Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington last week was contentious, as a heated debate raged over whether President Donald Trump should meet with the Islamist dictator. Critics questioned the timing of the White House meeting, coming as the Turkish military prosecutes attacks against Syrian Kurdish forces, and remains notorious as the world's largest jailer of professional journalists.
But one element which was largely ignored in the discussion — and yet might impact Trump's view of his Turkish counterpart the most — is the outsized role played by Erdogan's government in meddling in U.S. domestic relations, particularly in his backing of American Muslim groups.
These organizations are among those most vociferously opposed to the president and nearly all his policies — from immigration and border security to moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. These groups also routinely slander the president as a white supremacist.
Working jointly under the banner of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), American Muslims groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and other domestic Muslim groups "collaborate and coordinate" with the Turkish government, according to researcher Ahmet S. Yahyla in a special report for The Investigative Journal. What is most notable about these organizations is a shared heritage in the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement which Erdogan publicly supports.
In the last several years, the link between Turkey's government and U.S. Brotherhood-linked groups has grown deeper. Both CAIR and MAS have increasingly featured Turkish leaders and topics at their conferences and events. A November 2nd CAIR-Los Angeles event in Anaheim sponsored by Turkish Airlines faced dozens of Kurdish-American protestors angry over the group's continued support for Turkish persecution of Kurdish minorities. Researchers have pointed out anti-Armenian propaganda being distributed by Turkish-sponsored booths at MAS events.
This collaboration between Turkey and American Muslim Brotherhood was most public in the December 2017 protest against the president's decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The USCMO joined the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) — led by Erdogan's cousin, Halil Mutlu — in denouncing the decision outside the White House.
During the rally, Mutlu declared that Erdogan was, "my president, your president, president of the ummah (the worldwide community of Muslim believers)," as the crowd applauded. According to hacked emails published by Wikileaks and noted in Yahyla's report, in 2016 TASC was part of a network of Turkish organizations facing investigation by the FBI over questions of foreign influence.
Mutlu came under media scrutiny in October after the Daily Caller publicized that he had made a $1500 donation to the campaign war-chest of Rep. Ihlan Omar (D-MN). Omar, a leading member of the "Squad" of freshman Democrats with whom President Trump has repeatedly tangled on a wide variety of political issues, is a frequent keynote speaker for CAIR and MAS events.
In 2019, Omar, together with fellow "Squad" member Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN), attended a CAIR-organized event at the Turkish government-affiliated Diyanet Center of America, a massive mosque complex located in Maryland.
Omar has been repeatedly criticized for casting votes favorable to the Turkish government, including as one of only 11 votes against a House resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, and in vocally opposing sanctions on the Turkish military over allegations of war crimes against the Kurds in Northern Syria.
Omar has also been noted for her frequent denunciations of Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood's shared enemies, most notably in her vocal stance against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates' joint campaign in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The Intercept recently reported on a meeting held in Turkey between Iranian al-Quds force officers and high-level Muslim Brotherhood leaders wherein the two groups discussed cooperation in Yemen.
Omar's ties to Erdogan predate her time in Congress. That includes a 2017 meeting with the Turkish president in New York during a U.N. conference, while Omar was still a Minnesota assemblywoman.
There is much about Turkey's recent behavior with which foreign policy, national security, and human rights experts might take umbrage. But these complaints have fallen upon deaf ears, thanks in part to the American public's fatigue with the Middle East more generally.
But Turkey's efforts to bankroll American Islamist efforts, including seeking political influence and meddling in the larger domestic agenda of the president, could help spur a broader American rejection of Turkish bad behavior.
Kyle Shideler is the Director of the Counter-Islamist Grid (CIG).