Clash of civilisations or the Cult of Personalities? Assessing Turkey’s Indo-Pak relations


A burgeoning Turkey-Pakistan friendship against India should not be inferred as an example of Huntington’s clash of civilizations. Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” argues that the future international order will be defined by the culture and civilization of nation-states. He emphasises that globalization will coerce states to decide on their friends and enemies based on their civilizations, culture, religion, and history. Although the emphasis on globalization seems right, his argument majorly discounts on the role of populist leaders in facilitating this façade of clash of civilisations. 

Globalization has introduced uncertainties of global economy, society, and polity to the local atmosphere; phenomenon such as migration, unemployment, capitalism, urbanization, flow of ideas and media coverage have triggered anxieties, uncertainties, and ontological insecurity amongst people at the grassroots level. Thus, threatening their identities, sense of selves and their nations’ place in the world. However, these fears are being exploited by a new generation of populist leaders who propagate religious-nationalist sentiments and narratives to cater  a sense of self and stability amongst these citizens. They portray themselves as the defenders and representatives of the state and its citizens through these broader and collective identities, and exhibit a persona of being a strong leader with a mission torestore past glories of their nation-states byfighting against the hostile external world and the internal elites.  

Populism and Turkey’s foreign policy: 

The case of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an exact reflection of this new generation of populist leaders. Erdogan won his first elections by promising economic stability, democracy, modernisation, and Islamic revivalism, which were important to provide a sense of stability to the Turks who were suffering from the 2001 economic crisis.  Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) cleverly used the strong historical, social, and cultural presence of Islam amongst the Turks to propagate the “Muslim Selves” identity against the Turkish elites and their “Western idea” of secularism. This propagation of collective identities increased AKP’s voter base by framing commoners against the secular privileged elites; and exhibited Erdogan as the “saviour” of Turkey against the internal and external threats. 

This rise of populism has a significant impact on Erdogan’s foreign policy as well. Erdogan exhibits himself as a strong leader and defender of his country. He has portrayed himself as a leader who will restore “glorious past” of the Ottoman Empire and has inhibited strong nationalist- religious rhetoric, which is promoted by the Turkish state media agencies. This propaganda has created a sense of selves and stability amongst the people who were uncertain of Turkey’s position in the world and has thus mustered Erdogan’s domestic support.

Erdogan’s foreign policy, as any other populist leader is dependent on satisfying his domestic audience; for which it is important for him to maintain the religious-nationalist rhetoric and his strong man image. His confrontation and inflammatory rhetoric and lack of restraint has also attracted segments of his electorate. Consequently, he has used aggressive rhetoric in his foreign policy and asserted for Islamic revivalism during the elections. It is ultimately these factors that have also influenced his India-Pakistan policy

Turkey’s Indo-Pak policy:

Turkey’s policy towards India has hardly been independent of the Pakistan factor and vice versa. Soon after independence, Turkey favoured friendly ties with Pakistan (a fellow Western camp member)over India and its neutral Nonalignment moment. Turkey formally joined the Baghdad pact/ Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) alongside Pakistan and Iran in 1955It criticised India for its military action against Portuguese Goa in 1961 and also formed the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) in 1964 alongside other CENTO membersIn addition, Turkey’s open support for Pakistan against India in the 1965 and 1971 wars and its concerns over India’s status-quo in Kashmir since the 1960shad deepened Turkey-Pakistan friendship. Consequently, Turkey had also expressed its anti-Indian stance on Kashmir in international platforms such as the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

However, following the end of the Cold War, Turkey started embracing a new approach towards South Asia, attempting to disentangle its India-Pakistan relations. India’s economic liberalisation in the early 90s had opened up a huge economic market for several countries. Around the same time, Turkey upset with Musharraf’s military coup in Pakistan and with an ongoing economic crisis looked for a new economic and political relationship with India. Thus, Turkey  softened its pro-Pakistan and Kashmir stance; Bulent Ecevit even became the only Prime Minister of Turkey to visit India without visiting Pakistan. 

Buthis successor Erdogan’s vision to make Turkey self-sufficient in the production and exportation of domestic weapons wrenched the former towards Pakistan. This was followed by a strategic partnership and close security and counter-insurgency cooperation amongst both the states, as Turkey witnessed threats from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisationsHowever, this cooperation neither altered Turkey’s softened stance nor hindered its economic relationship with India. 

Despite Erdogan’s rise to power, India and Turkey’s economic ties improved with no major political differences. Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Turkey in 2003 and Erdogan visited India in 2008, followed by the Turkish president in 2010. Erdogan visited India again in 2017 to further economic cooperation and partnership. This economic success and ties were very much evident when over 190 Indian companies had started operating in Turkey by 2013. Similarly, the India-Turkey trade had burgeoned to a worth of 8 billion USD in 2019, while Turkey-Pakistan trade was worth 800 million USD only.

Explaining recent drift: 

However, despite these positive developments, India-Turkey relations started tilting South from 2017, and deepening Pakistan-Turkey relationship started threatening India again. But this tilt is a product of populism and its impacts of foreign policy rather than the clash of civilizations.

Erdogan’s image and authority had taken a huge blow after the attempted2016 military coup, and the only way he could repair his image was punishing the secular establishment and also expanding his electoral and support base through anti-secular and pro-Islam rhetoric. He tapped on people’s ontological insecurity with extremely religious-nationalist sentiments and started moving closer towards the Sunni World, to promote himself as a leader of the Islamic World. This persona of strong man bringing back glory to the Turks enhanced Erdogan’s domestic support and vote base. Thus, even days before his official visit to India, Erdogan portrayed himself as the leader of the Muslim world, by expressing that he would want Turkey to play a role in solving the Kashmir issue

On the other hand, Imran Khan of Pakistan (elected in 2018) was also a populist leader with strong religious-nationalist rhetoric and domestic image of being a strong leader. It is this strong man image that soon fostered ties amongst both the states. While Erdogan wanted to place himself and Turkey as the leader of the Muslim World, Imran Khan after losing Saudi and UAE to India started embracing Turkey to foster good ties and exhibit himself as a shaper of the Islamic world order. 

This coincided with the third phenomenon: rising anti-Modi sentiments in the Muslim World and increasing discrimination of Muslims within India. The Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register for Citizens and most importantly the revocation of article 370, which unilaterally changed Kashmir’s status quo for the first time since 1999 created a major concern for the Muslim nations. Further, the enforced lockdown and militarisation in Kashmir after article 370 abrogation left no other option for Erdogan but to adopt strong anti-India rhetoric. As failing to do so would have distorted his strong man image and nationalist religious narratives of leading the Islamic World. Thus, giving a major blow to his domestic image and public opinion.

Consequently, Turkey embraced closer ties with Pakistan at the cost of Indian interests and raised its concerns over Kashmir at the United Nations. In addition, several Indian security agencies have also raised concerns on Turkey’s influence over Kashmir through TRT’s Ertugrul web series and surging Turkish NGOs and business funds in Kashmir. They have also condemned Turkey for hiring Pakistani journalists, Kashmiri separatists and Kashmiri students to promote pro-Kashmiri rhetoric within Turkey. India’s retaliation to these growing security concerns has been sharp and reactionary. PM Modi has met with leaders of Cyprus and Armenia much to Turkey’s annoyance and cancelled his visit to Turkey. India also condemned Turkey’s military operations in Syria and haswarned Turkey of degrading its bilateral ties if the former continues to intervene in India’s internal affairs.  

Considering Erdogan’s approach to foreign policy and his attempt to have firm domestic support and electoral base, it is unlikely that he would move from his anti-India policy and rhetoric. Thus, indicating a decline inIndia-Turkey economic and political ties, while Pakistan-Turkey relations might see a gradual improvement. But, considering this relationship as a mere factor of clash of civilisations would severely undermine the role of globalisation and populism in modern-day foreign policymaking.

Aditya G. Shivamurthy
Aditya G. Shivamurthy
Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an MSc International Relations graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He focuses on South Asian international relations, conflicts and India's foreign policy. His works have been featured in The Statesman, The Strait Times, South Asian Monitor and The London Globalist.


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