When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
recently declared that Turkey was “the only
country that can lead the Muslim world,” he probably wasn’t only thinking of Middle Eastern and other Islamic states such as
Pakistan and Bangladesh.
there is evidence that
Indian Muslims, the Islamic world’s fourth largest community after
Indonesia and the South Asian states, is on Mr. Erdogan’s radar.
Mr. 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, calls into question their commitment to
Mr. 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 Mr. Gulen of responsibility
for a failed 2015 military coup, Mr. Erdogan’s government is
seeking the preacher’s extradition to Turkey from his refuge in the mountains of
While Mr. Gulen is an obsession to Mr.
Erdogan, the president’s interest in Indian Muslims is part of bigger fish he has to fry.
Indian Muslims are too big a community
to ignore in Mr. 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
Erdogan’s efforts to create inroads
into the Indian Muslim community is facilitated by the Hindu nationalism
of the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, that prompted The
Washington Post to
headline a recent article by Indian journalist Rana Ayyub describing
mounting anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia, “Modi’s India is a living nightmare for Muslims.”
Mr. Erdogan is competing for Indian
Muslim hearts and minds with a continued flow of Saudi funds to multiple Salafi organizations, including charities,
educational institutions and political organizations, and reporting by Turkish journalists
associated with the Gulen movement, who point to Turkish links with militant
They include controversial
televangelist Zakir Naik, whose Peace TV reaches 200 million viewers despite being banned in India.
some of Mr. Erdogan’s
interlocutors, including Mr. Naik, seemingly prefer to straddle the
fence between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and play both sides against the
‘One among the few Muslim leaders who
appreciate, have the guts to support Islam openly, is the president of this country, that is President Erdogan…. You are lucky to have a president like president
Erdogan,” Mr. Naik told a crowd in Istanbul shortly before Turkey declared its support for Qatar at the outset of the
18-month old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.
Mr. Naik’s remarks are unlikely to have
sat well with Saudi Arabia whose King Salman had two
years earlier awarded the preacher the King Faisal International Prize for his “service to Islam.”
The award includes US$2 million in
prize money. Unconfirmed press reports say Mr. Naik has been traveling on a Saudi passport since his Indian document was revoked in 2017.
the geopolitical stakes for Mr.
Erdogan are primarily his leadership ambitions, for Saudi Arabia it’s
not just about being top dog. Influence among Indian Muslims creates one
point for the kingdom in its opposition to 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 Donald J. 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.
Saudi Arabia sees Indian
Shiites, who are believed to account for anywhere between 10 and 30
percent of the country’s 180 million Muslims, as an Iranian fifth
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
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 in southwestern India.
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
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
had received “millions of (Saudi)
in the case of Mr. 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 or religious seminaries, Darul-uloom
Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow.
Mr. Al-Nadwi tweeted his support for Mr. 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
to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party,” Mr. Al-Nadwi said.
Mr. 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 organized by the South Asian
Center for Strategic Studies (GASAM) founded by Ali Sahin, a former
deputy minister for European affairs and member of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice
Mr. 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, Mr. Al-Nadwi
also raised eyebrows by praising the Islamic State’s success in Iraq in a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
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
The India Foundation, with its close
ties to Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), warned last year in an analysis of the significance of two Saudi-funded
universities’ adoption of a palm tree in their logos that the kingdom’s proselytization “laid the ideological foundation for
Arabisation of Muslims in India. Over time, this has dealt a suicidal blow to the local character of Islam in the Indian
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