Erdogan's agenda: Neo-Ottoman ambition or pan-Islamist zeal?

Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on June 28, 2020.

Turkish aggression in at least five countries has been headlined in international news reports just this month, June 2020. These accounts focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest intrusions into Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Greece.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to those of us who focus on international religious freedom that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. There can be no lasting freedom of worship for any faith unless it conforms with Turkey’s Islamic practices.

In Israel, an article was released on June 15 by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reporting that Turkey is working nonstop to gain influence on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem and in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Writer Nadav Shragai points out, “In the second decade of the 21st century, Turkish nonprofit associations – and sometimes the Turkish government itself via the governmental aid agency TIKA [Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency] – have funneled tens of millions of dollars into various initiatives that have enhanced Turkey’s influence... ”

The list includes the Temple Mount.

Shragai says, “In many of the locations, the activity has been done in cooperation with activists ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in east Jerusalem... ”

Informed observers already know what the Muslim Brotherhood and its cohorts think about Jews and Judaism – on the Temple Mount and elsewhere.

In Libya, Seth Frantzman reported for The Jerusalem Post on June 20 that Egypt and Turkey might come to blows over Turkish aggression in the ongoing Libyan Civil War. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, along with others, back General Khalifa Haftar. Turkey and Qatar back the GNA.

Frantzman explains that the Government of the National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, “is a loose confederation of different groups, some of whom are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish backing.” GNA is also rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

In Iraq, Turkey has recently bombed Sinjar Mountain, where countless Yazidi refugees have taken shelter. On FRC’s Washington Watch broadcast, Michael Rubin, a scholar and expert on the Middle East, explained that Erdogan’s primary goal is his continued ethnic cleansing of Kurdish groups.

However, Rubin went on to say that many Yazidis have returned to live on Sinjar Mountain, “... the refugees, the women, the girls who have been returning from Syria, liberated from ISIS. They’re trying to get their life together.

“And it’s not clear why the Turks are insisting on bombarding them. It really undercuts the development and it raises questions about whether Turkey is waging counter-terrorism, and it’s clear they’re not, or whether they’re pursuing a religious agenda – an intolerant religious agenda, said Rubin.”

In Syria, the Washington Kurdish Institute reported, “During the first days of June 2020, around 20 different human rights organizations signed a?petition?to raise awareness on crimes carried on by the many Turkish-backed militias in Afrin, Syria and asked for international intervention.

It is well known and widely reported that Afrin’s religious minorities have been violently abused by the Turks and their militias.

“In areas under Turkey’s control,” Genocide Watch reported following that deadly incursion, “civilians have been subjected to horrific crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces and Turkish supported militias. Kurdish towns have been bombed and destroyed... Hundreds of civilians have been summarily executed. Kurdish and Yazidi women have been kidnapped and subjected to sexual slavery... ”

Thousands of Christians fled the invasion of Afrin; few remain. And now minorities in Northeast Syria are once again fearful because of Turkish threats.

In Greece, Arabic news reported on June 14, “In an escalating war of nerves between Athens and Ankara, bilateral relations have deteriorated, sparking fears of a military confrontation between the two NATO allies. Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos recently highlighted the country’s ‘readiness for military conflict with Turkey.’”

Greece has protested Turkish drilling in more than 20 sites in the Mediterranean Sea that it claims as its own territory. A confrontation also took place between a Greek naval vessel and a Turkish military escort in recent days. Even rumors of an impending Turkish invasion of Greece have been reported, although unverified.

As for Greece, a historic perspective reveals widespread Turkish killings of Greek and Assyrian Christians in the early 20th century. While the total number of deaths is unclear, some estimates put it at more than 1 million people.

Even today, Greek Orthodox properties in Turkey are confiscated and desecrated. Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq – Syriac, Protestant and Orthodox alike – who fled to Turkey from ISIS have been deprived of their ability to support themselves and dare not practice their faith. Kidnappings and murders have been reported.

In its most recent report, the US Commission on International Religion Freedom recommended that the US government “Include Turkey on the US Department of State’s Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act.

“... Government officials and politicians continued to propagate expressions of antisemitism and hate speech, and no progress was made during the year to repeal Turkey’s blasphemy law... In several instances in 2019, Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek religious and cultural sites, including numerous cemeteries, faced severe damage or destruction ..., ”stated the report.

Erdogan’s reckless, ruthless intrusion into country after country is believed by some to reflect his vision of a glorious, neo-Ottoman Empire. Other scholars are more inclined toward viewing his motivation as strictly religious, demanding pan-Islamist conquest. Certainly the two dreams are not mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, the US government has been exceedingly – even excessively – tolerant of Erdogan’s widespread human rights abuses. Perhaps the time has come time for reevaluation and restoration of a US policy that was not compromised toward Turkey. It needs to reflect indiscriminate justice and equality – including uncompromising demands for religious freedom for all.