Unnecessary France-Turkey dispute will damage all parties
Tensions between Turkey and France — or at least between their respective leaders, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emmanuel Macron — have reached new heights and have the potential to rise even further. Already at loggerheads over a number of controversial issues, including Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, a new crisis has broken out between them, this time because of Macron’s comments regarding France’s Muslim community.
The French president said early last month that he would fight the “Islamist separatism” he thought was threatening to take control of some Muslim communities in the country, adding that he would pass new laws for the protection of secular values. “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” he continued. “We do not believe in political Islam that it is not compatible with stability and peace in the world.” Macron’s statement suggests he is in search of an Islam that suits France, or that he would reshape Islam according to France’s needs. His comments on Islam broadened the Turkish-French conflict to a scale that also includes several Islamic countries.
Erdogan said Islamophobia was on the rise in Europe and invited world leaders to stop the persecution of Muslims in France. It is unclear how many leaders will respond to Erdogan’s instigation, but pious Muslims in several Muslim-majority countries protested Macron’s statement either verbally or by removing French goods from shops.
The war of words between Turkey and France is still going on. France has so far avoided any call for the boycotting of Turkish goods, but Erdogan publicly invited the Turks not to buy French goods. This prompted a cartoon in a French media outlet showing Erdogan calling on Turks to boycott French goods while wearing Vuarnet sunglasses, an Yves Saint Laurent suit, Charvet shirt and Lanvin tie, all made in France. Boycotts are not likely to lead anywhere because, after the initial euphoria, consumers will go back to their old habits.
Macron may have in mind something like a corollary of the Reformation in Christianity that took place in the 16th century, but the Islamic world will likely energetically reject such an initiative, especially when it comes from a non-Muslim, secular leader. Erdogan, for one, is notorious for his sensitivity on Islam. In fact, he immediately adopted the cause of the French Muslims as his own.
The French president, without realizing the consequences, may have opened a Pandora’s box. The risks of derailment are high on both sides. Macron’s comments on Islam may have provided a golden opportunity for Erdogan to transform the Turkish-French altercation into a dispute of a religious nature.
Turkey has already become entangled in too many crises in the international arena and this has become an added problem.
Erdogan can use Macron’s words to stir up the sensitivities of his domestic audience. Two segments of Turkey’s electorate are especially sensitive on this subject: Pious Muslims, which constitute the main power base of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, and the far-right nationalist voters of the Nationalist Movement Party. Both of these political parties were losing ground with the electorate because of the failures in economic and foreign policy issues. As a skillful political player, Erdogan would never miss the opportunity to make full use of the negative consequences of Macron’s initiative. And he has not.
The republishing of the blasphemous cartoons by the French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo added insult to injury. The cartoons were even projected onto the facades of government buildings in Montpellier and Toulouse in the wake of the beheading of a teacher in Paris last month. Less than a week later, three more people were horribly killed in a knife attack in a church in Nice.
It is difficult to tell where such an escalation may lead. It may lead to a free-for-all between Muslim and Christian fanatics, with incalculable consequences.
While Macron’s initiative on Muslims may have a negative effect on France’s relations with certain Muslim-majority countries, Erdogan is not free of risks either. Turkey has already become entangled in too many crises in the international arena and this has become an added problem.
EU officials have started to voice their disapproval of Erdogan’s narrative. Turkey-EU relations are due to be discussed at an EU summit on Dec. 11-12. Ankara may now expect even harsher criticism.
Now that the swords have been drawn, all those who are involved in this unnecessary dispute will emerge damaged. Religious controversies have taken too great a toll throughout history. All political and religious leaders would do better to avoid any incitement of the “Clash of Civilizations” that Samuel Huntington predicted.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar