While Erdogan gives lip service to secularism when talking to Western diplomats, or at rallies where international media are present, his actions consistently show the importance he places on Muslim solidarity and Turkey’s place in the Islamic world. In June 2004, after significant Turkish lobbying and deal-making, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) selected Turkish professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as its new secretary general. AKP officials point to the Ihsanoglu appointment as a sign of Turkey’s increased prestige among Islamic countries.
The destructiveness of Turkey’s Islamist nexus first became apparent with the eruption of the Danish-cartoon controversy. On Sept. 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Initially, the cartoons passed with little notice in Denmark. It took two weeks for the first demonstration to occur there, and it was largely peaceful. On Oct. 17, 2005, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr even republished a half dozen of the caricatures without prompting so much as a demonstration. But by February 2006, the Middle East was aflame.
Certainly the spread of rage was not spontaneous. First a delegation of Danish imams traveled from Denmark to Egypt with the controversial cartoons and some fraudulent ones to whip up outrage, then Saudi preachers poured gasoline on the fire. Behind the scenes, Turkey played a more active role than it will publicly acknowledge.
According to Danish officials, the crisis became internationalized after Turkey’s ambassador in Copenhagen called Gul, now Turkey’s president, who in turn instructed Ihsanoglu to exploit the cartoon issue. On Dec. 6, 2005, the OIC issued an official communiqué condemning Denmark and the cartoons. The next day, protests erupted in Pakistan, marking the beginning of violence that would claim more than a dozen lives. Erdogan sided fully with the Islamists. “Caricatures of Prophet Mohammed are an attack against our spiritual values,” he said, adding, “There should be a limit of freedom of the press.” Denmark quietly asked Turkey’s ambassador to leave.
Erdogan’s Islamism manifested itself even more disturbingly in the case of Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman alleged to have helped finance the East African embassy bombings in 1998. Not only did the U.S. Treasury Department label al-Qadi a “specially designated global terrorist” for his support of al-Qaeda, but the United Nations Security Council also placed him on its terrorism list and demanded that all countries freeze his funds. Enter Turkey’s prime minister: After Turkish newspapers reported that Erdogan confidant Cuneyd Zapsu had donated money to al-Qadi, his former business partner, Erdogan declared, “I know Mr. Qadi. I believe in him as I believe in myself,” and refused to discipline Zapsu or freeze al-Qadi’s funds in Turkey. As for Zapsu, he was the go-to man whom the New York Times relied upon the day after the AKP’s election to vouch for Erdogan’s secularism. “Everybody knows Tayyip Erdogan is not a shariat [Islamic-law] guy anymore,” Zapsu declared.
Other financial transactions, however, suggest that Zapsu was not being truthful. No sooner had the AKP taken office than statistics provided by Turkey’s central bank showed an influx of more than $4 billion into Turkey for which reported transactions and tax receipts cannot account. A retired Turkish budget official attributed that figure to funds brought into Turkey off-books from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. By 2006, Turkish economists estimated that this infusion of Islamist cash into the Turkish economy could be between $6 billion and $12 billion. Some Turkish intelligence officials privately suggest that the nation of Qatar is currently the source of most subsidies for the AKP and its projects.