By Dr. James M. Dorsey
January 21, 2019
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,069, January 21, 2018
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The hearts and minds of Indian Muslims would be a valuable prize for Saudi Arabia and Turkey as they vie for leadership of the Muslim world. This is particularly true in the wake of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which catapulted the rivalry to center stage.
When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 growing evidence that Indian Muslims, the Islamic world’s fourth-largest community after Indonesia and the South Asian states, is on Erdoğan’s radar.
Erdoğan’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 secularism.
Erdoğan’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 Gülen.
Accusing Gülen of responsibility for a failed 2015 military coup, Erdoğan’s government is seeking the preacher’s extradition to Turkey from his refuge in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
While Gülen remains an obsession for Erdoğan, his interest in Indian Muslims shows he has bigger fish to fry. Indian Muslims are too big a community to ignore in Erdoğan’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Muslim world. This is particularly true in the wake of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which catapulted the rivalry to center stage.
Erdoğan’s efforts to create inroads into the Indian Muslim community is facilitated by the Hindu nationalism of the country’s PM, Narendra Modi, which 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.”
Erdoğan 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, as well as reporting by Turkish journalists associated with the Gülen 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.