Turkey’s Overflowing Influence: Religious Freedom Impact | Part 1
By Claire Evans
08/23/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The 2016 coup attempt in Turkey ushered the nation into a new chapter, one which includes a significant emphasis on foreign policy and military expansionism. Countries previously part of Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire, and countries with a significant Muslim population, are specifically targeted. The unique religious freedom concerns that were once contained within the boundaries of Turkey’s borders are now found wherever Turkey has gained influence. Equally concerning is how Turkey has leveraged those religious freedom issues of neighboring countries for Turkey’s own benefit, at the expense of the local population.
In short, Turkey’s military expansionism has had the impact of exploiting people, exporting persecution, and enabling the perpetrators to commit even more egregious actions. If this is how Turkey treats vulnerable communities outside of its own borders, then how much more so within.
It is also worth noting that much of the media produced by Turkey’s humanitarian and military partners often includes Grey Wolf symbolism, particularly the salute. An extremist movement connected with the MHP party and youth cultural centers, the Grey Wolves are well-known for violently targeting ethnic-religious minorities and have been involved through many of most egregious violations of religious freedom.
Turkey has positioned itself not only as the regional superpower, but also as a major influential player who dictates the terms for how those countries outside of the Islamic world interact with Muslim-majority nations. By the end of 2019, Turkey had evolved so that they had contributed “more than a quarter of the entire world’s humanitarian aid,” according to the Borgen Project. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry confirms on their website that the reason for this rapid expansion into humanitarian aid is because of the ongoing crises within Turkey’s regional vicinity.
However, it is also clear that the escalation of many regional crises occurred in large part because of Turkey’s expanding military activities. Turkey is also the world leader in hosting refugees, a situation that predates their recent military expansion, but which has become a key negotiating point impacting the outcome of multiple conflicts.
For example, just days before the Taliban gained control of Kabul, Afghanistan, Turkey’s President Erdogan extended an invitation for the Taliban to visit Turkey. This followed an earlier statement by President Erdogan that “Turkey has nothing that contradicts their beliefs.” Such a validation from arguably the most influential Islamic country within the region further empowers the Taliban. On the day of Kabul’s fall, the son of the Taliban’s founder was quoted saying, “Turkey is a country that hosts many Afghans and that we want to build close relations with. We consider Turkey an ally and not an enemy.”
In separate interview, the Taliban explained, “Our entire infrastructure has collapsed. We will rebuild Afghanistan in all areas and we need Turkey the most to do that. Turkey is a very important actor for us. It’s a respectable and strong country in the world and has a special place for the Muslim community. Turkey’s bond with Afghanistan can’t be compared with any other country. I’m saying this clearly; As the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, we need Turkey’s friendship, support and cooperation the most.”
In addition to contributing to the Afghan crisis, Turkish authorities also manipulate refugee crises. As a local example, the Bolu municipality attempted to capitalize on the opportunity, with the council approving a proposal to charge refugees higher fees for utilities (like water).
A similar sentiment permeated the national level. On one hand, accusations swirled that Turkey’s ruling party was seeking monetary rewards from Europe for receiving Afghan refugees. On the other hand, nationalist sentiment against all refugees hit a new level across the country. For example, hundreds of people poured into the streets of Ankara and targeted Syrian refugees in what some described as “a wave of xenophobia that resembled a pogrom.” While the Syrian incident was sparked by something unrelated to Afghanistan, it did reflect just how poorly national sentiment has developed towards refugees.
The conflicts that Turkey contributes towards worsens humanitarian conditions. When people attempt to flee, they often have nowhere to go except Turkey. But once there, they face exploitation at best. At worst, their lives continue to be threatened.
The highly Islamic language which permeates and often justifies these situations pushes religious minorities into further vulnerability. Turkey worsens crises under the name of Islam. Then Turkey makes it clear that help comes with conditions. While this challenges all refugees, non-Muslims are at a particular disadvantage.