Turkey’s Erdogan and Thailand’s Pattani

Since there is no strong support for this among a Turkish public that overwhelmingly subscribes to a centuries-long Sufi-oriented tradition, political Islamists cleverly seize upon human rights abuses that target mainly Muslims in other countries and play back their sufferings to Turkish audience with the hope that Islamists will pick up more political support on the home front.

Speaking at a parliamentary group meeting on April 22, 2013, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly uttered the name of Pattani, a southern province of Thailand where the long-standing animosity of the province’s majority Malay-Muslim population towards the central government has been a lingering issue fueling violence amid reported abuse by law enforcement forces and a weak justice system. The Thai government has been trying to address the problems in this deep south province with reforms in local governance and judiciary, albeit with limited success. Thai government is also compelled to deal with violence generated by some factions that use extremist religious ideology to channel Malay Muslims’ frustration into recruitment to their ranks.

I may be wrong but as far as I remember, this was the first time that Turkey’s Erdogan had raised the Pattani issue publicly in Parliament. He later repeated the line in a meeting organized by an advocacy group called oNDER, which represents members and alumni of religious high schools. It was also interesting because the issue was brought up only a couple of days after the visit of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to Turkey. In his fiery parliamentary address, Erdogan said: “This morning I saw a picture of Pattani, where Muslims are under pressure from Buddhists and hundreds and thousands of Muslims have been killed in recent days. I saw an elderly Muslim man who prays for Turkey. … He said ‘Be patient, Erdogan’ and then cried.”

Portraying this picture in vivid terms, Erdogan told his deputies that Turkey, heir to the vast Ottoman Empire, has a responsibility to reach out these people and slammed Turks whom he said do not understand this historic responsibility. In his address to young students in İstanbul later, he said that Pattani is their brother, just like Bangladesh, Palestine, Egypt, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Erdogan’s picking up on the Pattani issue follows an emotionally charged broadcast story run just two days ago by the pro-government and Islamist Kanal 7 station featuring human rights abuses suffered by Muslims in that province.

Nobody bothered to check the facts regarding the little-known Pattani issue and whether hundreds and thousands had been killed in recent days, as claimed by Erdogan. There was no awareness of this issue among the Turkish public and Pattani had never been heard in public discussion before. Therefore it was easy for Erdogan’s speech writers to add a couple of provocative lines to his addresses as it served to mobilize Islamists around the political cause ushered in by the beleaguered Turkish prime minister who has been fighting the biggest challenge of his political career amid massive corruption scandals implicating him and some of his family members.

Pattani was just the latest example of how Islamists in Turkey manipulate sensitive issues involving Muslims in foreign countries and how far they are disconnected from reality. It almost appears that the main priority for them is not to improve conditions for Muslims in the first place but rather to dwell on their sufferings in order to expand the political-Islamist agenda in Turkey. Small religious parties in Turkey have played on these issues for so long but failed to make inroads in Turkish society. Unfortunately, the current government in Turkey, dominated by a few powerful and overzealous political Islamists, is able to thrust Islamist issues onto the national agenda. During town hall meetings and public rallies, the senior leadership in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has started to parrot the same talking points devised by Islamists in order to mobilize supporters.

Using the pro-government media financed by businesspeople and fattened up by commissions and contracts disbursed by Erdogan, Islamists are able to project these issues to a larger audience and are now slowly gaining ground in raising awareness on foreign policy matters that are ripe for political consumption back home. The downside of this, however, is that these ill-advised initiatives risk creating tension in Turkey’s relations with other countries and can be easily construed as blatant interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.

What is more, by injecting enthusiastic Islamist philosophy into foreign policy choices, political Islamists in the government do not seem to mind squandering hard-earned political capital and goodwill credit that Turkey has accumulated over decades. This is a highly dangerous, counterproductive strategy and one that is set to backfire because it lacks constructive engagement with authorities who are entrusted with managing the problems in their own territories. Instead of producing positive results through different instruments, including silent diplomacy and engagement through regional and international partners and organizations, Ankara’s unilateral approach with harsh public rhetoric risks irking Turkey’s friends, partners and allies.

The same mistake was repeated in Egypt where Erdogan, who feels strong sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, relentlessly slammed the interim government backed by the military. During the campaign period before the March 30 local elections, Erdogan publicly and on many occasions slammed army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who deposed the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last year and is likely to be the next president of the most populous Arab nation. The result is that Turkey lost its political dialogue with Egypt and its ambassador in Cairo was declared persona non grata.

One can be highly critical of a military coup and strongly oppose capital punishment; this is quite understandable. In my opinion, Turkey should raise its objections to both, but turning these into major domestic policy debate and escalating the harsh rhetoric against Egyptian leaders beyond an acceptable level of criticism only burns the bridges of dialogue which jeopardizes Turkey’s valuable access to the leadership in Egypt. Unfortunately, that is what happened in our ties with Egypt as Ankara lost credibility when it adopted a clear partisan attitude. If Erdogan had some political capital with Egyptian rulers, he could have made the lives of Brotherhood members much easier.

Erdogan appears to have made the same mistake with Bangladesh when he announced publicly that he had pleaded with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a phone conversation in December last year to suspend the execution of Abdul Quader Mollah, a convicted war criminal. Erdogan’s public rhetoric was seen as flagrant interference by a Bangladeshi government that had come to power on the promise of bringing to justice those who it claimed to have been war criminals during the war of independence. Mollah, who belonged to an Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was one of the leaders who were tired and convicted and his sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. Again, Bangladeshi officials say that they understood Turkish concerns over the trials but were left bewildered at why the Turkish prime minister publicly mentioned the issue time and again, and that it may risk destroying the almost picture-perfect relationship between the two countries.

Unfortunately this is what happens when foreign policy preferences are based on ideological choices motivated by a political Islamist philosophy aimed at influencing a domestic audience rather than producing a result. The Erdogan government made similar mistakes in its relations with Serbia, Palestine, the Gulf countries and even with some of the European countries that are home to sizable Turkish and Muslim communities. It is rather a naïve approach adopted by Islamist politicians who have a big appetite for destructive drama and fiery rhetoric. They think that they can outreach to Muslim populations in other countries over the heads of state and governments and get away with that. Not only did this approach lead to failures on many foreign policy fronts but also left Turks with a sense of disillusionment with populist rhetoric and empty promises.