On 31 May, Jadaliyya published a response by a Senior Associate at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), M. Uveys Han, to our article, “A Muslim Counter-Hegemony?: Turkey’s Soft Power Strategies and Islamophobia.” The letter contains a number of allegations to which we wish to reply here. In our article, published on 6 May, we argue that Ankara employs numerous soft power strategies in order to gain global recognition and validation for Turkey as the leader of the Muslim world and the patron of Muslim masses worldwide. These strategies, we contend, are part of Turkey’s recent public diplomacy efforts to “ensure a qualified representation of Turkey in all fields applying all communication tools and methods, and to ‘empower the Turkey brand’ accordingly,” as announced by the website of the Presidential Office’s Directorate of Communications. Positioning Turkey as the leader and patron of the Muslim world constitutes an important part of this foreign policy agenda. Our article sheds light on the communicative spaces through which this agenda is pursued.
Entirely disregarding and misplacing these main concerns of our analysis, the letter accuses us of making unsubstantiated claims about CIGA at Istanbul Zaim University (IZU)—one of the many actors that we mention in the article. The author goes even further to suggest that we, “hav[ing] unfairly tarnished the scholarly reputations of the center and all who labor there,” “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.” In short, he argues that the "unsubstantiated" remarks in our article in effect discredit CIGA, taint its academic integrity, and threaten the academic freedoms of scholars who are and might potentially be involved with the institution.
Beyond caricaturing the question of “academic freedom,” especially in the context of contemporary Turkey, the author’s criticism is based on a complete misreading and misrepresentation of our argument by personalizing the discussion. It is true that we mention both CIGA and its director Dr. Sami Al-Arian in our original article. Yet, reducing our argument to specific names is to willfully distort it since they constituted only two among many examples that we provided. The letter and the preceding controversies that we witnessed since the publication of our original article sadly exemplify the difficulties and delicacies of writing and publishing on Ankara’s politics of Islamophobia. In the rest of our response, we will first provide a brief summary of these earlier controversies mainly to contextualize the letter. Following this, we will re-iterate our original argument in three steps. We will start by elaborating our methodological choices and how they are connected to our analytical purposes. Secondly, we will elaborate on our conceptual framework, that is, the knowledge-power nexus, and demonstrate how CIGA partakes in it. We will finally conclude with reflections on the ethics of discussing academic freedom in Turkey in connection to the hurdles of writing on Ankara’s politics of Islamophobia.
Contextualizing the Letter
The idea of writing our original article emerged as a result of conversations with one of the Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page editors about our respective research interests on Turkey’s diaspora policies in Germany and the US, two major targets/sites of AKP’s soft power strategies. With her encouragement and in the hope that it would generate a productive discussion for a broader public, we submitted it to Jadaliyya where it went through a thorough review process by the editors of its Turkey Page. Three anonymous reviewers gave us critical and insightful feedback from which we significantly benefitted in fine-tuning our analytical framework. After a round of revisions, the article was accepted, and published on 6 May on the front page. Two days later, much to our surprise, we could not find our article anywhere on the website. We immediately reached out to the editors to inquire about the article’s disappearance. On 9 May, the Twitter link to the article also became unavailable. Editors promptly assured us the same day that the removal was temporary, and for procedural reasons that had to do with cross-posting on different pages. The article was eventually restored later during the day in its original form.
In our email exchanges about the removal of the article, we were also told that these "procedural issues" were coupled with some "substantive comments," which we never received. To our surprise, however, we were reproached a couple of weeks later on social media by some individuals unrelated to Jadaliyya for baselessly vilifying CIGA and Dr. Al-Arian. We were alleged for having been cautioned “by responsible parties at Jadaliyya.” In the same conversation, our editors were also accused of “not car[ing]” about the “standards for substantiating claims” and we were accused of not “fact-check[ing] our claims” with the editors of the Critical Currents in Islam page. Against this background, we were happy to see the response letter published as we now have a better understanding of what some of the initial substantive comments could have been.
Methodological Choices, Conceptual Discussions
Since our research techniques and use of data are at the center of the allegations, let us first briefly explain our methodological choices. We utilized three different kinds of data to explore the strategies that Ankara deploys to garner support both at the mass and elite levels to brand itself as the "leader of the Muslim world." First, we looked at the Turkish government’s policies and discourses that target Turkish diaspora and Muslim masses abroad. For this, we have covered a variety of sources such as reports published by the Presidency for Turks and Related Communities (YTB), by DITIB, and last, but not least, by speeches of government officials and leading party spokespeople. Secondly, we explored statements and publications by various civil society actors and public institutions both in Turkey and in the diaspora, with close ties to the AKP such as SETA, UID, and universities, to analyze how they build a discourse around Islamophobia in connection to the Turkish government. Last, but not least, we surveyed social media debates to get a sense of how policies and discourses circulate and are received by the target groups, that is the Muslim diasporas.
The object of our analysis was the AKP government’s soft-power strategies, at the center of which lies a particular form of knowledge-production tied to the discourse of combatting Islamophobia. We were careful to collect, analyze, and present the empirical data in a nuanced fashion so as to avoid any bias in selecting our examples, and consequently, to avoid singling out any actor(s). To give a few examples, actors we mention in our original article include, but not limited to, government institutions such as YTB, think tanks such as SETA, media channels such as TRT World, foundations such as TÜRGEV and public figures such as Ilyasah Shabazz. Adopting a rigorous methodological approach was a choice which we deemed necessary to build a solid analytical framework, delineating an associated network of various individuals and organizations that make up the AKP’s Islamophobia knowledge-power complex.
The AKP’s Knowledge-Power Nexus and CIGA
Our choice to focus on a conceptual discussion about Ankara’s politics of Islamophobia left only limited space for the publicly available and quite abundant empirical examples that we gathered. CIGA appeared as one of the many actors that actively partake in the communicative spaces that we explored in the article. Contrary to the author’s suggestions, however, we did not imply anywhere that CIGA was a “propaganda tool” or its founder and director Prof. Sami Al-Arian, a “lacky [sic] of the AKP government.” Our observation that by granting him citizenship Turkey “gained both Muslim sympathy and Al-Arian well-established networks among the Muslim communities, which proved important to setting up Zaim University’s CIGA” was to exemplify Turkey’s soft-power strategies. We were not interested in his politics, writings, activities as a person, but how his ordeal and presence in Turkey presented an opportunity to Turkish decision-makers to pursue their soft power strategies. We sought to make the nuanced distinction that this neither denies agency to him nor reduces his initiatives to a propaganda mission for the Turkish government. However, we have to present a fuller picture of his politics at this point to demonstrate that neither his public statements nor any other indicators of his politics could possibly negate what we have pointed out about CIGA.
As the first case in point, in an interview with the pro-government Daily Sabah in 2017 about CIGA’s first annual conference on the Muslim Ummah, Al-Arian noted that Istanbul is “at the forefront of any real reform within the Muslim world,” and Turkey seemed like a natural home for [him], especially with its current leadership.” Similarly, reflecting upon the worldwide criticism of Erdoğan after his display of the gruesome mosque attack videos in New Zealand during the election rallies this year, Al-Arian stated affirmatively in an interview he gave to the ABC Australia that the “Turkish president considers himself obviously as the voice for Turkey, but also for the whole Muslim world at large as well.”
In another interview in 2017, Al-Arian expressed his gratitude for finding “a home in Turkey” emphasizing “the personal intervention of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” (Max Blumenthal 2019, p. 97). Al-Arian was deported in 2015 to Turkey after lengthy tribulations with the American legal system during a highly controversial trial that resulted in the federal prosecutors’ dropping of a criminal contempt indictment against him. Since his arrival in Turkey, he has appeared multiple times and almost exclusively at pro-government media outlets to comment about Turkish politics. After the putsch in 2016, for instance, he gave an interview to TRT World, another actor that we mention in our article, reiterating the official government narrative on the details of the coup, which remain unsubstantiated to this day. Similarly, during the controversial referendum in 2017, Al-Arian penned opinion pieces in pro-government commentary websites advocating Turkey’s transition to a presidential system, which would remove many powers from parliament and the judiciary and concentrate it under the presidency, thereby considerably weaken any checks and balances in Turkey’s political system.
We should of course further contextualize these quotes. While there is a wealth of examples that document his unsolicited pro-AKP or pro-Erdoğan statements affirming Turkey’s Muslim leadership role, one would have a hard time to come up with any critical statement by Al-Arian about any of the AKP’s policies. Of course, Al-Arian is free to express his opinions, like any other individual and no one would expect the newly resident or naturalized citizens of Turkey, which include countless other diasporic Arab or Muslim scholars and activists, to speak up against the human rights abuses of their new host government. Nevertheless, public praise of Erdoğan or the AKP is not obligatory in Turkey and constitutes a choice that many other members of the Arab diaspora do not make.
We are well aware that the actors who appear in these communicative spaces and endorse Turkey’s leadership role in the Muslim world vary from each other, and from Ankara, in terms of their interests and orientations. That is, the catalytic role of these spaces in producing a certain form of knowledge about Ankara does not exclude or deny agency to the individual persons or organizations involved in these initiatives, which might mean different things to different actors, serving multiple purposes. In fact, the history of contemporary Muslim transnational activism, from Jamaladdin al-Afghani’s relationship with Abdulhamid II and Rashid Rida’s with King Abdulaziz, to Malcolm X’s simultaneous relations with President Nasser and his rival Prince Faisal provides us with enough examples to show how such relations work without implicating Afghani, Rida, and Malcolm X as “lackeys.” These relations can be purely transactional. They can be situational. They can also be ideological. Moreover, they can also change over time. An analysis of this multiplicity of interests and orientations, and the conditions under which they diverge, overlap, and change would make a great contribution to the Islamic soft power debate, in its contemporary and historical forms; yet this was beyond the purposes of our piece.
Blurring the Boundaries between the AKP and Civil Society in the Educational Realm
The author notes that “CIGA is an independent academic institution housed at IZU.” Education has been one of the key pillars of Turkey’s changing diaspora policies since the 2010s. This is clearly observable in the activities of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB). These include several educational activities and programs in cooperation with universities and NGOs, specifically targeting the Turkish and global Muslim diaspora. As we noted in our original article, these activities build on Islamist—especially Gülenist—mass mobilization methods that successfully recruited youth masses for decades into Muslim organizational structures at home and abroad.
Although it does not indicate an AKP design in and of itself, the second annual conference on Islamophobia organized by CIGA was co-funded by the YTB. The international conference on Palestine organized this year received funding from the AKP governed Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality—which has lately been in the news because of the controversial cancellation and repetition of the March 31 local elections, whereby the AKP lost its twenty-five-year stronghold over the metropolitan center. Another sponsor of the same event was Turkish Airlines, forty-nine percent of which is publicly-owned and the board of which includes names which are also involved in foundations known for the close proximity to Erdoğan and his family, such as the controversial Ensar and TÜRGEV—actors both of which we mention in our original article.
Public grants generated through tax-payments can, of course, be allocated to projects that serve public interests at large. Being a beneficiary of government funding, therefore, does not imply that one is a “stooge”—to use the author’s own words—of that particular government and its foreign policy ambitions. Yet, without providing the larger context in which public funds are channeled to civil society actors, particularly, in the realm of education, and the connections between them, any claim to fair competition in accessing these funds is misleading. Recent scholarship and investigative journalism on the Turkish government’s clientelistic networks have abundantly documented that access to public grants in today’s Turkey is not exclusively based on meritocracy. They are distributed according to partisan interests and regularly denied to citizens of Turkey that are regarded as non-loyal (to the AKP). In fact, these networks, which consist of seemingly non-governmental organizations, private companies, and state institutions constitute the very core of the system by which consent is manufactured for the ruling AKP.
Indeed, just as it is impossible to discuss the funding structure of American academia without addressing the problematic relationship of academics, students, research centers, and universities with their donor base, so too foreign and domestic analysts on Turkey would not be able to understand how the AKP government operates and governs unless they take into account the ways in which different funding sources and clientelistic networks are interwoven. Though clientelism in Turkey has always existed, even the once-autonomous Islamist NGOs of the 1990s have gradually been brought under government control during the AKP era. Land grants and the funneling of other government funds, as well as donations by the AKP’s cronies, are now made in return for loyalty. This is further safeguarded by the appointment of Erdoğan’s family members or AKP officials to these NGO’s governing boards. As a consequence, even merit-based scholarships and the provision of accommodation for college students, which for decades formed the core of these religious organizations’ charitable and recruitment activities, have turned into a reward and punishment mechanism. Little surprise, then, that these (GO)NGOs with close ties to the government collectively issue declarations of loyalty and support to the AKP before each election under the umbrella of the “National Will Platform.”
As a case in point, IZU, where CIGA is based, was founded in 2010 by the Ilim Yayma Vakfi (IYV) Foundation, which is also a member of this platform. The campus buildings which used to belong to the Halkalı Agricultural School, founded in the 1890s, were leased in 2010 by the Directorate General of Foundations to the IYV for 10 years to be used as IZU. The president’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, currently serves as a member of the Board of Trustees, while its first president and vice-president, a mayor and MP, were both AKP members. Besides Zaim University, IYV owns and operates other schools and dormitories. It is also tied to other foundations owned by the Erdoğan family, such as TÜGVA, through specific agreements that ensure a formal partnership and the granting of stipends to TÜGVA affiliated MA and PhD students.
In fact, IYV falls within the same genre of foundations which primarily operate in the realm of education, such as the controversial Ensar Foundation and TÜRGEV. One can provide numerous other examples that show how public resources have been funneled to these foundations in the last decade, both through AKP-run municipalities and the central state budget. Given these alarmingly blurred boundaries between the AKP and civil society organizations in higher education, any discussion about academic freedom in Turkey today needs to first and foremost address the following questions in a transparent and reflexive manner in order to be compelling: What are the limits in today’s Turkey to critical scholarship given such structural constraints? Is it possible to talk about academic freedom without first acknowledging such constraints, let alone the outright purges and censorship of the past years? What are the scholarly implications of the choice to overlook these limitations for the university that supposedly guarantees students and other citizens academic freedom as well as the right to autonomous and non-partisan knowledge?
The Ethics of Discussing Academic Freedom in and Beyond Turkey
The author’s discussion of academic freedom does unfortunately not address any of these questions and fails to heed the AKP’s financial and political domination over the realm of education, let alone acknowledge its persecution of academics whom it considers a threat to its rule, and even labels as "terrorists." The ethical problems associated with choosing to ignore the mass purges from Turkish universities since early 2016, the public defamation and even imprisonment of academics, need no further explanation. If the author fears that international scholars will choose not to attend events organized in Turkish universities, which are so clearly embedded in the AKP’s clientelistic networks, he should look at the very root causes that have created the current dire situation of Turkish academia, instead of our statements.
Apart from the failure to address such structural limits to critical scholarship in Turkey, the author falsely takes our remarks to suggest that we "depict[ed] all [CIGA’s] guests as 'pro-Erdoğan Muslim intellectuals.'” Nowhere in our original article, however, did we qualify the political opinions of the scholars who participated in CIGA events as pro-Erdoğan, notwithstanding the fact that no scholar from Turkey known as a public critic of AKP or Erdoğan was among the participants at CIGA events, because this was irrelevant to our argument. Yet, the author is right to point out that there were a few international critical voices participating in these events. What he regrettably fails to mention, however, are the efforts to mute criticism. When, for example, one of the “participants that are critical of the AKP” brought up the contradictions of discussing Islamophobia as a liberation discourse without problematizing the very persecution of academics, the AKP MPs present at the event intervened and responded that the government only targeted “terrorists,” and not academics or journalists.
Having said that, we applaud the author’s aim to navigate the twin possibilities that “on the one hand, the AKP government is wrong and, on the other hand, that Islamophobia is a real danger to Muslim communities.” We are in full agreement and glad to hear that the author rejects the dichotomy that working on the latter implies any claim about the former. How to navigate these two realities indeed lies at the core of our critique. The contradiction between posing as the patron and champion of the oppressed abroad while suppressing any form of dissent at home, including Muslim religious dissent, is too big to disregard. Resisting the well-worn binaries between religious and secular with regard to Turkey, we wish to emphasize once more that Ankara’s adoption of a liberation discourse abroad is completely at odds with its policies at home, which include the authoritarian centralization of power, institutional disintegration, and the silencing of pluralist claims and spaces.
As Ankara’s soft-power strategies to position Turkey as the hegemonic power within the Muslim world seem to coincide with the growth of academic solidarity networks around the very question of Islam and Islamophobia, the point only becomes more important. These networks rightly seek to empower the global Muslim community against the very real challenge of Islamophobia and concomitant worldwide discriminatory discursive, political and diplomatic practices. However, the legitimacy of this discourse is itself jeopardized when its proponents remain selectively attentive towards repressive techniques against critical scholarly voices in certain settings while remaining silent in others. As far as the case of Turkey is concerned, such selective silences sadly hinder any sober and critical discussion about the AKP’s politics of Islamophobia.