Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has escalated existing tensions with France, calling on Turks to boycott all French goods. The call to action came after the President’s remarks against French President Emmanuel Macron. In late October, Macron pledged to fight against radical Islam and defend the state’s secular values after a French teacher was “murdered for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed,” reports BBC News. The Turkish President referenced this instance, claiming that the Macron needed his mental health checked.
France doesn’t seem to be the only country subject to Erdoğan’s criticisms. With regards to Germany, Erdoğan referenced a police raid on a mosque in Berlin over an alleged coronavirus subsidy fund. “I am calling out to Chancellor Merkel, where do you have religious freedom?” the Anadolu Agency reports the president saying. In an earlier speech, the Turkish President went on to speak against the entirety of Europe, claiming that all European countries are fascist: “In some European countries, hostility toward Islam and Muslims has become a policy encouraged and supported at the level of the head of state… I am calling out from here, you are all the real fascists, you essentially are links in the chain of Nazism,” the Anadolu Agency also reports. The president thus recommended that Turks should not buy any French-made goods for the same alleged reasons, reports Politico Europe. “Never give credit to French-labeled goods, don’t buy them,” he urged.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a long history of ties to Islam. Since the AK Party, his own Islamist-rooted political party, was brought to power in 2002, the president has tried to give religion a deeper role in Turkey’s politics. Officially, Turkey is a secular country, as the 1928 constitutional amendment removed the declaration that “Religion of the State is Islam.” Erdoğan’s stance on issues involved with Islam seems to be rooted in a desire to protect members of the religion, and many Western European Muslim communities have similar views. Several members of these communities have expressed a fear that President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to repress the religion and may legitimize ever-present Islamophobia. In addition to Macron’s handling of the murder of the French teacher, he has also described the religion of Islam as “in crisis,” causing him to announce plans for laws meant to tackle what he calls “Islamist separatism.” The president also reportedly explained that the six million Muslims estimated in France were in danger of forming a “counter-society,” BBC News reports.
In contrast with Erdoğan’s aggressive view towards French politics, politicians across Europe have expressed solidarity with France. From Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called Erdoğan’s comments unacceptable, and explained that Germany would “stand with our French friends … especially in the fight against Islamist extremists.” Similarly, Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, said that “Personal abuse does not help the positive agenda that the EU wants to pursue with Turkey, but on the contrary pushes solutions away. Full solidarity with President Emmanuel Macron.”
In many ways, Turkey stretches two different worlds: the largely Islamic Middle East and the Western world as a whole. The Middle East is home to several Islamic states—such as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—while the countries of the West are largely secular. Spanning between these two spheres of influence, Turkey contains a vast array of political opinions on the questions of whether or not religion and politics should be intertwined. The West in particular has played a major role in influencing Turkish politics, and this can be seen at several points in history.
During the 1980s, the Higher Education Council (YOK) was founded in Turkey and subsequently banned all students and faculty at higher education institutions from wearing headscarves. The YOK claimed that the scarves did not align with principles of Atatürk (more specifically, Kemalism) nor were they “modest and civil.” The sweeping ban on such a specific form of religious attire brought on a massive backlash, eventually leading to a 1989 decision in the Turkish Constitutional Court that these headscarves could be worn because of their religious significance. In many ways, the West’s influence on Turkey actually does very little to defend the religious freedom that it claims secularism protects so effectively.
In many ways, the tensions between Turkey and France are almost to be expected. Though they are technically allies under NATO, the two countries have fiercely disagreed on a variety of issues such as Syrian and Libyan civil wars, as well as the present conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This aside, it becomes clearer that both countries are set on guaranteeing some kind of true religious freedom to all of their citizens. It is impossible to say what kind of system will be the most effective at this, and even more so if a universally effective system even exists. Regardless, each state will have to work to create an environment that reflects the true desires of the majority of their citizens while also supporting those in minority populations as well. Until these systems are developed, political leaders such as the French and Turkish presidents will need to maintain a certain level of diplomacy to ensure that progress towards unity and mutually benefit may be made.
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