What’s behind Turkey’s tilt to Hamas?

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of Israel’s military response to the October 7 atrocities. Addressing hundreds of thousands of supporters at a pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul last October – a mere three weeks after Hamas’s murderous cross-border rampage – the Turkish president vowed to “tell the whole world that Israel is a war criminal.”A month later, he branded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the “butcher of Gaza” and accused him of stoking global antisemitism through Israel’s conduct in the Gaza Strip. In the run-up to the country’s municipal elections earlier this year, Erdogan again excoriated the Israeli premier, whom he charged with committing “crimes against humanity” and likened to the twentieth century’s most notorious figures, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. Most recently, in an interview with a Greek-based newspaper, he asserted that Netanyahu’s “genocidal methods” would have made Hitler “jealous,” and that Israel had turned Gaza into an “open-air prison” long before October 7.

Such bellicose anti-Israel rhetoric marks a decisive shift from Ankara’s long-standing rapport with Jerusalem. Indeed, Turkey was the first Muslim-majority nation to recognize the fledgling Jewish state as early as 1949, and the two countries enjoyed a robust partnership for decades, cooperating closely on matters of security and defense. What, then, explains Erdogan’s latest tirades?

The Turkish ruler’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be viewed through the prism of his domestic and foreign policies at large. Since Erdogan began his tenure as prime minister in 2003, Turkey has adopted an increasingly activist and “multi-axial” foreign policy, in contrast to the country’s traditionally Western-aligned approach. In much the same vein, Turkey under Erdogan has gradually shifted towards a more conservative, religiously-inspired politics at home – breaking from decades of secularism that had been set in motion by the country’s venerated founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Appealing to his conservative and rural support base, Erdogan has made it his mission to put religion at the heart of national life. On numerous occasions, the Turkish strongman has articulated his desire to raise a “pious generation” of young Turks – and, to that end, has poured huge sums of money into Islamic schooling. A 2018 Reuters report on Turkey’s government budget revealed that spending on so-called “Imam Hatip” schools – which seek to prepare its students to become imams and preachers – significantly outmatched funding granted to mainstream institutions: although Imam Hatip students amounted to only 11% of secondary education enrollment at the time, they received 23% of the state budget. What’s more, successive reforms under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (more commonly known by its Turkish initials, the AKP) have widened access to this brand of schooling. In 2012, Ankara lowered the age at which children could enroll from fourteen to ten, and, five years later, reduced the minimum population requirement for areas where such schools are allowed to open from 50,000 to 5,000. Given these developments, attendance at Imam Hatip schools has ballooned in recent years: in 2002 (the year the AKP rose to power), just 60,000 students were enrolled in 450 such schools across the country. By 2018, however, that number had increased tenfold, swelling to around 4,500 establishments instructing a total of 1.1 million students.

Mainstream schools have also been impacted by Erdogan’s Islamic aspirations. A new curriculum rolled out in 2017 scrapped all references to Darwin and evolution – a move that outraged the country’s secularists – and an additional measure implemented last October mandates all schools to have a gender-segregated prayer room, or mescit (Turkish for “mosque”). As the director of one Istanbul-based think tank observed, “The interference of religion into education has never been as visible and as deep.” Put another way, Erdogan’s ambitions for rearing a “pious generation” are bearing fruit.

But it’s not only educational establishments that have been “targeted” by Erdogan’s increasing religious zeal. The president has likewise embarked on a mosque-building “spree,” in an attempt to further entrench religion into Turkey’s civic life. Indeed, 9,000 new mosques sprung up across the country between 2006 and 2009 alone, and a total of 20,000 are believed to have been erected during Erdogan’s two decades at the helm. Crucially, the inauguration in 2021 of a new mosque on Istanbul’s Taksim Square – long considered a symbol of Turkey’s staunch secularism – laid bare Erdogan’s quest to reverse Ataturk’s legacy. But it was the reconversion of Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, at the behest of Erdogan and his associates, that marked an inflection point in the country’s road to Islamification. For Turkey’s Islamists (that is, for Erdogan’s support base), this had been a long-standing objective. Addressing the worshippers at its grand reopening on 24 July 2020, the Turkish ruler proclaimed that the Hagia Sophia’s “breaking away from its chains of captivity” was “the greatest dream of our youth [and] the yearning of our people”. Yet to Erdogan, this was not only about actualizing the long-nurtured vision of Turkey’s Muslims; it was about satisfying all Muslims everywhere – as the official website of the Turkish Presidency states in no uncertain terms: “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come out of the interregnum.” Evidently, he was painting himself as “defender of the faith,” who could restore the Islamic world to its former glory.

As such, the Palestinian cause – which runs deep in Muslim consciousness the world over – necessarily takes center stage, and sharp criticism of the Jewish state has been a hallmark of Erdogan’s rule. Though placing Bibi Netanyahu on a par with Adolf Hitler may seem particularly outrageous to some, equating the plight of Palestinians with the historic suffering of Jews is nothing new for the Turkish ruler. When hostilities escalated between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2004, Erdogan accused then-Israeli PM Ariel Sharon of “state terrorism” against the Palestinians, whose treatment he likened to the persecution of Jews under the Spanish Inquisition. Some years later, in the wake of the 2008-09 Gaza War, Erdogan made headlines by storming off the stage at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, after lashing out at then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and accusing Israel of killing Palestinian babies. Relations soured further in the wake of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla raid, when a flotilla of six ships set sail from Turkey towards Gaza, intent on breaching the Israeli blockade and purporting to deliver humanitarian aid to the Palestinian enclave. When one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, refused to comply with Israeli orders to have its cargo inspected, the vessel was intercepted by Israeli commandos, and the ensuing altercation resulted in the deaths of nine passengers on board. The affair sparked a diplomatic spat between Turkey and Israel that was only mended by a reconciliation deal in 2016. Since Jerusalem launched its military response to the 7/10 attacks, Ankara has doubled down on efforts to castigate the Jewish state: this month alone, Turkey announced it was stopping all trade with Israel due to the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and later pronounced its intention to join South Africa in its legal case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

As relations with Israel have deteriorated under Erdogan’s aegis, relations with Hamas have climbed ever higher. When Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup in 2007, Turkey was one of only two countries to support the former (together with Qatar), and it has afforded Hamas significant financial and political support ever since. Indeed, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas finds common ideological ground with the AKP, and it established a presence in Turkey in 2011 at the direct invitation of the government in Ankara. Since then, the country has gladly welcomed senior Hamas leaders, including Saleh al-Arouri – assassinated in an Israeli airstrike this past January – and Ismail Haniyeh, who recently concluded a two-week visit to the country. Since Oct 7, Erdogan has repeatedly voiced his support for Hamas – the unabashedly antisemitic terrorist organization bent on the annihilation of Israel. He’s referred to them variously as a “liberation group,” a “resistance movement,” and a “mujahideen” (this last term doubtless plays into the religious sensibilities of his support base), and he’s decried those who have proscribed Hamas as a terrorist organization (namely, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the European Union, amongst others).

The collective West must face a harsh reality: the Turkey of today is not the same country that entered its security alliance in 1952. Once seen as an integral guarantor of the US-led liberal world order, its ever-widening dissonance from the West can no longer be ignored. In the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Turkey has taken a side. In its pursuit of religious and regional hegemony, it has thrown its lot in with an Islamist fundamentalist organization whose founding charter is awash with antisemitic tropes. The hitherto trusted partner of the West has gotten into bed with a decisively anti-Western terrorist organisation – and has no qualms about proclaiming it to the world. So long as Erdogan rules the roost, Turkey’s friendship with the Jewish state will remain a distant memory.

About the Author
Maximillian Kanter is a research analyst at a London-based political risk advisory, specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. He is also a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank that facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. He has interned at various foreign policy think tanks in London, Jerusalem, Estonia, and Geneva. The views in this blog are the author’s own.
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