Turkish bid to outsmart Saudis
President Erdogan’s interest in the Indian Muslims hints at a bigger picture at stake
When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared that Turkey was "the only country that can lead the Muslim world," he probably was not only thinking of Middle Eastern and other Islamic states such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Increasingly, there is evidence that Indian Muslims, the Islamic world's fourth largest community after Indonesia and the South Asian states is on Erdogan's radar.
Erdogan's interest in Indian Muslims highlights the flip side of a shared Turkish and Indian experience: the rise of religious parties and leaders with a tendency towards authoritarianism in non-Western democracies that, according to Turkey and India scholar Sumantra Bose, who calls into question their commitment to secularism.
Erdogan's interest in Indian Muslims goes beyond his hitherto unsuccessful attempts to persuade Indian authorities to shutter some nine schools and colleges associated with exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen. Accusing Gulen of responsibility for a failed 2015 military coup, Erdogan's government is seeking the preacher's extradition to Turkey from his refuge in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
While Gulen is an obsession to Erdogan, the president's interest in Indian Muslims is part of the bigger fish he has to fry. Indian Muslims are too big a community to ignore in Erdogan's rivalry with Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Muslim world, particularly in the wake of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that has catapulted the rivalry to centre stage.
Erdogan's efforts to create inroads into the Indian Muslim community is facilitated by the recently prevalent Hindu nationalism in India that prompted The Washington Post to headline a recent article by Indian journalist Rana Ayyub describing the mounting anti-Muslim sentiment.
Erdogan is competing for Indian Muslim hearts and minds with a continued flow of Saudi funds to multiple Salafi organisations, including charities, educational institutions and political organisations, and reporting by Turkish journalists associated with the Gulen movement, who point to Turkish links with militant clerics.
They include controversial televangelist Zakir Naik, whose Peace TV reaches 200 million viewers despite being banned in India. Problematically, some of Erdogan's interlocutors, including Naik, seemingly prefer to straddle the fence between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and play both sides against the middle.
If the geopolitical stakes for Erdogan are primarily his leadership ambitions, for Saudi Arabia it is not just about being top dog. Influence among Indian Muslims creates one more pressure point for the kingdom in its opposition to the Indian funding of Iran's Arabian Sea port of Chabahar.
Saudi Arabia fears the port will help Iran counter harsh US sanctions imposed after US President Trump's withdrawal from a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
The kingdom is further concerned that the port will enable Iran to gain greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic, increase its government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Finally, Saudi Arabia sees Indian Shiites, who are believed to account for anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of the country's 180 million Muslims, as an Iranian fifth wheel.
Indian media quoted a report by India's Intelligence Bureau as saying that ultra-conservative Saudi Islamic scholars were frequently visiting Indian Sunni Muslim communities. The Bureau reportedly put the number of visitors in the years between 2011 and 2013 at 25,000. It said they had distributed tens of millions of dollars – a scale unmatched by Turkish funding.
The Saudi effort is furthered by the fact that some three million Indians work in the kingdom, many of them from Kerala. "The Muslim community in Kerala is undergoing the process of Arabification… It is happening like the westernisation. Those Indians who had lived in England once used to emulate the English way of life back home. Similarly, Muslims in Kerala are trying to bring home the Arabian culture and way of life," said scholar Hameed Chendamangalloor.
South Asia scholar Christophe Jaffrelot noted that Muslim institutions in Kerala, including the Islamic Mission Trust of Malappuram, the Islamic Welfare Trust and the Mujahideen Arabic College had received "millions of (Saudi) riyals."
Like in the case of Naik, Turkey has reportedly sought to also forge ties to Maulana Syed Salman Al-Husaini Al-Nadwi, a prominent Indian Muslim scholar who is a professor at one of the country's foremost madrassas, Darul-uloom Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow.
Al-Nadwi tweeted his support for Erdogan in advance of last June's election. "We represent the Muslim peoples and 300 million Muslim Indians. We want the Turkish people to take place next to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party," Al-Nadwi said.
Al-Nadwi's son Yusuf was a speaker at a conference in Istanbul in 2016 on the history of the caliphate movement in Turkey and South Asia organised by the South Asian Center for Strategic Studies (GASAM) founded by Ali Sahin, a former deputy minister for European affairs and member of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Al-Nadwi sparked controversy in 2014 by offering Saudi Arabia to raise a 500,000 strong militia of Sunni Muslim Indian youth that would contribute to a global Islamic army to "help Muslims in need," fight Iraqi Shiites and become part of a Caliphate. At about the same time, Al-Nadwi also raised eyebrows by praising the Islamic State's success in Iraq in a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Turkish-Saudi competition for Indian Muslim hearts and minds is grit on the mill of Hindu nationalists even if Turkish moves have attracted less attention than those of their Saudi rivals.
(Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture. The views expressed are strictly personal)