Clifford Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, spoke to a March 7 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch, about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's collaboration with Islamist movements in South Asia and the West.
Smith has written extensively on the topic, having investigated the many examples of Turkey's "influence operations" around the world that advance Islamism. Erdoğan's influence operations are bolstered by TRT World, "Turkey's propaganda arm [that] is a registered foreign agent with the U.S. government," Smith said. Founded in 2015 as Erdoğan was "consolidating" his power, his regime funds and controls TRT World. With "major broadcasting centers in London, DC, and Singapore," TRT World claims to reach "260 million homes" in 190 countries.
According to Smith, TRT World's outreach to South Asian Islamists is most noticeable for its "support of Pakistan and . . . Islamist groups in South Asia, opposing India in Kashmir, and frankly opposing even Pakistan's enemies in other countries." A recent article on its website covered Masood Khan, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. who, prior to assuming those duties, had "open dealings" with terror groups tied directly to al-Qaeda. U.S. Congressman Scott Perry wrote President Biden expressing his concern and requesting that he reject Khan for being a terrorist sympathizer who had praised Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri separatist leader and commander in Hizbul Mujahideen, which Smith called "one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world, by a lot."
Turkey defended the appointment of Masood Khan, Pakistan's terrorist-supporting ambassador to the U.S.
TRT World ran articles attacking Khan's critics and marginalizing Rep. Perry's objections as "unconcerned about Kashmiri rights." Thanks in part to this campaign, the state department accepted Khan's nomination. Smith finds remarkable that even though Turkey's interest in Kashmir is "indirect at best," it rose to Khan's defense when his appointment was in question and enthusiastically promoted Pakistan's "narrative." In the countless articles that TRT World has published about Kashmir, Smith said the consistent theme is to make "Pakistan look relatively good, India look relatively bad, and Turkey look like a friend of Pakistan."
Kashmir, a disputed region between India and Pakistan, has a Muslim majority, but its ruler chose to side with India when the British partitioned it in 1947. Pakistan objected and militarily occupied a portion of Kashmir, while India retained control of the rest. Until 2019, Kashmir enjoyed significant internal autonomy, including its own constitution and separate flag, under Article 370 of India's constitution. In that year, however, India revoked most of that provision, which resulted in "no special rights, no special provisions," said Smith.
The international community accepted India's insistence that its rule of Kashmir is an internal matter, but Erdoğan demanded the U.N. submit the issue to "international arbitration." Smith noted that even countries that are "friendly" to Pakistan have not as far as has Erdoğan in his advocacy for Kashmir.
Soon after Erdoğan raised the issue of Kashmir at the UN, he took the opportunity to advance his Islamist agenda in the U.S. by meeting with the US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), an umbrella group for different Islamist non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many with origins in Pakistan. USCMO's chairman, Mohsin Ansari, oversaw branches of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), an organization begun by South Asian Islamists in the 1970s. ICNA partners with other Muslim Brotherhood groups that advocate the Islamic supremacist views espoused by the founder of the South Asian radical Islamist group Jumaat-e-Islami.
ICNA is also a member of the Union of NGOs of the Islamic World (UNIW), an umbrella group founded in Turkey with many members from South Asian Islamist groups. Another group, the Kashmiri American Council, was founded by Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Jamaat-e-Islami activist who was paid by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency "to influence American policy in Kashmir" and lobby on behalf of Kashmiri separatism. Fai, a convicted criminal imprisoned for failing to register with the U.S. government as a foreign agent for Pakistan, has been active as an anti-India lobbyist since his 2013 release.
Smith emphasized that the "links between South Asian Islamist organizations and Turkish Islamist organizations," in both Turkey and the U.S., are "all interlocking." He said that while it does not necessarily mean that Ankara or the ISI controls every Turkish or South Asian NGO, it does mean that Erdoğan has assumed a leadership role in the "global Islamist movement" with Islamists who share similar goals and look to Erdoğan as their partner.
Smith: Erdoğan has allied with global Islamists in Pakistan and Qatar to advance global Islamism.
After 9/11, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was widely perceived as the leading protagonist in disseminating radical Wahhabism around the globe, but things have changed under its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although KSA still commits human rights abuses, it no longer funds "Islamist organizations at home and abroad," Smith said, and Riyadh now works with "anti-Islamist forces." The Islamist mantle has passed from the KSA to Turkey and others in what Smith called the "new Islamist alliance." Specifically, Erdoğan has allied with global Islamists in Pakistan and Qatar to advance global Islamism. Before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Erdoğan publicly pronounced that Turkey had "no problem with the Taliban's beliefs" and that they cooperate, "a fairly shocking thing to hear from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally," Smith said. It is no coincidence that after the Muslim Brotherhood's failure in Egypt, many of its members migrated to Turkey.
Because Turkey is a NATO ally, it often plays "both sides of the fence" on contentious issues. Turkey's school curricula were once "a model of secularism," but are now "supremacist and intolerant." Domestic organizations in Turkey, such as the Turkish Heritage Organization, are "controlled by the regime." Turkey also controls the Turkish Diyanet, a global network of mosques that includes a branch near Washington, DC. Originally established as a "religious ministry set up by Atatürk to moderate religious services" to counter Islamism, Smith said, the Diyanet under Erdoğan "has been co-opted for the opposite purpose."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.