How Kashmir Fits in Turkey’s Agenda for a Global Caliphate

News Analysis

NEW DELHI—Turkey seeks to gain credibility in its bid for a global caliphate by championing the Muslim cause in Kashmir, a region divided between India and Pakistan.

Behind Turkey’s recent Islamist foreign policy is a history saddled between the first world war that saw the rise of a secular, westernized Turkey and the rise of various political parties in the next five to six decades that included President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), said Abhinav Pandya, who advised the last governor of the former Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pandya who’s currently the CEO of Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitical and security affairs think tank told The Epoch Times that with Erdogan’s three subsequent election victories and presidentship since 2014, Turkey’s foreign policy has started to change.

“And as he progressed, these secular elements were gradually being marginalized from the Turkish polity and religion became a stronger force,” said Pandya. A geopolitical game started to emerge in this context. “That was basically the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate or the Ottoman glory in which he can project himself as the Caliph of the Muslim world.”

By this time Turkey’s dream of joining the European Union was gone, he said. “So now, why not bring back the real glory of Ottoman power instead of begging in front of the European Union. That Ottoman glory can be brought only if Turkey goes back to its Islamic religious roots,” said Pandya. Being a democratically elected leader Erdogan would have more acceptability as the Caliph than any Islamist extremist leading a global terrorist organization, he said.

“He knows that he is a democratically elected leader of a country like Turkey, which is a great military power or growing superpower, a country with a fairly decent middle-income group [population], good infrastructure, and the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire. So, he will have a strong chance of being accepted as a Caliph by Muslims across the world,” said Pandya.

Adding to this possibility is the narrative of Islamophobia existing in the West and also in India, which injects a feeling of fear among Muslims that they and their faith are in crisis, he said.

“So, they are already looking for an alternative model of leadership, which is convincing, which is powerful, which is present. So no one else can satisfy that case—he’s a democratically elected sovereign leader of a sovereign nation.”

“And then he has credibility so he will have all chances of being accepted as a leader of the Ummah (community in Arabic) across the world. Imagine if he does that how much power he would yield across the globe,” said Pandya. In this context the world needs to understand Turkey’s interest in South Asia and particularly Kashmir, he said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) walks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to a meeting and exchange of agreements in New Delhi on May 1, 2017. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey’s Interest in Kashmir

Turkey’s agenda to consolidate the Muslim ummah under its leadership would be directly challenged by the Arab world that seeks the same leadership. For this reason, Erdogan doesn’t enjoy many leadership opportunities among Muslims there, said Pandya.

“The original fight for the Islamic leadership of the Islamic world was not between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Today we are mistaken when we see that it’s Iran and Saudi Arabia. Originally it was between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said Pandya. He mentioned the many battles fought between the Ottoman empire and the dynasties in Saudi Arabia, with the latter finally dislodging the Ottoman dynasty with the help of the British and becoming the custodians of Mecca and Medina, the holy places of the Muslim world.

Unlike Muslims in the Arab world, the Muslims in South Asia would be more willing to accept Erdogan’s leadership because Turkey has strong historical, cultural, and religious ties with South Asia. This is from the time of Mughals who were ruling over the subcontinent before the British took over in 1857—many Mughal nobles fled to Turkey then, according to Pandya.

“Then in the 1920s when the Turkish Ottoman caliphate was uprooted by the British, Gandhi started a movement called the khilafat movement (civil disobedience movement) in 1920,” said Pandya adding that it was the Khilafat movement that started first seeking the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted to unify Muslims and Hindus against the British colonial rule and for that, he needed a Muslim cause, Pandya said. But after a violent incident Gandhi withdrew the Khilafat movement, and at the same time the British uprooted the Ottoman Empire in India. These events sowed the seeds of the theory of two nations, which eventually led to the bloody partition of colonial India into India and Pakistan, said Pandya.

The partition also sowed seeds for the long, drawn out conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and this background needs to be understood to grasp Turkey’s current agenda inside Kashmir.

“If he wants to get the support of Muslims of South Asia, what is the best way to get support? Try and cultivate relationships with the Islamic organizations in India. And secondly, to try and raise the issues that are most important to the Muslims in South Asia,” said Pandya, adding that for this Erdogan has a strategy.

The Kashmir cause inside South Asia is a religious cause and since it impacts Muslims, Erdogan picked it up, he said.

“[He seeks] credibility in the Muslim world, to internalize the Kashmir issue and to win hearts and minds of the Muslims in entire South Asia, because the South Asian Muslims may not be as well connected to the Palestinian cause as they are connected to the Kashmir cause,” said Pandya.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) shake hands after a joint press conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on Jan. 4, 2019. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey’s Activities Inside Kashmir

Turkey’s voice on Kashmir and its activities inside Kashmir have amplified in the past four to five years and its modus operandi is multi-pronged—including leveraging international platforms and waging and supporting information war against India on Kashmir through its social media and mainstream media channels, according to Pandya.

More recently India Today reported that the Turkish SADAT, a shadow military organization, is now preparing to be active in Kashmir, which Turkish Ambassador Sakir Özkan Torunlar has said is baseless and false. Pandya said that he believes after all the noise in Indian media about this, the Indian establishment is keeping an eye on it.

In an interview, last year, with The Wire, A.S. Dulat, former chief of India’s R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing: India’s foreign intelligence agency) “worryingly” said that 50 foreign mercenaries including Turks have crossed over from Pakistan into Kashmir.

A Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, was killed by Indian security forces in 2016. Before his death, he had released a video where he had openly said that he wanted Kashmir to be an Islamic Caliphate, he said.

“After that Pakistan orchestrated violent civil unrest [inside Kashmir] for which Pakistan’s ISI (Interservice Intelligence) supplied 800 crores (over $100 million),” said Pandya referring to a sting operation by India Today that videotaped a separatist leader confessing receiving money from Pakistan. This is also reported in a book, “K File: Conspiracy of Silence” by Bashir Assad and in the investigation by India’s National Investigation Agency, said Pandya. Police firing on violent protestors killed 46 people during this unrest, he said.

Turkey went on to globally spread news about the unrest and the loss of life but never went into the background of the event, said Pandya. He stressed that Turkey has turned out to be a staunch supporter of Pakistan.

The United States had blacklisted Kashmir-based Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist organization in 2017. However, the Turkish state media TRT World included Wani in the list of “20 people who shook the world in 2016.”

An Indian paramilitary trooper stands guard in Srinagar alongside graffiti bearing the name of the slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani during a curfew continued across large parts of Indian-administered Kashmir weeks after his death, on July 31, 2016. (TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images)

“A hero to Kashmiri people but a ‘terrorist’ in the eyes of the Indian state, Burhan Wani was a 21-year-old insurgent in Indian-administered Kashmir,” said TRT World in a list that included Boris Johnson, Bernie Sanders, and Ivanka Trump.

“He amplified his voice using social media, uploading videos and photos with messages calling for Kashmir to break away from Indian rule. Although his gun-wielding presence was symbolic, a war of images against India’s continuing aggression in Kashmir, where about half a million of its troops are stationed to quell dissent, his call for freedom inspired tens of thousands of Kashmiri youth,” said TRT World.

In August 2019, after India revoked Article 370, a constitutional provision giving limited autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, that state was dissolved and two federally governed territories created out of it. Pandya alleges that Turkey’s voice on Kashmir then became louder.

Just a month after this political re-organization, Erdogan brought up the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly and criticized the international community for not taking up its cause.

Despite India’s official objection, Erdogan went on to again raise the issue during his address to the joint session of the Pakistan parliament in February 2020.

“Our Kashmiri brothers and sisters have suffered from inconveniences for decades and these sufferings have become graver due to unilateral steps taken in recent times,” he said adding that he would support Pakistan to be out of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). “Today, the issue of Kashmir is as close to us as it is to you (Pakistanis),” said Erdogan.

While Pakistan continues to be on the just-released FATF grey list, which designates countries involved in supporting terror, Pandya said Turkey has always become a big hindrance to the “blacklisting” of Pakistan in FATF, which would lead to direct economic sanctions.

Pandya also points at  reports last year in India and global media about Pakistan looking for drones from Turkey to be used for border surveillance and for dropping weapons inside Kashmir.

“I’ve heard that the drones which Pakistan is using to drop in Kashmir are very high-quality drones. They drop the weapon and they just disappear within seconds; you’re not even able to locate them. They are more like unidentified flying objects,” said Pandya whose upcoming book is on terror financing in Kashmir. He said Pakistan is not capable of manufacturing such sophisticated drones, and they are coming either from China, Russia, or Turkey.

Turkey is also luring Kashmiri students with many scholarships to study in Turkish institutions. “And these students are being trained in human rights studies, in various international relations studies, and even technological studies like making good drones, warfare, etc,” said Pandya, adding that Turkey is training them in its own narratives.

This is the second (following The CCP’s Agenda in Kashmir) in the series on Global Agendas in Kashmir based on an exclusive interview with Abhinav Pandya, a field researcher in Kashmir who also advised the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir,  Satya Pal Malik, on radicalization and security issues during the critical phase of the abrogation of the Article 370 that led to the constitutional reorganization of the state.