In order for Turkey’s recent Islamist foreign policy to develop, Turkey needed to undergo a political change. After the First World War, there was the rise of a secular, Westernized Turkey. More recently, political parties have emerged, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), that have moved away from a secular Turkey.
Pandya, CEO of Indian geopolitical and security affairs think tank Usanas Foundation, told The Epoch Times that with Erdogan’s three subsequent election victories and presidency since 2014, Turkey’s foreign policy has begun to change.
“And as he progressed, these secular elements were gradually being marginalized from the Turkish polity and religion became a stronger force,” Pandya said. A geopolitical game started to emerge in this context.
“That was basically the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate or the Ottoman glory, in which he can project himself as the Caliph of the Muslim world.”
By this time, Turkey’s dream of joining the European Union was gone, he said.
“So now, why not bring back the real glory of Ottoman power instead of begging in front of the European Union. That Ottoman glory can be brought only if Turkey goes back to its Islamic religious roots,” Pandya said. Being a democratically elected leader, Erdogan would have more acceptability as caliph than any Islamist extremist leading a global terrorist organization, he said.
“He knows that he is a democratically elected leader of a country like Turkey, which is a great military power or growing superpower, a country with a fairly decent middle-income group [population], good infrastructure, and the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire.”
Adding to this possibility is the narrative of Islamophobia existing in the West and in India, which injects a feeling of fear among Muslims that they and their faith are in crisis, he said.
“They are already looking for an alternative model of leadership, which is convincing, which is powerful, which is present. So no one else can satisfy that case—he’s a democratically elected sovereign leader of a sovereign nation,” he said.
“And then he has credibility, so he will have all chances of being accepted as a leader of the Ummah (community in Arabic) across the world. Imagine if he does that, how much power he would yield across the globe.” In this context, the world needs to understand Turkey’s interest in South Asia and particularly in Kashmir, he said.
Turkey’s Interest in Kashmir
Turkey’s agenda to consolidate the Muslim ummah under its leadership would be directly challenged by the Arab world that seeks the same leadership. For this reason, Erdogan doesn’t enjoy many leadership opportunities among Muslims there, Pandya said.
“The original fight for the Islamic leadership of the Islamic world was not between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Today, we are mistaken when we see that it’s Iran and Saudi Arabia. Originally, it was between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said Pandya, who noted the many battles fought between the Ottoman empire and the dynasties in Saudi Arabia.
The latter finally dislodged the Ottoman dynasty with the help of the British to become the custodians of Mecca and Medina, the holy places of the Muslim world.
Unlike Muslims in the Arab world, South Asia’s Muslims would be more willing to accept Erdogan’s leadership because Turkey has strong historical, cultural, and religious ties with South Asia. That dates from the time of Mughals who were ruling over the subcontinent before the British took over in 1857—when many Mughal nobles fled to Turkey, according to Pandya.
“Then, in the 1920s, when the Turkish Ottoman caliphate was uprooted by the British, Gandhi started a movement called the khilafat movement (civil disobedience movement) in 1920,” said Pandya. It was the Khilafat movement that started first seeking the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate, he added.
Mahatma Gandhi wanted to unify Muslims and Hindus against British colonial rule and for that, he needed a Muslim cause, Pandya said. But after a violent incident, Gandhi withdrew his support from the Khilafat movement, and at the same time, the British uprooted the Ottoman Empire from India.
These events sowed the seeds of the theory of two nations, which eventually led to the bloody partition of colonial India into India and Pakistan, Pandya said.
The partition also sowed seeds for the long, drawn-out conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, background that needs to be understood to grasp Turkey’s current agenda in Kashmir.
“If [Erdogan] wants to get the support of Muslims of South Asia, what is the best way? Try and cultivate relationships with the Islamic organizations in India. And secondly, to try and raise the issues that are most important to the Muslims in South Asia,” Pandya says.
Erdogan has a strategy, he said.
The Kashmir cause inside South Asia is a religious cause and since it affects Muslims, Erdogan picked it up, he said.
“[He seeks] credibility in the Muslim world, to internalize the Kashmir issue and to win the hearts and minds of Muslims across South Asia, because the South Asian Muslims may not be as well connected to the Palestinian cause as they are connected to the Kashmir cause,” said Pandya.
Turkey’s Activities Inside Kashmir
Turkey’s voice on Kashmir and its activities inside Kashmir have grown in the past four to five years and its modus operandi is multi-pronged—including leveraging international platforms and waging and supporting information war against India on Kashmir through its social media and mainstream media channels, according to Pandya.
More recently, India Today reported that the Turkish SADAT, a shadow military organization, is now preparing to be active in Kashmir, a claim that Turkish Ambassador Sakir Özkan Torunlar asserts is baseless and false. Yet, the Indian government is monitoring the situation, Pandya said.
In an interview last year, with The Wire, A.S. Dulat, former chief of India’s foreign intelligence agency “worryingly” said that 50 foreign mercenaries, including Turks, have crossed into Kashmir from Pakistan.
A Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, was killed by Indian security forces in 2016. Before his death, he had released a video where he openly said that he wanted Kashmir to be an Islamic caliphate.
“After that, Pakistan orchestrated violent civil unrest [inside Kashmir] for which Pakistan’s ISI (Interservice Intelligence) supplied 800 crores (over $100 million),” said Pandya, referring to a sting operation by India Today that videotaped a separatist leader confessing receiving money from Pakistan to stoke the unrest. Police firing on protestors at the time killed 46 people, he said.
The details were reported in a book, “K File: Conspiracy of Silence” by Bashir Assad as well as in the investigation by India’s National Investigation Agency, Pandya said.
Turkey went on to globally spread news about the violent protests and the loss of life but never went into the background of the event, said Pandya. He stressed that Turkey has turned out to be a staunch supporter of Pakistan.
While the United States blacklisted Kashmir-based Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist organization in 2017, the Turkish state media TRT World included Wani on a list of “20 people who shook the world in 2016.” The list included Boris Johnson, Bernie Sanders, and Ivanka Trump.
“A hero to Kashmiri people but a ‘terrorist’ in the eyes of the Indian state, Burhan Wani was a 21-year-old insurgent in Indian-administered Kashmir,” TRT World reported.
“He amplified his voice using social media, uploading videos and photos with messages calling for Kashmir to break away from Indian rule. Although his gun-wielding presence was symbolic, a war of images against India’s continuing aggression in Kashmir, where about half a million of its troops are stationed to quell dissent, his call for freedom inspired tens of thousands of Kashmiri youth,” TRT World said.
In August 2019, after India revoked Article 370, a constitutional provision giving limited autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, that state was dissolved and two federally governed territories created out of it. Pandya alleges that Turkey’s voice on Kashmir then became louder.
Just a month after this political re-organization, Erdogan brought up the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly and criticized the international community for not taking up its cause.
Despite India’s official objection, Erdogan went on to again raise the issue during his address to the joint session of the Pakistan parliament in February 2020.
“Our Kashmiri brothers and sisters have suffered from inconveniences for decades and these sufferings have become graver due to unilateral steps taken in recent times,” he said adding that he would support Pakistan’s efforts to escape the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) so-called Grey List.
“Today, the issue of Kashmir is as close to us as it is to you (Pakistanis),” said Erdogan.
While Pakistan continues to be on the just-released Grey List, which designates countries involved in supporting terror, Pandya said Turkey has always been a hindrance to the “blacklisting” of Pakistan in FATF, which would lead to direct economic sanctions.
“I’ve heard that the drones which Pakistan is using to drop in Kashmir are very high-quality drones. They drop the weapon and they just disappear within seconds; you’re not even able to locate them. They are more like unidentified flying objects,” said Pandya, whose upcoming book is about terror financing in Kashmir.
He says Pakistan isn’t capable of manufacturing such sophisticated drones, so they are coming from China, Russia, or Turkey.
Turkey also is luring Kashmiri students with scholarships to study at Turkish institutions.
“These students are being trained in human rights studies, in various international relations studies, and even technological studies like making good drones, warfare, etc,” said Pandya, who added that Turkey is training them in its own narratives.
This is the second (following The CCP’s Agenda in Kashmir) in the series on Global Agendas in Kashmir, based on an exclusive interview with Abhinav Pandya, a field researcher in Kashmir who also advised the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, on radicalization and security issues during the critical phase of the abrogation of the Article 370 that led to the constitutional reorganization of the state.