Saturday, November 26, 2022

Turkey Lobbies to Outlaw Criticism of Islamism in Europe

ResearchInvestigationsTurkey Lobbies to Outlaw Criticism of Islamism in Europe

The most recent edition of an annual report on Islamophobia in Europe, produced with the backing of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicates that Ankara has found a group of American and European scholars and activists willing to promote Islamist propaganda and misinformation in Europe.

The 2020 edition of the European Islamophobia Report, (EIR), published by the Leopold Weiss Institute and its academic partners in December 2021, features French president Emmanuel Macron on its cover – a consequence, it seems, of his government’s counter-Islamist efforts (which Erdoğan has repeatedly denounced).

Despite the Turkish regime’s involvement in the annual report, the EIR has previously enjoyed generous funding from the European Union (EU), and, most recently, support and collaboration from American academic institutions.

The report, co-edited by Enes Bayrakli, an international relations professor at Istanbul-based Turkish-German University, and Farid Hafez, an Austrian academic said to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood,  is yet another attempt to weaponize “Islamophobia” and advance Turkish regime interests by opposing counter-Islamism through the pretense of defending ordinary Muslims and by conflating genuine anti-Muslim violence with legitimate counter-terrorism efforts.

While promoting their report in past years, EIR editors have even called for the criminalization of Islamophobia, which by their definition appears to include criticism of Turkey’s ruling party. The 2020 report, for instance, notes Albanian media criticism of a proposed law put before the Turkish parliament that, if passed, would have allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they could convince their victims to marry them. Such criticism, the report announces, is nothing more than “Turkophobia.”

Previous Editions

This is the sixth edition of the report. Upon its launch in 2015, the EIR was presented as a yearly publication that aimed to “document and analyze trends in the spread of Islamophobia in various European states.” Initially, its publication was part of the EU-Turkey Civil Society Dialogue, a program that was “indirectly [managed]” by Turkey and financed by the EU’s Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance to candidate countries. The EIR received more than $130,000, before the EU stopped funding it in 2017.

This year’s report is nearly 900 pages long, comprising profiles of 31 European countries, and written by 37 contributors, including a number of Islamist activists. Each chapter offers a detailed chronology of “Islamophobic” events as well as “country-specific policy recommendations to counter this phenomenon.”

Shifting Terms

As the EIR claims that a working definition of Islamophobia is “at the heart of [its] project,” it would have been reasonable to expect that this definition, no matter how unreasonable, would at least be consistent.

Reports from previous years defined Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism, further describing Islamophobes as “a dominant group of people aiming at seizing, stabilising and widening their power by means of defining a scapegoat – real or invented – and excluding this scapegoat from the resources/rights/definition of a constructed ‘we.’”

But the EIR issued late last year (and which covers events of 2020),  introduces an interesting shift: the definition of Islamophobe has now been expanded to include Muslims themselves: “it is therefore irrelevant if the person that re- produces Islamophobic structures, is himself or herself Muslim or not.”

This change is aimed at not just reformist Muslims active in the West, whom Islamist groups and their fellow travelers have increasingly attacked as “anti-Muslim” in recent years, but also Muslim-majority states that have cracked down on Islamists.

For example, EIR editor Enes Bayrakli has expressed concern about  “some ‘Muslim’ countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) financially [supporting] anti-Muslim circles.” And Hatem Bazian, head of EIR’s partner, the Islamophobia Studies Center in Berkeley, California, recently accused Muslim-majority states, including the UAE and Morocco, of “utilizing a form of Islamophobia by trying to draft or craft the good Muslim from bad Muslim.” While Bazian does not, of course, use the term ‘Islamist.’ he evidently holds the view that opposing Islamism is a form of Islamophobia.

A similar logic permeates the EIR. In the French section, for example, the authors suggest that France “recognise Islamophobia as a specific form of racism and fight it adequately in all spheres,” which apparently means “abandoning” counter-Islamist legislation “since it overly targets and criminalises French Muslims.”

The French authors’ policy recommendations for the European Union (EU) include the suggestion that it “assess and acknowledge the discriminatory impact of counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism measures.”

The opposition to “counter-terrorism” measures is telling. While the EIR repeatedly claims to be opposing anti-Muslim racism, it deliberately mixes up inexcusable instances of actual hate-driven violence, such as mosques being “burnt down” and Muslim women being attacked, with “counter-terrorism” policies and counter-radicalization legislation.

Imams Condemn Report

The EIR is proving to be quite divisive. The report, for example, has been condemned for categorizing Croatian member of parliament Marijana Petir as an Islamophobe because of her efforts to advocate for Christians suffering oppression in Muslim-majority countries.

This was too much for Mohammad Baqir Al-Budairai, president of the of the Global Imams Council, a body representing more than 1,000 Muslim leaders worldwide. We reject this charge and consider it false, inaccurate, irresponsible and defamatory,” Al-Budairi declared.

Islamist Underpinnings

In years past, the EIR was produced by the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (also known as the SETA Foundation). SETA was named by the German government as a “front organization” for the Turkish regime in early 2021. SETA works, German officials claim, to “disseminate the views of the current Turkish government in the German language through the guise of science and research.” According to Berlin, reports published by SETA are used to build “pressure against Turkish government opponents.”

Interestingly this year’s edition of EIR is the first not to mention SETA as its publisher. Instead, the report credits the Austria-based Leopold Weiss Institute, which has worked on the EIR with SETA  in the past, as well as six American institutions that are described as new “cooperation partners”: the International Independent Study & Research Association (IISRA); the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University (CSRR) ; the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies at San Francisco State University; and three institutions at the University of California, Berkeley: the Othering & Belonging Institute, the Islamophobia Studies Center (ISC), and the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project (IRDC).

Several of these institutions have Islamist ties. IISRA was founded by the prominent Islamist academic and activist Hatem Bazian; Canadian professor Jasmine Zine, who dismisses security policies as Islamophobia; and U.K.-based academic Salman Sayyid, who argues that the challenges that Muslims face can only be resolved by a “a politics in the name of Islam.” Bazian also leads the ISC and the IRDC in Berkeley. Rutger’s CSRR was founded by professor Sahar Aziz, who is on the board of DAWN, the Islamist think tank founded by Jamal Khashoggi. As for AMED, it once invited Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled to speak at an event on “Gender, Justice, & Resistance.”

In addition to SETA and official Turkish partnership with the EU, the EIR has consistently been supported by the Turkish nomenklatura.  SETA’s launch event of the first EIR edition in 2016, for instance, was attended by İbrahim Kalın, SETA’s founding-director and the spokesperson for President Erdoğan, who gave the keynote address, in which he described Islamophobia as “not only a poison that intoxicates Islam and Western relations” but also described it as a new form of racism.

In 2017, the keynote was given by the then Turkish Minister of European Union Affairs, Omer Celik, who denounced “Islamophobia” as a “cultural racism” that “badly affects the lives of European Muslims.”

As every EIR presentation apparently necessitates the presence of a high-ranking Turkish official, the speech at the 2018 event was given by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu. This presentation marked the beginning of a more aggressive tone towards Europe – perhaps as retaliation for the EU’s decision to stop funding the EIR. According to the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, Cavusoglu “urged European countries to include Islamophobia as a crime in their constitution, without waiting for a Holocaust-like situation to unfold,” and accused European politicians and media of using “non-existing terminologies such as ‘Islamism.’”

The 2018 EIR was launched at two separate events in 2019. The first took place in Warsaw and was organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Mehmet Paçacı, a Turkish diplomat who previously served as the attaché to the presidency of religious affairs at the Turkish embassy in Washington D.C, delivered the keynote speech. Paçacı is now the “Personal Representative of the OSCE’s Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims.”

Another event took place one month later, in October 2019, this time with Faruk Kaymakci,  Turkey’s “deputy minister of foreign affairs and director of EU affairs.” After referring to the EIR report as evidence of the rise of Islamophobia in Europe and the challenge this poses to the EU, Kaymakci suggested that Turkey join the EU as an “antidote” to this issue as it would “improve the integration of Muslim in the EU,” adding that “from this point of view, we have a visionary perspective.” Kaymakci declared that without Turkey’s membership, “the EU will be seen as an imperialist Christian club.”

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced SETA to replace the traditional presentation with a webinar in which the keynote speech on anti-Muslim racism was given by Farhettin Altun, Communications Director of the Republic of Turkey.

In his speech, Altun denounced European “mainstream political parties” for “[appropriating] anti-Muslim racism and [appeasing] extremists.” Altun concluded that “the Republic of Turkey had taken historic steps to combat religious discrimination under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership.”

Altun also criticized Western media for having focused on European Muslims joining the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda while it “either ignored or celebrated foreign terrorist fighters joining the ranks of PKK [a designated Kurdish nationalist movement], adding that the latter “pose a serious threat to Muslims in Europe.” But Ankara poses a threat of its own: according to French and Belgian investigations of the 2013 assassination of three high-ranking PKK activists in Paris, evidence implicates the Turkish intelligence services in the murders.

Online Publicity

The presentation event for this latest edition of EIR also took place online, featuring EIR editors Farid Hafez and Enes Bayrakli as well as various EIR contributors. Hafez recently moved to the U.S. from Austria and has been teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts since last fall.

Hafez seems to be appreciated by Ankara, judging by his presence as a panelist at a 2013 academic conference in Turkey that was attended by then-president Abdullah Gül and the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Beşir Atalay, both from the ruling AKP party.  Hafez was also a speaker at a 2019 event titled “Rationalizing Islamophobia” organized by the Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, an institution whose parent organization is led by President Erdogan’s son, Necmeddin Bilal Erdoğan. The vice-president of the Diyanet, Turkey’s powerful Department of Religious Affairs, was also present at the event.

As for Bayrakli, his own ties to Ankara are undeniable: he is on the board of a journal published by the Turkish regime and which is led by the Farhettin Altun. He is also regularly cited by pro-regime publications.

Writing for Turkish state-run media outlet, Anadolou Agency, for the launch of the 2015 EIR, Hafez and Bayrakli openly called for Islamophobia to be explicitly criminalized in Europe.

“Turkophobia”

Given the heavy influence of Ankara and its officials, it should not come as a surprise that the EIR has consistently tried to include anti-Turkish sentiments as examples of such “Islamophobia.” Year after year, concerns over anti-Turkey reactions have been expressed in EIR chapters, with examples from countries once part of the Ottoman empire particularly highlighted.

In this latest EIR edition, for instance, Serbian unhappiness about Erdoğan ’s decision to transform the Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque is said to have  “anti-Turkish views and attitude” and “openly Islamophobic content.”

In the chapter on Albania, as mentioned above, Albanian criticism of the Turkish government’s attempt to pass a law granting amnesty to child rapists if they marry their victim, is dismissed as “Turkophobia” and “anti-Turkish propaganda.” Similar examples in which anti-AKP sentiment is dismissed as Islamophobia can be found in the chapters on Bulgaria and Greece.

If in the EIR’s view, opposing the AKP is Islamophobic, partnering with  Erdoğan ’s party appears to be the only path to redemption. The EIR delivered a rare praise for an event that was organized by the city of Strumica in North Macedonia with the Bayrampasa Municipality of Istanbul Turkey, describing it as having brought a sense of “understanding and interreligious tolerance.” The mayor of that Turkish municipality belongs to the AKP and has been friendly with Erdoğan for decades.

SETA Ties Buried

But why is the EIR no longer publicly displaying its prominent ties to SETA? Certainly, the warnings about SETA expressed by German officials may have raised alarm among Turkey’s agents in Europe.

There also seem to be internal Turkish regime politics at play. EIR editor Enes Bayrakli used to be SETA’s director of European studies, but resigned last June in protest following SETA’s decision to fire twenty employees. At the time, Bayrakli said that he would “continue to contribute to the struggle for a strong and independent Turkey under the leadership of our President [Erdoğan] in other channels.”

Another possible reason is that while the EIR continues to promote Ankara’s interests, it makes more strategic sense for EIR to present itself as the product of the credibility and objectivity of its American academic partners – despite their Islamist links — rather than the open biases of the terror-tied, authoritarian Turkish regime.

This change might also be convenient for Ankara. The EIR’s new interest in Islamophobia purportedly committed by Muslims would put Erdoğan in a delicate position, given his recently announced “new era” of Turkey-UAE relations, in which the signing of accords and deals was heralded as an effort to “deepen cooperation” between two countries that were at odds for years, partly over the Emiratis’ denunciations of Islamist networks, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the absence of SETA from the most recent EIR hardly indicates a split from Ankara. The report is still published in Istanbul, and the fact-checker is the same Dr. Eva Stamoulou Oral who has worked on the last two EIR reports and also fact-checks SETA publications on other subjects.

And Bayrakli’s presence indicates that the EIR will continue to represent Ankara’s interests. Last year, after his resignation from SETA, Bayrakli was listed by the Turkish pro-regime publication Daily Sabah as one of the experts who believe that “Turkey can successfully pioneer the anti-Islamophobia fight.” Bayrakli stated that the reason “Turkey is eager to take action against growing anti-Muslim sentiment is that it negatively impacts the country’s EU accession process” – adding that “Islamophobic rhetoric is reflected in Brussels’ relations with Ankara.”

A Continued Threat

It is possible that some legislators in the European Union have noticed a problem with the EIR. A European Parliament resolution adopted in July 2021 contains a passage declaring that EIR editor Farid Hafez “repeatedly received funding from the EU budget, despite his close association with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish government, who attempt to silence independent journalists and media freedom under the disguise of Islamophobia.”

Notwithstanding, the EIR’s continued potential influence should not be underestimated. In 2016, a number of the EIR’s case studies were presented at the European Islamophobia Summit which was attended by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Bernard Kouchner, as well as former Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Members of the European Parliament and a former Austrian cabinet minister have been guest speakers at EIR events. The Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., and hundreds of other universities and thinktanks, quote EIR analysis on the “danger” posed by Islamophobia. The U.S. State Department has cited EIR research in a document on international religious freedom. And Islamists in the U.S, in partnership with SETA, organize events to influence legislative policies in D.C.

Given Turkey’s extensive support of the EIR, it can be assumed that the Erdoğan regime has financially supported the EIR after the EU’s departure. And based on past EU funding amounts, one can deduce that the cost of a report each year is certainly more than $40,000 – a significant sum. It seems reasonable to wonder, then, if the EIR’s new American partners are thus receiving such funding directly from Ankara.

While the EIR claims to offer a “unique collection of […] analyses,” it has, in reality, been nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Turkish regime and its European and American Islamist partners. Its shifting definition of Islamophobes to include Muslims confirms that it will continue to misuse genuine examples of violence committed against Muslims in order to delegitimize anti-Islamist efforts and any concerns about malign Turkish regime influence in the West.

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