Selling Out To Erdogan: A Rift over Turkey in the US Islamist Leadership

A friend – let’s call him Hilal – often disputes my strong views on Islamists. For years, he has been an apologist for their actions, arguing that they lead American Muslims in a positive direction. But now even Hilal is upset. The surprising reason: Turkish President Tayep Recep Erdogan.

It turns out that there is a major schism going on over the decision by some top Islamist leaders to sell out to Erdogan as their old financial lifelines from the Gulf are drying up.

The United States Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) – an umbrella group for  the major Islamist groups in America (CAIR, ISNA, MAS, ICNA, AMP, MLAF) – has been leading this effort.

USCMO’s leaders are head over heels courting Turkey that they can serve as the main Muslim lobbying group helping President Erdogan pursue his political agenda in America. In return, they seek badly needed funds and international diplomatic patronage (remember the UAE has officially designated CAIR as a terror organization).

Hilal tells me that old guard South Asians leaders (like ISNA vetern Sayid Sayyed) are infuriated in particular with Oussama Jammal,  the director of MAS  and the Secretary General of USCMO. Jammal has been spearheading the move to get in bed with Erdogan – and hasn’t been shy about hiding his passion for his new Ottoman patron on Twitter:

Jammal apparently took a USCMO delegation to Turkey to meet with Erdogan. When the Turkish strongman came to New York for the 2016 UN General Assembly, he met with top American Islamist leaders. Knowing Erdogan’s style, he was likely having them pledge allegiance while holding out the promise of cash.

The South Asian old guard is feeling insulted because the Turks are completely ignoring them. Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman is fixated on the Arab Islamists because they factor more prominently in their geopolitical calculus. Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Libya were all once Ottoman colonies, and today are high-value geopolitical real estate for Erdogan. South Asia he sees as little more than markets for Turkish products. Thus, the Arabs are getting access and the South Asians are getting the cold shoulder.

Hilal tells me that the first big warning sign was a decision by MAS-ICNA to invite Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye as keynote speaker for their December 2016 convention. The convention was – like many other recent activities by US Islamists – supported financially by Erdogan via the state-owned carrier Turkish Airlines. 

That convention also saw a heavy presence of Turkish governmental and pro-AKP (Erdogan’s ruling party) groups, including: the Diyanet Center of America, Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), Economic and Social Research (SETA) and The Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC).

This is all rubbing some US Islamist leaders – mostly South Asians – the wrong way. First, Erdogan is not a pleasant character, though that hasn’t exactly stopped Islamist leaders before. More likely is that the Turks embraced warmly their Arab colleagues and largely ignore the South Asians. 

Hilal is starting to agree with me that there us indeed a problem with these Islamist groups. Their open courtship of Turkey and its President hurts American Muslims, identifying them as agents of foreign government (an increasingly authoritarian one at that). Hilal sees that this alliance only really benefits Erdogan… and the American Islamist leaders hoping to replace the financial support they lost from Gulf states.

Will the South Asian old guard Islamists keep quiet or will they revolt? Time will tell. 

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