Erdogan and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of the “Muslim Other” within their own countries and silence over the Uighur genocide in China earn them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders.
By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil
When pressed on why he is outspoken against Islamophobia in the West but silent about the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the Islamist populist prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, responded: “I concentrate on what is happening on my border.”
Following in the footsteps of Turkey’s authoritarian (Islamist) populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Imran Khan has emerged as among the most prominent faces of religious populism in the (Sunni) Muslim-majority world. “There is so much debate about moderate and radical Islam, but there is only one Islam,” declared Imran Khan in 2019. This echoed the tone adopted several years earlier (in 2017) by Erdogan, who asserted “there is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” The idea of “one Islam” or “Islam is Islam” is part of a populist process of “Islamizing Islam.” This comes in the wake of the leadership gap that opened up with the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia as the Sunni Muslim hegemon. Thus, in neo-Ottoman fashion, Turkey seeks to fill this gap, with Pakistan acting as its aide to address its “ontological insecurities” (Yilmaz, 2021). In highlighting Islam in this way, both Erdogan and Khan define “the people” or “the pious” against an antagonistic “Other,” which includes the West, non-Muslims, liberals, and usually non-Sunni groups (Gursoy, 2019; Yilmaz, 2018; Mudde, 2017; Moffit, 2016; White, 2013).
Erdogan and Khan Have Instrumentalized Religion
Other than their political instrumentalization, the sheer size of these two countries’ populations makes this phenomenon a concern worth exploring. Turkey’s population is 82 million, while Pakistan’s is even greater at 217 million people. Moreover, over the last decade, both Erdogan and Khan have increasingly instrumentalized religion to galvanize electoral support and gain diplomatic sway with (Sunni) Muslim-majority countries under this populist framework.
While Turkey and Pakistan are two very culturally and ethnically different societies, they share a long historical political affiliation that dates back well into the late medieval period. South Asia was ruled by the Mamluk (slave) rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, who were ethnically Turkic (Eaton, 2019). After the Ottomans achieved the status of the Muslim Caliphate, all leaders in South Asia —from emperors to princely state rajas —sought royal endorsement from Constantinople, which usually came in the form of an adorned robe from the Caliph himself (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). This political link built a healthy network of trade between the regions that also led to the exchange of soldiers, resources, literature, art, and other labor that infused the Ottoman Turkish elements in the Mughal court and smaller sultanates in united India (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). Despite being over 3,000 kilometers away, the profound connection between the two regions was felt when the Khilafat Movement in British India, initially led by both Muslims and Hindus, tried to oppose the Treaty of Sèvres to preserve the Ottoman caliphate (Niemeijer, 1972). This centuries-old pan-Islamic connection is now undergoing an Islamist populist transformation that seeks to redefine Islam under Turkish and Pakistani leadership.
We argue that this “reengineering” is, in fact, a pragmatic political maneuver of both leaders to consolidate their power within their respective countries and overseas. It is a convenient tool that is used when needed and shelved when it is politically expedient. Thus, both leaders have used (or expediently avoided) Islamist populist rhetoric, policy, and programmatic interventions depending on the context and the audience.
Once the definitional boundaries are constructed, anti-Western and liberal rhetoric is put into place to create a “crises” situation in which Muslims are presented as being under attack from “moral” degradation or simply victims of Western imperialism and Islamophobia. This “crisis” is portrayed as a transnational issue when it extends to Muslim victimhood, especially on the issue of Islamophobia. Both leaders have highlighted their concern over discrimination, killings, and terrorist attacks targeting Muslims in Western countries and the plight of Muslims in conflicts that target them, such as the Gaza conflict, the Kashmir dispute, and Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan.
In June 2021, when a Canadian white supremacist killed a family of four Pakistani Canadians in a racially motivated Islamophobic attack, Prime Minister Khan termed it a “terror” attack. In 2020, following the gruesome killing of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth in France, the state introduced harsh measures to regulate and monitor Muslims. Khan’s furious reaction on this occasion targeted the state and not the victim of the attack, while Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods even as he publicly insulted the French head of state, saying, “What is the problem that the individual called Macron has with Islam and with Muslims? […] Macron needs treatment on a mental level.”
In addition to creating a sense of moral panic, both these Islamist populists have blamed “outside forces” or “dark forces” for supposedly carrying out attacks on the respective countries to undermine and destabilize them. This extends “the Muslim victimhood narrative” (Yilmaz, 2021) further and accentuates the economic and security failures of “hypocrites” within and “enemies” outside as well.
When the Shia Hazara community in Pakistan was targeted as part of sectarian terrorism, the blame for orchestrating the attacks was shifted to India, which was accused of seeking to undermine Pakistan’s stability. While visiting the victims’ family, Khan said, “no doubt what happened was part of a bigger game” and showed his determination to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap. He continued, “my mission is not only to unite the whole country but the entire Muslim ummah. To end this divide, we have tried to remove differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” In a similar manner, President Erdogan has also warned the Turkish nation of the “the sneaky plans of the dark forces” who are blamed for a wide variety of issues such as the devaluation of the currency, organizing anti-AKP protests, the 2016 failed coup attempt, and the like (Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021; Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).
With crises both tangible and intangible in place, Khan and Erdogan have not shied away from presenting themselves as the “strongmen” that their nations and the ummah need. In an unapologetic manner, both have justified various undemocratic measures as necessary to confront the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Khan reminded the nation to vote for him because “visionary leaders do not make popular decisions; they make the right decisions” — his way of justifying his anti-Western stance along with anti-corruption policies. Erdogan has also felt the need to remind the citizens that “every country needs a strong leader in order to progress.”
On various occasions, both leaders have called for cooperation among the ummah to counter Islamophobia and other pressing issues. In 2020, Erdogan called on the Muslim world to undertake joint action to defend the interests of the ummah: “As Muslims, we should exchange our views more frequently […] many areas of our geography of fraternity are subject to blood, tears and instability […] We will never harm our brothers […] those, who become troubled with the rise of Islam, attack our religion.” on multiple occasions since his 2018 electoral victory, Khan has advocated for Muslim brotherhood in international forums. In an open letter to leaders of Muslim-majority countries in late 2020, he expressed his concerns and urged Muslim leaders to “act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states.”
To put words into action, both leaders have taken specific measures at home and overseas to mobilize “the pious ummah.” Given Turkey’s better governance structures and institutional capacity and nearly two decades of AKP rule, the country has taken more concrete measures. Specifically, a network of state organizations, such as the “Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its European extension DITIB, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and humanitarian NGOs with close ties to AKP officials” Erdogan has been able to transmit this narrative of Islamist populism among the Turkish diaspora and other Muslim communities. In a sense, the Turkish state has created through these organizations a support network endorsed by disenfranchised Muslim communities in the West while university exchange programs, mosque sermons, knowledge-production, and media (both entertainment and news) have highlighted Islamophobia and discussed anti-Western and anti-imperialism.
While Khan has not funded programs of such scale, he has used his speeches at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the United Nations (UN) to address the Pakistani diaspora in America and other Muslim communities. For example, during COVID-19, when Khan visited Sri Lanka, he helped local Muslims by negotiating with the government to ensure they would receive ground burials (as is the Islamic tradition) rather than being cremated like the rest of the Sri Lankan population. For this, he was hailed a hero by the Sri Lankan Muslim community. At the same time, Khan has imported Turkish entertainment media to Pakistan with shows such as Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), Kurulus: Osman (Establishment: Osman), Payitaht: Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor), and Yunus Emre: Aşkın Yolculuğu (Yunus Emre: The Journey of Love) which have neo-Ottoman and anti-Western themes and subtexts and call for unification of the ummah.
Their Call For Action Not Based On Human Rights
Cooperation also extends beyond these soft power links to the realm of hard power, with distinctive jihadist undertones. The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. Not only did neighboring Turkey lend support to “fellow Muslim” Azerbaijan but also Pakistan. Moreover, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has also seen these two partners within the ummah take a leading role in negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government. “Efforts” like this taken on behalf of the Muslim ummah are no doubt why Erdogan and Khan are consistently found to be among the most influential Muslim leaders in the world in various rankings.
Despite the global recognition among many Muslim circles worldwide, the use of Islamist populism by both Khan and Erdogan is selective, making it pragmatic. Two distinct features of both populist governments show that the call for action is not based on human rights; rather, it is a convenient instrumentalization of religion for political gain.
Firstly, Turkey and Pakistan both have ethnic and sectarian rifts. Under the AKP leadership, since the fallout of the Kurdish opening, not only has the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) been vilified as a terrorist group but the AKP’s political opposition has faced increasing harassment and charges of aiding and abetting “terrorism” (Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Yilmaz et al., 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another community, the Alevis, has also been increasingly targeted on sectarian lines. Even though most Kurds and Alevis are Muslims, these minorities in a Sunni-majority country are often persecuted on ethnic and sectarian lines.
In Pakistan as well, the sectarian rifts between Shias and Sunnis are deepening, and other than condemning targeted attacks on Shia minorities in Pakistan, the PTI government has done little to uproot the anti-Shia sentiments of variousclerics in the country. Moreover, ethnic tensions between the state and the Pashtun and Baloch communities have seen little effort at conflict resolution. Instead, the state chooses to ignore the rifts and at times sanctions police- or military-led action against Pashtun or Baloch rights activities (Yousaf, 2019).
It is clear that both Pakistan and Turkey have constructed a particular ideology that casts the ummah as majority Sunni and favors the major ethnic group in power. Thus, despite their repeated call for “social justice” and “equity” for victimized Muslims abroad, they have been persecuting Muslims within their own borders.
Secondly, both leaders have been highly selective in their cherry-picking of “Muslim causes.” Thus, they often speak about the conflict in Palestine, the Rohingya genocide, and the Indian government’s restrictions in Kashmir while avoiding discussion of the Uighurs (or Uyghurs), a Muslim population in China, who are subjected to genocide by the Chinese government. Given the deep investment and strategic ties between China, Turkey, and Pakistan, both leaders have chosen to remain silent about this “Muslim” issue. When confronted about this selective silence, the PTI government and Imran Khan have called the issue “an internal matter” and a “non-issue” or simply dismissed it and called China “a great friend of Pakistan.”
Erdogan’s and Khan’s Use of Islamist Populism
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.
Ankara has also maintained a similarly muted approach towards the issue by preventing the opposition from bringing the issue up and ignoring international efforts to impose sanctions or even condemn the Chinese suppression of the Uighurs (Erdemir & Kowalski, 2020; Shams, 2020). The Uighur majority of Xinjiang is connected with Pakistan through the territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). In addition, Turkey shares a cultural bond with the Uighurs through their common Turkic roots. Yet, both leaders continue their silence over the issue. While Erdogan and Khan have both condemned France, America, and other Western and non-Muslim countries for discriminating against Muslims or attacking them, this deafening silence by these two “most influential” leaders of the ummah reveals their selective approach and use of populist Islamism.
Erdogan’s and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of “the Muslim Other” within their countries and silence over the Uighur genocide earns them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders. Moreover, both Erdogan and Khan are co-opting and pursuing a pan-Islamist brotherhood for the Sunni Muslim world. This synchronized populist agenda risks further deepening political divides — not to mention sectarian and ethnic conflict — within both countries.
At the same time, by positioning themselves as the leaders of the ummah, Khan and Erdogan risk homogenizing the Muslim faith under the Sunni archetype, which would repudiate the plurality of the faith and its various schools of thought. Moreover, isolating the Uighurs in exchange for “hush money” from China is a dangerous precedent being set by Turkey and Pakistan. Moreover, it goes to show how readily economic interests trump morality even for those who traditionally claim to “stand up” for the marginalized and disadvantaged. Finally, the transnational nature of the selective Islamism of these allied populist leaders means their project will have a broader impact that transcends Turkish and Pakistani geographical borders with as yet unknown consequences.
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