Last year, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist-leaning President, suggested that the UN had to help solve the issue of Kashmir, a disputed region between India and Pakistan.
This was the second year in a row that Erdoğan raised this issue – one in which Turkey previously had little concern, and which is widely considered by the international community to be an issue that can only be settled bilaterally with Pakistan. In September, the Turkish and Pakistani foreign ministers also met at the UN, cementing the increasing closeness in their relationship.
Erdoğan’s stance, while disquieting for US interests and regional stability, represents the kind of shifting alliances and international maneuvering that fall within the realm of “normal” foreign policy. But what is perhaps a little less “normal” is a meeting that happened around the same time between Erdoğan and individuals who have declared themselves to be “American Muslim leadership.” This included Dr. Mohsin Ansari, the Chairman of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO).
Ansari is a Pakistani-born American who came to the US in the early 90s. In addition to being the Chairman of USCMO, he is currently the President of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which a founding member of the USCMO umbrella. Ansari previously led two ICNA subsidiaries: ICNA Relief and Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD).
ICNA’s network has invited congressional scrutiny for openly partnering with the designated terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and having its leading fundraising-activists convicted of felonies as part of a terror finance investigations. According to Johns Hopkins Professor Vali Nasr, ICNA is one of the most important franchises of Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist South Asian Islamist organization that is responsible for, among other things, mass murder during the Bengali genocide of 1971. Its Pakistani branch is a patron of the Kashmiri terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen which has been Jamaat-e-Islami’s militant wing since 1990.
Upon meeting Erdoğan, Ansari praised him for his efforts to champion “oppressed Muslims all across the world,” obviously paying homage to Erdoğan’s recent speech on Kashmir.
There has been a clear de facto alliance between Turkey and Pakistan in recent years, and it has manifested itself in many ways. But this meeting between Ansari, and the groups he represents, and Erdoğan, demonstrates a new facet to this issue. Namely, that American Islamists with roots in South Asia are working directly with Turkey to influence US politics.
But while such clear and public displays at such a high level demonstrate the increased confluence of interests, particularly coming after Erdoğan’s speech on Kashmir, it is not new. Erdoğan has long expressed support for various Islamist causes in South Asia.
In 2013, Erdoğan actively intervened in Bangladesh’s decision to execute senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman Nizami, who led anti-independence death squads during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan. Later, Erdoğan recalled the Turkish Ambassador to Bangladesh in protest of that execution being carried out in spite of his protests. This is a cause also important to Ansari, who openly mourned the execution of Nizami, according to a post on his own Facebook page.
Shortly after Erdoğan’s initial protest, in 2014, the USCMO was founded. Two of its founding members – the aforementioned ICNA as well as Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA) — were Jamaat-e-Islami franchise groups. Unlike ICNA, which has its roots in what is now Pakistan, MUNA specifically emerged from Bangladesh’s branch of Jamaat-e-Islami, which was a leading pro-Pakistan, anti-independence voice that remained loyal to Pakistan during the 1971 war. Nizami’s son, Mohammad Nakibur Rahman, is a close friend of Ansari and a member of MUNA’s board.
Also in 2014, Erdoğan was elected President of Turkey after, as Prime Minister, he set in motion events that would lead to a far more powerful Presidency. USCMO Secretary General Oussama Jammal represented USCMO at an event honoring Erdoğan and his AKP party just as Erdoğan was ascending to the Presidency.
This is a tradition Jammal has continued to honor, giving a speech in July at the Turkish Embassy in praise of Turkey’s “defense of democracy”; ignoring that, under Erdoğan, Turkey jailed more journalists than any country but China and is backsliding on many other democratic metrics. All this happened shortly before Erdoğan’s visit to the US. USCMO’s affinity for Turkey is not secret and goes back to its founding.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s affinity for South Asian Islamist causes became more overt around the same time Erdoğan was working to consolidate his power. A senior aid for Erdoğan has openly said that he sees Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated groups as “soft proxies” for the Turkish Government.
So Ansari’s praise for Erdoğan, particularly now that he leads an organization with a legacy of support for Turkey and the AKP, should not be surprising. But it does show how US-based South Asian Islamist nonprofits are increasingly oriented toward Turkey, regardless of their ethnic differences, just as Erdoğan has also become a leading defender of the mostly-Arab Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, as well as its franchises abroad.
All of this is descriptive of the chummy relationship that exists between Turkey and an increasing number of NGOs, particularly of a South Asian origin, but it is neither the only, nor the first, and nor even the most significant example. The Union of NGOs of the Islamic World (UNIW) is a foreign umbrella group founded in Turkey in 2005 with numerous, continuous affiliations with South Asian Islamist diaspora groups. It is a clear tool of the Turkish regime.
Hundreds of NGOs worldwide, including ICNA and HHRD, are part of UNIW’s umbrella. But perhaps even more striking is the fact that members include the Kashmiri American Council, a group later shown in court to be funded and directed by the Pakistani Government through its director, Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Pakistani-American who was previously convicted of a “decades long scheme” working an unregistered agent of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to influence American policy on Kashmir.
Fai is also an alternate council member of UNIW. Other members of USCMO also fall under the UNIW umbrella and favor the agendas of both Pakistan and Turkey.
At times, they have made this intention explicit. In 2017, UNIW leaders and leaders of various member organizations held a meeting in Pakistan where they “evaluated the cooperation between Pakistan and Turkey and discussed how we can develop this cooperation in different areas,” seeking unity against their “enemies,” which they explicitly name as the US, UK and EU. This is odd, given that Turkey is officially a NATO ally and Pakistan is designated as a major non-NATO ally of the US; but also unsurprising, given the Islamist direction both countries have taken in recent years, not to mention the clear Islamist affiliation of groups involved.
Seemingly to remove any ambiguity about who they truly see as their friends and allies, right after the conference, UNIW leaders visited the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Al-Khidmat Foundation. Al-Khidmat, an explicit branch of Jamaat-e-Islami, openly works with the US designated terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen, and has publicly funded another US designated terrorist group, Hamas.
The significance of all this is not that Turkey directly controls all of these networks, nor that South Asian Islamists always agree with Turkey. Nor can we always expect these groups to act in concert with Turkey’s interests. But what it does tell us is that as Pakistan and Turkey increasingly aim to impose their leadership on the Muslim world, we should expect that Islamist networks, particularly springing from Turkey or Pakistan, will work together on issues both foreign and domestic.
Turkey and Pakistan are playing a complicated game with the US. The status quo, in which they pose as US allies while acting against US interests, will be much more difficult to maintain without the kind of “soft proxies” found within USCMO and UNIW’s umbrellas.
These organizations, while purporting to represent US Muslims, increasingly regard Turkish and Pakistani interests as their own, and are driven by people with extremely close relationships with quasi-theocratic authoritarians and the Islamist movements that back them.
Policymakers should be aware of this dynamic, and act accordingly.