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Erdoğan Courts Clout With Muslims Worldwide Amid French Row, Analysts Say
A man holds a picture of Emmanuel Macron with a shoeprint on it as Turkish protesters shout slogans against the French president in Istanbul on October 25. (Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images)

Erdoğan Courts Clout With Muslims Worldwide Amid French Row, Analysts Say

Paris’ ambassador to Ankara recalled after Turkish president questions Macron’s sanity

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks questioning the French president’s mental health are part of an attempt to increase his influence among Muslims globally, analysts tell The Media Line.

Paris recalled Ambassador Hervé Magro from Ankara on Saturday over the statements from Erdoğan, who spoke a day after President Emmanuel Macron pledged to fight the “Islamist separatism” that he said threatened to take over some Muslim communities around France.

After a Chechen extremist beheaded a middle school teacher near Paris this month for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression, authorities raided Islamist organizations.

This is him trying to leverage a terrorist incident and the French reaction to it into allowing him to once more posture as a leader of the global Muslim community

Speaking up against Macron plays into Erdoğan’s ambition of appearing like a defender of Sunni Muslims, according to Middle East and North Africa analyst Ryan Bohl of the Stratfor risk analysis firm.

“This is him trying to leverage a terrorist incident and the French reaction to it into allowing him to once more posture as a leader of the global Muslim community,” Bohl told The Media Line.

Erdoğan, who has increased Islam’s presence in public life in Turkey, has repeatedly appealed to Muslims abroad, including the Turkish diaspora.

In 2017, Erdoğan tried to stage rallies in Germany to appeal for the votes of the 3-million-strong Turkish community in the Federal Republic in a contentious referendum in Turkey to boost his powers, but local authorities blocked his party’s ministers from holding the demonstrations. Erdoğan likened the ban to “Nazi practices.”

Such stances are popular with core supporters in his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has taken a hit amid the pandemic and economic crisis.

Kristian Brakel, an Istanbul-based analyst and the head of Heinrich Böll Foundation’s office in Turkey, agrees that Erdoğan’s actions will play well domestically and abroad.

Erdoğan is able to put the blame on his rival Macron after the attack while at the same time looking like he is standing up for Muslims around the world, Brakel said.

He added, however, that Macron’s criticism of Muslims is also playing to a domestic audience at a time when his popularity is low.

“With Macron saying things like that about a whole religion, he delivers an excellent opportunity to Erdoğan to act in this role again, saying out loud what many Muslims around the world perhaps think, which is probably, ‘Okay, we just don’t want to be lumped together with this crazy Chechen guy who acted like he did in Paris,’” Brakel said.

Ties between Paris and Ankara are strained on a number of geopolitical fronts.

France spoke out strongly against Turkey regarding the tensions between it and NATO ally Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the two latter nations are jostling for influence.

Last November, Turkey announced it had reached an agreement with Libya that said the two countries had economic rights over a section of the sea that crossed from the southern coast of Turkey to the northern coast of Libya.

Both Cyprus and Egypt called the deal “illegal.” Greece regards it as “void” and “geographically absurd.” The desire to exploit undersea natural gas deposits is at the core of the opposition to the Turkish-Libyan agreement.

France also criticized Turkey for its incursion in northern Syria to fight US-allied Kurdish forces last October, calling the offensive “crazy.”

Last year, Macron said NATO was experiencing “brain death,” in part due to Turkey’s relationship with the alliance.

In response, Erdoğan said Macron should check whether he was “brain dead.” That led to France summoning Turkey’s ambassador in protest.

Both nations are also competing for influence in Lebanon, where Macron and Turkey’s vice president both visited days after the August blast in the Beirut Port, offering assistance.

Bohl said France sees Turkey as a destabilizing force in the region, where it has increased its military presence by launching offensives and otherwise getting involved in conflicts.

This risks weakening NATO by putting Ankara in opposition to the military alliance’s interests and members, he said.

“These actions that Turkey is taking, in which it’s trying to rewrite the geopolitics [of the region] and reshaping these boundaries is something that France doesn’t like to be done unilaterally,” Bohl said.

France and Macron see Erdoğan as a representation of an emboldened Turkey that is overreaching and that needs to be checked in its power, and Turkey and Erdoğan see Macron and France as a post-colonial power that tries to check Turkey’s ambition

Brakel said there is a deeper, underlying issue in how the two countries view each other, with relations likely to continue to be strained.

“France and Macron see Erdoğan as a representation of an emboldened Turkey that is overreaching and that needs to be checked in its power, and Turkey and Erdoğan see Macron and France as a post-colonial power that tries to check Turkey’s ambition,” Brakel said.

“We’ll probably see other episodes happening in the future,” he said.

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