Research article explains how Turkey uses pan-Islamism as a solution for failure

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Turkey has used Islam to legitimize itself as the leader of the Muslim world since the Ottoman Empire’s decline, writes Saud al-Sarhan, secretary-general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in an article titled “Erdogan and the Last Quest for the Greenmantle.”

The article, published by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College London, argues that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan evokes a pan-Islamic rhetoric “in an attempt to increase the appeal of Turkey’s political stances to Muslim populations across the world” – a tactic which Sarhan links to “political arms of various terrorist groups.”

The Ottomans similarly exploited pan-Islamism, but “only once their days of conquering lands had been checked by Europeans,” Sarhan writes.

In the early 20th century, Christians made up more than a third of the Ottoman Empire’s population – only to become reduced to less than a fifth after the empire started losing European lands, which Sarhan presents as a major reason for the easy spread of pan-Islamic thought.

The Ottoman ruling elite “sought to adopt pan-Islamist positions in order to reverse the deteriorating state of their empire,” the article argues, offering as evidence the campaign that the Ottomans carried out to urge the world’s Muslims to be loyal to them instead of their local rulers shortly before the First World War.

These campaigns failed, which Sarhan attributes to the rejection of Turkification policies by Arabs and Muslims outside the empire, in a major negative turning point in pan-Islamic thought.

According to Sarhan’s research, after the abolition of the empire, pan-Islamic thought was revived through groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Caliphate League in India, and the Muslim World Congress in Pakistan.

However, the groups did not flourish until secular Arab nationalist regimes failed to solve the “Palestinian problem” in 1967 and the Soviet Union collapsed, which resulted in a decline in support for Soviet-aligned secular governments in various parts of the Arab world.

This enabled pan-Islamic parties to gain power in places such as Iran (Khomeinism), Iraq (Dawa Party), Gaza (Hamas) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party).

History repeated itself, according to Sarhan, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to qualify Turkey for membership in the EU, causing him to turn, once again, to a more pan-Islamic position to secure a major place for Turkey on the world stage.

Sarhan also explains that Turkey even uses pan-Islamism to incentivize Arabs and Muslims to invest in the country and save its economy. He gives the examples of a former Kuwaiti MP and a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer journalist, both of whom urged people to invest in Turkey on the basis that it is a Muslim nation.