Does Turkey aspire to the leadership of the Islamic world?

An ambitious international mosque-building programme is seen as the latest step in the Turkish president's ambitious bid to put Turkey at the centre of Muslim world. During his visit to Cuba in February, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested that his country be allowed to build a mosque in Havana. At present, 18 major mosques are being built by the Turkish state across the globe from Somalia to Kazakhstan. By Dorian Jones

By Dorian Jones

The mosque-building project is seen as part of a wider strategy. "Erdogan cares very much about his historical legacy and his global legacy. That is interlinked in his mind with his efforts to help advance Islam," claims political columnist Asli Aydintasbas of Turkey's "Milliyet" newspaper. "In many ways, he wants Turkey and, globally, himself to be seen as a person who has advanced the interests of Islam and Muslims; he therefore cares very much about the mosque-building project in Cuba and lots of places around world."

There are imperial aspirations behind this goal. Returning Turkey to the glories of its Ottoman past has been a common theme of Erdogan's rhetoric throughout his long rule of Turkey, first as prime minister and now as president. Since 1453, the Caliph, the spiritual head of Muslims, was claimed by the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Islamic world. In 1924, in a defining moment, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey's secular state, abolished the Caliphate, sending the Caliph into exile, and began re-orientating Turkey firmly towards Europe.

With Turkey's secular establishment largely cowed, members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have started to openly question – if not reject – nearly a century of secular rule, portraying it as an aberration in the country's history. Putting Turkey back at the centre of the Muslim world fits into this new narrative. "There is a very popular term [within the AKP]: 'Medeniyetcilik', which means civilisations, regarding the golden age of Islam led by the Ottomans," explains Assistant Professor Yuksel Taskin of Marmara University. "They are trying to get an image that Islamic civilisation will be on the rise again. Naturally Turks will be the vanguard people of this rebirth. This has as much use domestically in Turkey as it does in the wider Muslim world."

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Cuban President Raul Castro during a meeting at Revolucion Palace in Havana, Cuba, on 11 February 2015. (photo: picture-alliance/epa/A. Roque)
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Cuban President Raul Castro during a meeting at Revolucion Palace in Havana, Cuba, on 11 February 2015. During the visit, Erdogan told his Cuban counterpart that Turkey would like to build the first mosque in the Cuban capital, despite the fact that Cuba says it has already reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to build a mosque in Havana

The desire to play the "older brother"

The mosque-building programme is only one part of Turkey's strategy. The Diyanet, the Turkish state directorate for religious affairs, has seen its international office markedly expanded under Erdogan's rule. "Especially in the Balkans and the Caucasus, its influence has been broadened since 2005 in countries like Macedonia, Albania, but most importantly Bosnia," notes Professor Istar Gozaydin, an expert on religion and the state in Turkey. "It is part of their Ottoman nostalgia to be the so-called 'older brother' to these countries."

Thanks to the country's economic boom since the turn of the millennium, Ankara has had plenty of funds to back these initiatives. Along with mosque-building, promoting theological education is a key factor behind the influence drive, with offers of scholarships to Turkish universities and student exchanges.

TIKA, Turkey's development agency, too has played a similar role in the Muslim world. Its budget has been massively increased under Erdogan. Turkey is currently the fourth biggest aid donor in the world. To underline its importance, its former chief, Hakan Fidan, went on to run the country's Intelligence Agency MIT. This month he resigned to run for parliament for the AKP.

Competition with Saudi Arabia

But Turkey has found itself in competition with other Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, which has for decades been splashing its oil money around the Islamic world with few serious rivals. Turkey's mosque offer to Cuba followed a similar proposition from Saudi Arabia.

But the Balkans is the main region for rivalry. "In the beginning, there was competition, especially in Bosnia, with the construction of mosques, trying to get hold of the communities around them," observers Professor Gozaydin, who has travelled extensively in the region and written on the subject. "I observed that they came to some kind of understanding; a complementary relationship developed. But now, once again, we are seeing competition."

The renewal of the rivalry coincides with the two countries falling out over Egypt. Ankara strongly backs former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, who was overthrown by the military and remains a vociferous opponent of Egypt's current leader, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, while Riyadh is among the chief financial backers of the new Egyptian regime. President Erdogan's strong support for Muslim Brotherhood movements across the region is only adding to current tensions with the Saudis.

The shadow of Turkey's colonial past

Men praying outside Et'hem Bey Mosque, Tirana, Albania
Turkey's Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has announced plans to build the largest mosque in the Balkans, in Tirana, the capital Tirana of Albania. It says that the city's existing Et'hem Bey Mosque is inadequate in size for Tirana's Muslim population of over 300,000. The new mosque will have a capacity of about 4,500 people

Beneath the rivalry with Saudi Arabia lie historical tensions that extend across the region. The ruling AKP's view that Ottoman rule brought halcyon days to the region is in stark contrast to the perception of populations of those formerly colonised countries, "The Turkish political elite around the AKP rarely understands the Middle East and Middle Eastern people's discontent regarding their colonial past," observes Assistant Professor Taskin.

An academic who wishes to remain anonymous recounted how Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, addressing a conference in the Gulf States, recounted the joys of Ottoman rule in the region, prompting one Arab participant to whisper to his colleague "doesn't he [Davutoglu] get it? We don't like the Ottomans." Professor Gozaydin concurs: "There are many who are irritated by these references to Ottoman rule; they don't like it."

The aftermath of the Arab Spring and Ankara's backing of Muslim Brotherhood groups along with the historical baggage of being a former colonial power in the Middle East could well have dealt a death blow to any dreams of Islamic leadership, "Because of policy mistakes after the Arab Spring, Turkey is not that popular in the Middle East, except maybe in Palestine," notes Taskin.

But President Erdogan may well be looking to the language of the street to transcend such obstacles. Increasingly, his speeches seem to target Muslims on the street both at home and abroad, with heavy populism invariably laced with a strong anti-Western bent. "Believe me, they [Western countries] don't like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead. They like seeing our children die," Erdogan said in December in a speech to the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The president is currently engaged in campaigning for a permanent place for a Muslim country on the United Nations Security Council. Combating "Islamophobia" is another project he and his government pursue at every opportunity. Some observe that President Erdogan believes he has already achieved his goal. "If it was up to the people, Erdogan believes, he would be elected as the leader of the Muslim world in free and fair elections across the Muslim world, so yes, he does believe that," says columnist Aydintasbas.

Dorian Jones

© 2015