Letter to the Editors: In an article published on 6 May 2019, “A Muslim Counter-Hegemony?: Turkey’s Soft Power Strategies and Islamophobia,” authors Sinem Adar and Halil Ibrahim Yengin claim that the AKP government in Turkey is engaged in a “wide range of soft-power strategies” that “systematically target gaining global recognition and validation for Turkey as the leader of the Muslim world and patron of the Muslims masses worldwide.” The authors structure the article along what they claim are the numerous tactics in this strategy, including “combatting Islamophobia,” “cultural appropriation,” and other efforts. At one point in their argument, the authors claim the AKP is engaged in “transnational network building attempts” and the “(GO)NGOs and universities are also influential actors in theses systematic efforts to establish a network of scholars and intellectuals.”
One could debate the merits of the overall analysis of the article. Yet what is most concerning is the fact that as part of their argument the authors claim Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (IZU), and in particular its Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), is complicit in this soft-power strategy asserted by the article. They do so without ever providing evidence for these claims. In so doing, they have unfairly tarnished the scholarly reputations of the center and all who labor there. These are not simple accusations, but have consequences for those they are leveled against.
At one point, the authors claim: "AKP officials seem to have designated Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, a privately owned university, as a venue to host international academic events to bring together Western Muslims.” At another point, the authors claim: “By giving [Dr. Sami al-Arian] 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 Affair (CIGA).” They then make the leap that “CIGA could thus bring together prominent Muslims in Istanbul, now, alongside Qatar, serving as a hug for pro-Erdogan Muslim intellectuals worldwide.” They even imply some covert funding from the government, claiming CIGA hosts events with “a generosity well beyond the small Turkish college’s own resources.” They end this string of claims with protesting an alleged “scant acknowledgement of the apparent contradictions about using the language of liberation through Islamaphobia” given what is happening in Turkey today. The inferences are plentiful, the evidence lacking, and the effects clear.
What evidence do the authors have for claiming that CIGA is a designated venue for AKP-sponsored academic conferences? How do they account for the inclusion of non-AKP Turkish perspectives and those critical of the government in CIGA events? If CIGA is simply a propaganda tool, then how do the authors explain the participation of individuals who have been very critical of Turkey in the past, such as John Esposito, Anne Norton, Ilan Pappe, Flynt Leverett, Richard Falk, Nader Hashemi, Tamara Sonn, Norman Finklestein, Todd Green, and Joseph Massad? Were all of these renowned academics simply hoodwinked?
CIGA has been critical of the lack of coherence, discussion, and debate regarding public and foreign policy in Turkey. It is highly doubtful that the AKP has a soft-power strategy regarding CIGA. The center receives no direct support, financial or otherwise, from the AKP. Yet, the authors would like to have readers believe that our center does nothing but party advocacy, and that researchers at CIGA have no academic freedom. Things are not so simple. CIGA’s conference funding follows the conventional funding patterns of all academic conferences. We propose the conference to interested departments on campus, various institutes, numerous civil society organizations, and international partners in multiple countries across the region and around the world—all of whom might be willing to sponsor a discussion on a given subject. It is true that we, like most colleges and universities in Turkey, regularly apply for state and federal education grants. Sometimes our projects get accepted, sometimes they get rejected. We do not receive money from the Foreign Ministry or the equivalent of our Defense Department, something US-based universities, centers, and scholars can seldom claim (which does not make all US centers and their faculty mere stooges of the Trump Administration or US foreign policy establishment).
CIGA has always been open and clear with our funding sources by way of announcing our sponsors at each conference or event. We have conducted conferences in which government officials were invited alongside other stakeholders in public policy. We do this because we study international politics and thus try to engage all actors in the field, including those who disagree with each other. We aim to be as inclusive as possible. It is grossly unfair to depict all our guests as "pro-Erdogan Muslim Intellectuals." In fact, I encourage you to follow our events more closely, and listen in on our question and answers (which are publicly available on YouTube). We have many participants that are critical of the AKP (sometimes saying very nasty things about the government) and others simply refuse to participate. I myself am consistently critical about the government and so are other faculty members. Contrary to the authors’ claims, we do not cover up any tensions in the use and abuse of Islamophobia by both those in power and/or those outside power. For that very reason, our center has been at the forefront of highlighting all the challenging aspects of Islamophobia; including the misuse of Islamophobia by Muslim majority governments.
It is also worth pausing specifically at the unwarranted implication of the article that Dr. Sami al-Arian is some type of lacky of the AKP government. This is a person that has a long and well-known record of challenging injustices and paying a heavy price for it. He has been persecuted or exiled by several states. The idea that his presence or activities in Turkey are part of some elaborate strategy of the AKP, and that his public statements or lack thereof reflect some unprincipled alliance or blind spot, is conspiratorial, and reflects both sloppy analysis and poor judgement.
For all the above reasons, I find it unacceptable and completely reject that the authors and Jadaliyya published insinuations that CIGA is a front of the AKP government. Such unprofessional conduct on the part of the authors has real consequences on real people and real institutions. CIGA is an independent academic institution housed at IZU. One thing is true, both dissidents living abroad and government representatives in Turkey have behaved such that the level of conversation seldom goes beyond sensational name calling and wild conspiracy theories. It could be the case that, on the one hand, the AKP government is wrong and, on the other hand, that Islamophobia is a real danger to Muslim communities—such that some of us living in Turkey are navigating both realities. I reject the dichotomy that working on the latter implies any claim about the former. More so, in publishing their false claims about CIGA, the authors have now created a context in which many inside and outside of Turkey might boycott CIGA simply on pure fear of being accused in the same manner, irrespective of whether it is true to not.
Jadaliyya's analytic insights and in-depth reporting have long been a breath of fresh air, and I regularly encourage our students to follow its work. However, no matter how critical and open the platform aims to be, it is equally important to move slowly and use layered editorial checks to make sure that factual errors or unsubstantiated claims do not cause any grief or damage to anyone else's reputation. For this reason, it was extremely disappointing that Jadaliyya allowed the inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims outlined above to be published. What credible and authoritative sources did the editors use to corroborate the authors’ claims? If the authors or Jadaliyya have such evidence, they should disclose it so that readers may judge the issue for themselves. But instead, the authors make the claim without any evidence. If Jadaliyya has no evidence, it is only fair to redact the article as a matter of professionalism. Publishing these unsubstantiated accusations is a real disservice to Jadaliyya and its Turkey coverage, but even more so to all to people who live and work at CIGA.