Erdogan doesn’t frequently make references to the Jewish world, especially not by describing Jews as victims.
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to media following the Friday prayers in Istanbul last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent months, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been addressing the problem of Islamophobia in the West as part of his aggressive foreign policy, allegedly speaking on behalf of the Muslim world. In one of his most notable statements from recent weeks, he asserted that “Islamophobia in Europe has reached levels comparable to the treatment of Jews before the Second World War.”
This is quite an irregular statement. Erdogan doesn’t frequently make references to the Jewish world, especially not by describing Jews as victims. In fact, since 2002, when Erdogan’s AKP came to power, there has been an increase in antisemitism against Turkish Jews. For example, the outbreak of the pandemic has even been blamed on the Jews through pro-government channels, which are spreading conspiracy theories.
Erdogan’s above statement might sound very familiar to many Jews and Israelis if they simply remove the word “Islamophobia” and replace it with “antisemitism.” Nevertheless, the casual observer might find it hard to explain what could possibly drive Erdogan to leverage antisemitism and the Holocaust in blaming Europeans for Islamophobia, while he himself made numerous antisemitic remarks over the last few years.
In what follows, I will offer an analysis and provide an opinion based on academic research as to what drove Erdogan to use this particular assertion tying together the pandemic, “Islamophobia”, European antisemitism and the images of Jews before the Second World War. His particular position can be explained if we examine his usage of allegedly binding elements of the Muslim world. This foreign policy doctrine has been used on numerous occasions by Jewish and the Israeli elite, drawing on ethnicity and religion called “Jewish Foreign Policy.” My argument is that Erdogan’s strategy, however, is doomed to fail, given that nor the Jewish world or the Muslim world are made of one fabric.
First, in the heart of “Jewish Foreign Policy,” there is an underlying assumption that there is a pan-Jewish supernational identity; it includes shared history in exile (“galut”) but also that most Jews have a common culture, language, and religion. From the early twentieth century, especially since 1948, Zionism and Israel have been seen as the Jewish sanctuary and a binding element to the world’s Jews, although that has been contested in the last two decades. Therefore, Jewish foreign policy is a decentralized system of ethnic diplomacy.
WHILE ZIONISM is a contested component with regards to Jewish foreign policy, combating antisemitism and Holocaust denial are perhaps the most important elements that most of the world’s Jews would agree to be a binding sentiment of modern Jewish identity.
Second, “Jewish foreign policy” can be identified by examining the Jewish history that spans from biblical times to the Zionist Congress and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Generations of Jews have emphasized the value of “Klal Yisrael” as a symbol of collective Jewish destiny and brotherhood. As such, combating antisemitism and Holocaust denial as speaking for “Klal Yisrael” has been critically important.
Third, Israel’s prime ministers, especially David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin but also Benjamin Netanyahu, have sought to master “Jewish foreign policy” as a key component in their foreign policy doctrine. They emphasized the Jewish component in their public speaking, media interviews, addresses in the Knesset and while making important decisions, because they saw themselves as leaders of the Jewish world trying to protect the world Jews from a second “Holocaust” as stated by Netanyahu in his attempts to stop the Iranian nuclear program or Begin’s decision to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981.
Back to Erdogan. Using the concept of “Jewish foreign policy,” he has been applying a similar strategy to seemingly speak for the entire Muslim civilization. Erdogan’s “pan-Muslim foreign policy” had a few previous appearances. Most notably was his turning of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into a mosque in summer 2020, which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reestablished as a museum in 1935. This step was not only seen as an important achievement for Turkey’s Muslim identity over Atatürk’s secular heritage, and a challenge to the latter’s legacy, but also a symbolic conquest for the Muslim world.
It is important to note, Erdogan is a pragmatist diplomat who has cleverly identified trends and taken advantage of them in a timely manner. Specifically, the pandemic crisis. The use of COVID-19 as a metaphor to demonstrate the spread of Islamophobia in Europe is a classic example of how timing plays a role in Erdogan’s pragmatist foreign policy.
However, when it comes to combating European and western Islamophobia, Erdogan’s well-chosen words from modern Jewish history match his current agenda of religious-nationalist diplomacy, which combines the current reality of the pandemic with his own political needs. At the same time, he is also doing this to simply push the sensitive buttons of Europeans with regard to antisemitism and Holocaust memory. Therefore, such messages are for European public opinion first and the Muslim diaspora second.
But what exactly does he gain?
There are two possible gains from “pan-Muslim foreign policy”: short-term and long-term. With respect to the former, Turkey is in a deep financial crisis. The inflation rate has been rising to new heights in the last few months as well as Turkey’s unemployment. The boycott on Turkish products from Saudi Arabia and Egypt is not helping either. Therefore, to survive the financial crisis, Turkey needs the financial back of the Arab and Muslim world, so speaking in “pan-Muslim foreign policy” could be beneficial to Erdogan and Turkey.
How can the above be achieved? By endorsing that Erdogan is Turkey and Turkey is Erdogan’s image. In the last two decades, Erdogan has cultivated an image of a global Muslim leader, but mainly one that is taking care of Turkey’s national interests as a regional power. This image is built on his contrast with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular legacy, which tried to convince Western powers and the Europeans that Turkey belonged to Western civilization as a secular and modern country.
Because of Erdogan’s image as Turkey’s charismatic leader, when he combats European Islamophobia, he expects Turkey to win a financial dividend or at least financial relief from the Arab-Muslim world boycotts.
There are also long-term gains. Erdogan is already thinking of his legacy. He wants to be remembered as a devout Muslim leader who sought to reframe Turkey’s modern identity around a Muslim one that sets itself apart from Western civilization. At the international fora, especially in the Muslim world, he also wants to be remembered as creating a sort of Muslim civilization that justified its prominence and fought against western civilization, especially European Christianity.
However, here is where things become more challenging: The Jewish world and its diasporas are not only spread around the globe and have different readings of Jewish religion, ethnicity and complex relations with Zionism, but also compete for diplomatic influence with Israel. Muslims too, have their own differences between Shia and Sunna, regional conflicts, and their own internal conflicts.
In conclusion, speaking for the Muslim commonwealth, especially using Second World War images and European antisemitism could have worked for Erdogan if he wants to simply push the sensitive buttons of Europeans. However, Erdogan’s past of antisemitic remarks, consent tension with the European countries on his treatment of minorities and his systematic abuse of power and Turkey’s deteriorating democratic institutions, are his main obstacle in making a compelling case with regards to the Europeans. Unfortunately for Erdogan, from the Muslim prism, it doesn’t look too compelling either. Let’s not forget that the basic premise of ethnic/religious foreign policy that not all these groups speak in one voice.
The writer is a historian of international relations. Ben Aharon research focuses on Israel’s foreign policy from 1948 to the present. He is also an expert on Turkey’s foreign policy and the Israeli-Turkish relations.