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In Turkey, President Erdogan’s Political Changes Rile Islamists

avatar by Hany Ghoraba


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, October 27, 2021. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

After years of poor relations, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey recently, in response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invitation to “restart relations.”

But Erdogan, as a self-proclaimed champion of pan-Islamist causes, faces a backlash from his own camp, which condemned Herzog’s visit.

“We, the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), were surprised by the official visit of the head of state of the occupying Zionist entity to our sanctuary and our first destination; the Turkish Republic, and by the official reception given to him by the Turkish presidency,” said a statement from the Islamist group, which was founded by radical Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

It called the visit “ominous,” and noted Turkey’s history of “honorable stances against the Israeli occupation and aggression.”

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Qaradawi, sentenced in absentia in 2018 by Egypt to life in prison for conspiracy to kill a police officer, compared the visit to entering a scorpion’s nest but avoided mentioning Erdogan.

For decades, Erdogan represented the political leader for Islamists. He championed Islamist causes. Gallup’s Annual Index of Global Leaders found he was the most popular Muslim leader worldwide.

But things have changed.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s embassy in Israel condemned the latest in a series of terrorist attacks in the Jewish state. Five people were killed in the Bnei Brak shooting attack, including an Arab-Israeli police officer and two Ukrainian nationals, bringing the total to 11 people dead in three separate terrorist attacks over one week.

Hamas praised the terrorists as “heroic,” while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad cast it as part of “the resistance to the occupation.”

“We are concerned that these attacks, which have increased in recent days, will drag the region back into conflict ahead of the upcoming month of Ramadan and Passover Holiday,” the Turkish embassy said. “We extend our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Bnei Brak, as well as to the Government and the people of Israel, and wish a speedy recovery to the injured.”

The Turkish embassy also condemned an earlier attack in Hadera.

After years of aggressive policies that placed Turkey on a collision course with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, diplomatic isolation and economic strains are forcing Erdogan to reverse course. Last year, he initiated a rapprochement with Egypt. But in 2019, he vowed to never reconcile with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Herzog’s visit to Turkey may be even more surprising.

Without directly criticizing Erdogan, Hamas expressed disappointment about the visit, and repeated “our refusal to communicate with the occupying Zionist entity, and we call for more support for our people to end the occupation and restore our national rights. … We express our regret over these visits to our brothers in Arab and Islamic countries.”

Turkey’s relations with Hamas have been a point of contention between Washington and Ankara. Hamas received direct financial and political support from Turkey for years. In 2020, the United States condemned Turkey for receiving two Hamas leaders, including political leader Ismail Haniyeh.

“President Erdogan’s continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza,” the State Department said.

Turkish-Israeli relations reached rock-bottom in 2010, after an Israeli special forces raid on a flotilla aimed at breaking a blockade on Gaza. Passengers on the Mavi Marmara fought with the commandos. In the fight, nine Turkish activists were killed and 10 Israelis were wounded.

Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassador and ceased military cooperation with Israel.

Then, Turkey went largely silent as Egypt, the UAE, and others held historic meetings with Israeli leaders.

Erdogan threatened to suspend ties with the UAE in 2020, after it signed a normalization agreement with Israel. But Erdogan visited the UAE last month, meeting with Crown Prince Bin Zayed.

Meanwhile, some Turkish-based Islamists chose to yield to Erdogan’s reversed policies, especially those who could be put on trial if returned to their native countries.

“My personal position is that every ‘Muslim’ country that has relations with the Zionist entity should strive with all its might to end this relationship, and put this entity in the ranks of enemies, not in the ranks of friends or allies, not even in the list of neutrals. … Turkey is (so far) a ‘secular’ country according to the constitution!” tweeted Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, who lives in Turkey.

Yielding to reality and placing his expansionist ambitions on the back burner, President Erdogan is suspending hostile pan-Islamist policies despite Islamists’ opinions, and appears to be seeking a change of course.

Investigative Project on Terrorism Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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