamophobia” made its first appearance in the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Sub-Commission reports during the late 2000s. Concerned by the Migration Law enacted in Germany in 2005, the sub-commission’s activity report noted that “Islamophobic, xenophobic and racist tendencies influenced political decision-makers.” Upon the deadly attacks in Norway in June 2011 by the right-wing extremist Breivik with strong anti-Muslim views, the sub-commission decided to monitor “Islamophobia in Europe and the US together with the xenophobic and racist attitudes.” Such earlier individual attempts culminated in the 2016 launching of a new internal sub-commission group to systematically investigate “Islamophobia in the West.” These efforts were accompanied by the Annual Islamophobia report, launched by SETA in 2015, with contributions from internationally renowned Islamophobia scholars. The annual report is issued through an international event in which AKP politicians regularly participate.
As another testament to the centrality of the Islamophobia discourse in this regard, Zafer Sırakaya, an AKP MP born in Germany and one of the vice-heads of the party’s Foreign Relations unit, noted in his 2019 new year’s greetings that “European states fall short in addressing the unjust treatment that European Turks face in exercising their human and personal rights. The situation is even direr given the worldwide exclusion of individuals who adhere to the Muslim faith. [..] We [AKP government] have undertaken in 2018, as we did in previous years, significant steps to combat against an anti-Islam mindset and populist anxieties feeding xenophobia and discrimination. We will continue our endeavors in this regard.”
This discourse of combatting Islamophobia is, however, not limited to criticizing Western countries, for it is also deployed as a pathway to post-colonial, anti-secular, and anti-Western liberation on an epistemological plane. The book Islamophobia in Muslim Majority Societies (2018), edited largely by SETA’s Islamophobia working group, is very illustrative in this regard. The book problematizes “self-Orientalization” as a result of Western imperialism to account for Islamophobia in these societies, a charge that could be brought against any actor in the Muslim-majority world who has supposedly internalized “Western epistemologies,” on top of legitimizing “Western hegemony.” Such a co-optation of the emergent Islamophobia discourse risks, perhaps intentionally, stigmatizing secular minorities, who are regularly labelled by Turkey’s pro-government media as internal enemies working for Western interests.
Turkey: A Muslim Counter-Hegemony?
Mobilization within diaspora communities, network building, and knowledge-production are important strategies that aim at materializing Turkey’s ambition to position itself as a hegemonic actor within the transnational Muslim space. This is, ironically, a consequence of the interruption of the Arab Spring and the de facto disintegration of Saudi Arabia’s decades-long coalition with Sunni Islamists through the Muslim World League (MWL) initiative (est. 1962). We are arguably at a critical juncture that resembles a massive reshuffling in terms of instrumentalizing Islam for Muslim regional hegemony and transforming Muslim loci into sites of turf wars in the early 1960s between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and in the early 1980s between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
When the joint Saudi-United Arab Emirates designs helped oust the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government in Egypt through a violent military coup in 2013, this not only signified Saudi Arabia’s definitive move into the counter-revolutionary space, but also effectively dissolved its long-standing coalition with the Islamists and thereby left a lacuna. Just like the early 1960s exodus of the Muslim Brothers to Saudi Arabia to escape persecution in Egypt, the post-Rab’a massacre generation of MB cadres has found a new host and alliance under Erdoğan. Likewise, similar to the regime change in Iran in 1979 that allowed Ayatollah Khomeini “to portray Iran throughout the Muslim world as an anti-imperialist” power, Erdoğan’s radical reconfiguration of the Turkish regime has buttressed his image as the new Third Worldist strong man, reminiscent of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s fame throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Although Turkey’s bid has so far been regarded, with few exceptions, as peripheral to the rise of Islamic soft power, we contend that it has the unique advantage of being able to play both cards: the Sunni leadership card, as the caliphate’s last seat, and the “anti-imperialist” narrative that seeks to frame Erdoğan as the “leader of the oppressed Muslims worldwide.” While the turf war between the Saudi-United Arab Emirates and Turkey-Qatar axes may just be starting in multiple diasporic spaces and regional Muslim homelands, Turkey seems to be serious about replacing Saudi Arabia as the new patron of world Muslims à la the MWL.
Will the Bid Succeed?
In an increasingly identitarian world, Ankara’s diaspora policies together with its efforts to build a transnational Muslim space and to institute knowledge production centers have so far been effective in garnering wider appeal, both at the mass and elite level, despite Turkey’s ongoing democratic decay. Lobbying organizations such as UID, educational and cultural institutions such as TMF and the Yunus Emre Institute, think tanks such as SETA, communication initiatives such as TRT World, universities such as Ibn Haldun and Zaim, and humanitarian aid agencies such as TIKA are engaged in a concerted effort to present Turkey as a humanitarian actor demanding the social and political inclusion of Muslims in the West and the protector of oppressed Muslims everywhere.
It has yet to be seen whether the reality and seriousness of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment and exclusionary or discriminatory practices experienced by Muslims in the diaspora and elsewhere will conceal how the AKP government systematically seeks to manipulate the “problem” to serve its own foreign-policy ambitions, particularly its bid to hegemony within the Muslim world, and as such to become the patron and protector of Muslims worldwide. Appropriations of such “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Western” narratives mask the Turkish government’s own authoritarian and expansionist claims and practices, its treatment of its own indigenous ethnic and religious minorities, as well as its escalating record of human rights abuses. Moreover, they also lurk the heavy dependence of Turkey’s economy on the West, particularly, European banks and companies.
Not long ago, Erdoğan’s Turkey was hailed as effectively bringing Islam and democracy together and offering a map for other Muslim-majority countries. Its soft power was then a debate centered on its romantic soap operas. Today, while the Resurrection’s Ertuğrul figure epitomizes, for the rest of Muslims, the victorious Muslims’ warfare against Christian hegemony, Turkey has joined the league of “not-free countries” and stands out for its steady decline in almost all measures of rule of law. It has yet to be seen whether, if this bid proves successful, the AKP government will offer an authoritarian model for the Muslim world whose domestic repressiveness is overshadowed by a cunning discourse of Muslim power’s gallantry vis-à-vis the “Christian hegemons of the world.”
 These reports have been published since the early 1990s to address human rights issues concerning Turkish citizens inside and outside Turkey. A significant part of the reports is dedicated to the problems and concerns of Turkish migrants. The reports can be accessed at https://www.tbmm.gov.tr/komisyon/insanhaklari/index.htm (accessed on 22 January 2019).
 For the report covering the period between June 2011 and October 2012, https://www.tbmm.gov.tr/komisyon/insanhaklari/belge/24_Donem_1_ve_2_Yasama_Yillari_Faaliyet_Raporu.pdf(accessed on 22 January 2019).
 For the report covering the period between November 2015 and December 2017, see https://www.tbmm.gov.tr/komisyon/insanhaklari/docs/2018/29_yy_faaliyetraporu1_07022018.pdf (accessed on 22 January 2019).
 Avrupa’nın Sesi. “New Year’s Greetings from our Istanbul MP, Zafer Sırakaya.” 25 December 2018.
 Cemil Aydın, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 211-23.