Muslim Brotherhood of Turkey and Pakistan

IHSAN YILMAZ

TURKEY and Pakistan have a long-standing history of a healthy bilateral relationship. Their ties were cemented in their Cold War military alignment with American security architecture. In 1955, the two countries became members of a regional defence pact called the Central Treaty Organisation. Their relationship developed gradually with the formation of the Regional Cooperation and Development in 1964 with a bid to jointly enhance the region’s economic development. Since 1965, the two countries have reached a strategic consensus on the issues of Kashmir and Cyprus. While Iran and Pakistan’s relations have been adrift, despite sharing a common border and cultural similarities, a new era of cordial relations between Turkey and Pakistan has emerged in the last decade.

In 2003, during Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan, both states signed a High-Level Military Dialogue for defence cooperation. The two countries organised multiple Pakistan-Afghanistan-Turkey Trilateral Summits and, in 2016, signed a strategic partnership agreement.1 Today, the two countries, with troubled relations with the United States (US), are Muslim middle powers with a growing entente in a multipolar Eurasia.2 

Post-2010, the relations between the two countries began to intensify. Pakistan has consistently sought opportunities to represent its post-9/11 image as a peace-loving nation versus a hub of terrorism. It is always in need of allies that would lend support in times of Indo-Pak conflict – Turkey under Erdogan fits the bill as a brother.3 Similarly, Pakistan’s geopolitics and size as the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia, makes it an important ally for Turkey.

The ties between Islamabad and Ankara have translated into several pacts to support military exchanges and economic collaboration.4 By 2020, they had signed around 13 memorandums of understanding, with five related to the defence industry.5 The two countries aim to enhance bilateral trade to US$ 5 billion (S$ 6.9 billion) by 2023 from the current US$ 800 million under their strategic economic partnership.6

During the post-Cold War era, Pakistan lost much relevance for the western security architecture. After 9/11, the West’s Mujahideen allies became the primary enemy, and Pakistan found itself divided between the West and the Mujahideen.7 On the one hand, the regional rivalries and problems among China, India, Pakistan, Japan, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), South China Sea littoral countries, Bangladesh and Myanmar have complicated Turkey’s relations with Asia. However, on the other hand, Pakistan’s dependency on China, strained ties with the US, conflict with India and its poor economy have restricted the scope of Turkey-Pakistan relations.8 

Pakistan has been trying to compensate for its strained relations with the West by leaning on China for economic and military support. However, this has deepened Pakistan’s dependence on China and weakened its autonomy.9 Even though Pakistan has significantly moved closer to China, it has not completely disrupted its relations with the US due to economic and geopolitical considerations.10 In fact, it is important for Pakistan to maintain cordial ties with the US and the West – this could help Islamabad from being removed from the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list in terms of terror financing.11 Having similar problems, Turkey supports Pakistan on this front.

Turkey also supports Pakistan’s official position in Kashmir. In 2019, at a roundtable conference on the margin of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Erdogan called the Jammu and Kashmir region an open air prison.12 However, the growing role of India in the global order has become an important consideration in Turkey’s South Asia policy. Thus, while maintaining strong military ties with Pakistan, Turkey has sought similar economic and political relations with India.13 However, India has questioned Turkey’s stand on Kashmir and the strengthening of its defence relations with Pakistan and has called Turkey not to interfere in its internal affairs.14 

Several Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were previously Pakistan’s close defence partners, have gradually moved closer to India to expand their defence partnerships beyond the West. Consequently, Turkey has emerged as an important Muslim partner for Pakistan in the face of its growing isolation in the Muslim world.15 However, as far as Turkey’s competition with Saudi Arabia over the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world is concerned, Pakistan is not likely to take a clear stand, given its economic dependence on and historic relations with Saudi Arabia.16

As Turkey’s domestic arms industry has grown substantially in recent years, its defence deals with Pakistan have also increased. Whilst China is Pakistan’s main source of defence hardware, Turkey has been increasingly presenting itself as an alternative to inaccessible American and French equipment and has been easing Islamabad’s near-total dependence on China.17 Pakistan has also been shifting from upgrading Pakistani hardware originally procured from other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries to the arms made in Turkey.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that Turkey was Pakistan’s fourth-largest source of arms, surpassing the US, and that Pakistan was Turkey’s third-largest arms importer during the period 2016 to 2019.18 Pakistan has plans to buy Turkey’s T129 attack helicopters valued at US$ 1.5 billion. It is also planning to acquire four corvettes from Turkey. Additionally, Pakistan has several modernisation projects with Turkey over its fast-attack submarines.19 The arm trade figures are set to grow as Turkey fulfils recent orders from Pakistan exceeding US$ 3 billion.

In addition to defence relations, Turkish economic investment in Pakistan has grown in the past decade. However, Turkey’s recently shrinking economy has restricted its investments abroad. Similarly, bilateral trade between the two countries has remained stagnant over the past decade, peaking at around US$ 1.1 billion in 2011, partly due to Turkey’s protectionism. Free trade agreement negotiations have not progressed either.20 The absence of predictable and sustainable stability in Pakistan restricts Turkey-Pakistan’s economic relations.21 

While there has been growing literature on the two nations’ strengthening economic, diplomatic, and military ties, the influence of soft power used by Turkey in Pakistan has received rare attention.22 Turkey’s cultural contributions to Pakistan are more important than military contributions.23 Its soft power and public diplomacy activities include Turkish language promotion programmes, cultural centres, and charity and social welfare activities through agencies such as Yunus Emre Institution, Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency and recently introduced educational foundations such as the Turkish Maarif Foundation.24

Following 9/11, while the Middle Eastern states faced soft power challenges, Turkey was able to skilfully positioned itself as a potential leader of the Muslim world, challenging Saudi Arabia’s claims to leadership, and advocating a moderate form of Sunni-Hanafi Islam enshrined in the Sufi mystic tradition.25 However, as Turkey’s hopes of entering the European Union declined and Erdogan took an authoritarian turn, Turkey’s pan-Islamic rhetoric intensified to enhance Turkey’s political stance in the Muslim world. To appeal to the extranational Muslims, Erdogan has relied on a network of Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers across the Muslim world under the guise of Islamic solidarity.26 

In this context, Erdogan and then Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan have emerged as two Muslim leaders who have advanced a foreign policy driven by Muslim nationalist emo-tions.27 Both leaders joined forces in their jihad against Islamophobia in the West. At times, this has presented
itself as mere anti-western populist rhetoric.
28 Also, unlike other political leaders in Pakistan, Khan seemed to be the only leader keen in explaining Islam to the West, making him an ally of Erdogan. The two nations agreed to set up a joint television channel to deal with Islamophobia and create an Islamic bloc to solve Muslim problems.29 Thus, Turkey’s rich history and highly industrialised film industry strengthened Turkish soft power in Pakistan and helped Khan implement his Islamist populist vision.30

Turkish entertainment productions, especially soap operas, have been exported to more than 50 countries worldwide, resulting in high export revenue annually. Some of these are Hollywoodesque political-action films and television drama series such as DirilisErtugrul (Resurrection Ertugrul), Bir Zamanlar Osmanli (Once Upon a Time: The Ottoman Empire), Osmanli Tokadi (The Ottoman Smack), Osmanli’da Derin Devlet (Deep State in the Ottoman Empire), and Payitaht: Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor).31 Even though they are historical productions, they recreate past glories and project current socio-political affairs into historical events and formalise new geopolitical imaginations. All of them rewrite history and reframe geopolitical issues from an Islamist populist perspective of Erdoganism.32 For example, Payitaht: Abdulhamid re-narrates the time of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid and his struggles for the survival of the Ottoman Empire in the face of imperialist and sinister anti-Muslim conspiracies of the West, aiming to create a deja vu effect for the audience.

All these productions overlapped with Khan’s Islamist populism rhetoric. Thus, unsurprisingly, he told the nation to watch Ertugrul Ghazi (DirilisErtugrul), a Turkish drama dubbed in Urdu. It is a historical narrative and adventure story about Ertugrul, son of Suleiman Shah, father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman.33 Ertugrul Ghazi in Pakistan was aired in April 2020 on the national media platform Pakistan Television Cooperation (PTV). Khan remarked:

‘Turkey has made this film or drama series which they call Resurrection, they made this film. And for this first time, they depict how the Turks progressed and how they conquered half of Europe as one of the greatest forces of time… the Western culture and civilization has hijacked us to such a great degree that we are unaware of our own past.’34

Khan felt that the medium of films should be used to educate the ‘aloof’ and ‘West-inspired’ younger generations about the Muslim world’s ‘glorious past’, ‘triumphs’ and ‘heroic figures’ so that the ‘western civilisational hegemony’ is ‘broken’ with series such as Ertugrul. As a counter to ‘third-hand culture’, Ertugrul Ghazi has gone beyond pop culture to seep into deep fissures of Pakistani society’s imagination and conception of Turkey.35 

The show’s official Urdu YouTube channel, called the TRT Ertugrul, by PTV, has around 18 million subscribers. By April 2022, views of its first episode on YouTube alone exceeded 125 million, and the show’s Turkish cast members are now celebrities in Pakistan. Now, markets in Pakistan are full of fan merchandise. Retail brands are not just limiting themselves to the cast of Ertugrul Ghazi; rather, they are using slogans of ‘uniting cultures’ and ‘Muslim heritage’ to sell their merchandise.36

In a country already sympathetic to Turkey, the large audience for the show makes it a highly useful transmission device for religious populism in a transnational sense for Erdogan. The instrumental value of the soft power of the show is such that Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been highly successful in transmitting its narrative of glorification of the Turkic ethnicity as the guardians of the Sunni Muslim world.37

The civilisational populist discourse of the show has allowed its Pakistani viewers feel part of the Muslim ummah that has been a victim of the whims and control of the ‘western world’ – throughout the show, Ertugrul is busy unmasking the plans of the Crusaders, pagans and internal traitors.38

Despite the rhetoric and the ongoing positive trajectory of Turkey-Pakistan relations, the two countries have not been able to substantially deepen economic, security, and regional cooperation due to several constraints, including complicated relations with third countries, distance and weak economies on both sides. Pakistan’s regional and international isolation is also a challenge in the pursuit if its relations with Turkey. Having said that, Turkey has been easing Pakistan’s over dependence on Chinese arm procurements.

Turkey has also been successful in its soft power projection in Pakistan. Its soft power instruments have been implemented in full force in the country. Erdogan and his ruling AKP have been very active in Pakistan, using cultural centres, facilities, schools, aid, Islamist populist movies and television drama series to transmit anti-western sentiments and propagating Turkey as one of the key countries that has countered the West in the past and can resist western hegemony today. This Islamist civilisational populist narrative has resonated with many people in Pakistan.

Footnotes:

1. Rahat Shah, ‘Explaining Pakistan-Turkish Relations: Islamism and Naya Pakistan’, Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 2022, p. 5. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/25765949.2022. 2057718.

2. Arif Rafiq, ‘The Turkey-Pakistan Entente: Muslim Middle Powers Align in Eurasia’, Middle East Institute, January 2021. https://www.mei.edu/publications/turkey-pakistan-entente-muslim-middle-powers-align-eurasia.

3. Tanzeela Khalil, ‘India-Pakistan Relation-ship: A Case of Perpetual Instability’, NUST Journal of International Peace & Stability 3, 2020, pp. 79-93.

4. ‘Turkey-Pakistan Defence Industry Deals Peak in Last Two Years’, The Middle East Monitor, February 2020. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200226-turkey-pakistan-defence-industry-deals-peak-in-last-two-years/.

5. Ibid.

6. Baqir Sajjad Syed, ‘Pakistan, Turkey to Transform Ties into Economic Partner-ship’, Dawn, February 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1534568

7. Omair Anas, ‘A Post-Cold War Era Context of Turkey’s Asia Relations’, in Omair Anas (ed.), Turkey’s Asia Relations. Palgrave Mcmillan, 2022, p. 73 (pp 57-84).

8. Ibid., pp. 64 & 81.

9. Ibid., p. 74.

10. Zahid Shahab Ahmed and Abdul Basit, ‘Turkey’s Relationship with Afghanistan and the Pakistan Factor: An Examination of Historical and Geopolitical Factors’, in O. Anas (ed.), Turkey’s Asia Relations, 2022. Op. cit., pp. 113-130.

11. Ahmed and Basit, Turkey’s Relationship, op. cit., p. 124.

12. Muhammed Huseyin Mercan and Guliz Dinē, ‘Turkey’s Policy Towards Crisis Regions in Asia After 2002’, pp. 163-184; and O. Anas (ed.), Turkey’s Asia Relations, 2022, pp. 169-170.

13. Anas, A Post-Cold War Era Context, op. cit., pp. 62-72.

14. Merve Seren, ‘Turkish-Asian Coop-eration in Diversified Strategic Environment’, pp. 131-162; and O. Anas (ed.), Turkey’s Asia Relations, 2022, p. 137.

15. Anas, A Post-Cold War Era Context, op. cit., p. 71.

16. Ahmed and Basit, Turkey’s Relationship, op. cit., p. 124.

17. Rafiq, The Turkey-Pakistan Entente, op. cit.

18. Ibid.

19. Seren, Turkish-Asian Cooperation, op. cit., p. 145.

20. Rafiq, The Turkey-Pakistan entente, op. cit.

21. Anas, A Post-Cold War Era Context, op. cit., p. 76.

22. See for one of the few exceptions, Ihsan Yilmaz and Kainat Shakil, ‘Transnational Islamist Populism between Pakistan and Turkey: The Case of Dirilis-Ertugrul’, European Center for Populism Studies. https://www.populismstudies.org/transnational-islamist-populism-between-pakistan-and-turkey-the-case-of-dirilis-ertugrul/

23. Ahmed and Basit, Turkey’s Relationship, op. cit., p. 119.

24. See in detail, Sinem Adar and Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, ‘A Muslim Counter-Hegemony? Turkey’s Soft Power Strategies and Islam-ophobia’, Jadaliyya, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/38646

25. Ibid.; Ahmed and Basit, Turkey’s Relationship, op. cit., pp. 121.

26. S. Al-Sarhan, Erdogan and the Last Quest for the Greenmantle, 2019. https://icsr.info/2019/05/23/erdogan-and-the-last-quest-for-the-greenmantle/

27. Anas, A Post-Cold War Era Context, op. cit., p. 63. For Imran Khan’s Islamist populism, see in detail, Ihsan Yilmaz and Raja M. Ali Saleem, ‘A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan’, Populism & Politics. https://www.populism
studies.org/a-quest-for-identity-the-case-of-religious-populism-in-pakistan/; Ihsan Yilmaz and Kainat Shakil, ‘Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan’, European Center for Populism Studies. https://populismstudies.org/imran-khan-from-cricket-batsman-to-populist-captain-tabdeli-of-pakistan/; and Ihsan Yilmaz and Kainat Shakil, ‘Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement’. https://populismstudies.org/pakistan-tehreek-e-insaf-pakistans-iconic-populist-movement/

28. Ihsan Yilmaz, ‘Hagia Sophia and Turkish Anxiety to Lead the Muslim World’, Berkley Forum, 27 July 2020. https://berkleycenter.
georgetown.edu/responses/hagia-sophia-and-turkish-anxiety-to-lead-the-muslim-world

29. Rahat Shah, ‘Explaining Pakistan-Turkish Relations: Islamism and Naya Pakistan’, Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/25765949.2022.2057718, p. 1-2.

30. Ibid., p. 2.

31. Senem Ēevik, ‘Turkish Historical Television Series: Public Broadcasting of Neo-Ottoman Illusions’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 19(2), 2019, pp. 227-242.

32. Ihsan Yilmaz, Creating the Desired Citizens: State, Islam and Ideology in Turkey. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2021; Ihsan Yilmaz and Galib Bashirov, ‘The AKP after 15 Years: Emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey’, Third World Quarterly 39(9), March 2018, pp. 1,812-1,830.

33. Shah, Explaining Pakistan-Turkish Relations, op. cit., p. 2.

34. ‘PM Imran Khan Talks AboutDirilis Ertugrul”,’ October 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybe J67nQj40,

35. Yilmaz and Shakil, Transnational Islamist Populism, op. cit.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid.