American Muslims’ Love Affair With Erdogan and ICNA Convention

How ICNA sparked controversy over inviting Ibrahim Kalin

Umut Acar, Turkey’s Consul General in Chicago, delivers a speech at ICNA Convention.

The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), one of the largest Muslim organizations in the U.S., organized an annual event in Chicago on Dec. 28. The gathering offered an opportunity for self-reflection and wider analysis of the current state of Muslim affairs across the U.S. and the world. It was, as in the past, a great chance for a dozen participants with diverse backgrounds to dwell upon a wide array of issues and share their commentary on inter-faith dialogue, contemporary challenges the Muslim world face and the place of the Muslim individual in a rapidly changing modern society.

The usually flawless convention, however, was somehow tainted this time by a notable controversy: Ibrahim Kalin, the chief advisor and spokesperson of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was one of the speakers who was invited to address the audience. It was not the first time Kalin, who had acquaintances with the organization from the days of his academic life in the U.S., would speak at the gathering. But this time, his presence stirred a backlash from other Muslim communities who harbored genuine resentment and suspicion over Erdogan’s authoritarian policies in Turkey. The Kalin case, therefore, went beyond a simple invitation and represented a steep moral challenge for the identity and the character of ICNA itself: given Kalin’s close association with a politician whose government has locked up tens of thousands of opponents after sham trials, brutally cracking down on critics of all social stripes and obliterating last remnants of a democratic system and rule of law, the ICNA’s own credentials regarding matters of democracy and human rights were to stand a serious trial. What further landed Kalin at heart of a sprawling controversy was his recent remarks that endorse Erdogan’s unlawful kidnapping of opponents, mostly from Gulen community, from the countries they have sought refuge all over the world.

So, the question appeared pertinent and relevant more than ever. By inviting Kalin, wouldn’t the ICNA approve and legitimize someone who just called for the abduction of Erdogan critics from wherever they live as lawful residents, including the U.S. soil, in blatant violation of international laws and humanitarian norms and practices? Did the ICNA think that Kalin represented the ideal type of a modern Muslim intellectual, someone who studied in the West and had the academic pedigree of higher standards? Did Kalin’s presumed academic credentials whitewash his complicity in Erdogan’s persecution of innocent people? The list of questions would go on interminably. But the crux of the matter is that the invitation represents some American Muslims’ blind spot on crimes of Erdogan and the ways in which Turkey’s Islamists rule NATO’s only Muslim country. And it is this aspect which warrants a critical re-assessment and further discussion.

Backlash Against ICNA

These were the questions and criticisms which enabled critics to marshal their efforts to secure the cancellation of Kalin’s speech at ICNA convention in Chicago. ICNA, probably heeding to calls, announced scuttling Kalin’s speech hours before the event. Still, it does not dissolve the issue of American Muslims’ warped view of the Turkish autocrat and his close associates, and their silence regarding the Erdogan government’s human rights abuses and violations in Turkey. As will be shown below, the replacement of Kalin as a keynote speaker, however, does not absolve the ICNA of the flawed decision to invite him to this distinguished event in the first place.

American Muslims and non-Turkish Muslims around the Middle East and North Africa have, not without reason, a benign view of the Turkish strongman. Majority of Muslims in the U.S. with Middle East background fondly speak of Erdogan. In him, Muslims found a strong leader who pulled off a remarkable economic growth for more than a decade and exhibited a form of governance that upended long-held assumption that Islamist-rooted parties would not effectively run a government. Instead, Erdogan’s government, to its credit, proved itself as adept and competent in successfully governing a country for the long stretch of its time in power.

The false promise of the Arab Spring and subsequent setbacks, the collapse of functioning state structure in many countries, including Syria, Yemen, Libya and others, perennial economic problems that drive youth into despondency, the chronic corruption and fragile governments offer ample reason for gloom for the Muslims across the region. According to Islamists, Erdogan’s Turkey, for all its flaws and recent crises, stands as an exception in the midst of a chaotic region. Erdogan, a pious ruler in the mold of Muslim Brotherhood, offers a success story for the Muslim youth who hanker for someone to get inspiration. Haunted by their own tragedies and personal memories, Muslims in America unwaveringly cling to this positive portrayal of Erdogan, no matter what Western media and Erdogan’s own critics report about his abuses of power and his incessant power grab.

Erdogan’s success story has, however, had a dramatic turn that mostly escaped the attention of the ICNA-oriented Muslims. The Turkish leader, who according to a poll in 2011 was one of the most popular leaders in the Arab Street during the Arab Spring, is no longer the one who instills confidence. The Turkish model has long been unraveling as Erdogan began to dismantle the pillars of Turkey’s imperfect democracy since Gezi protests in 2013 and undid the novel reforms his government undertook in the 2000s after the outbreak of a graft scandal in late 2013. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s tragic story is one of both triumph and tragedy. The post-coup Turkey unmistakably evokes the memories of Stalinist purge and the terror of the Soviet era. The “climate of fear”, in the words of an Amnesty International report, the harrowing account of the purge and crackdown sealed Turkey’s slow-motion tilt toward authoritarianism under the very same leader.

The Imagined Erdogan and the Real Erdogan

Yet, for some non-Turkish Muslims in the mold of the ICNA, the image of Erdogan has somehow remained unscathed. The discrepancy between reality and MB-oriented Muslims’ view of Erdogan will not vanish so long as they fail to distinguish the Erdogan image of their own making and the real Erdogan. Consequently, the unbridgeable gap between their constructed image of Erdogan and the real, historical Erdogan whose political identity and career underwent a drastic change regarding his attitudes toward the rule of law and democracy points to a larger conundrum for non-Turkish Muslims. Today, while Muslim intellectuals legitimately and rightly outcry over the abuses and rights violations by Israeli, Chinese and Burmese governments, they largely remain silent when the oppressors or autocrats turn out to be Muslims. This hypocrisy is on full display regarding Erdogan’s policies today.

The exiled leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood understandably owe a sense of gratitude to Erdogan for his consistent stance regarding the brutal crackdown on the MB in Egypt and the military coup in 2013. Erdogan’s Turkey, undeterred by the breakdown of diplomatic ties with Cairo, hosts a significant segment of MB fugitives in Turkey. Probably for this and other reasons, MB-related Muslims and Islamists have a soft spot with regards to Erdogan and have so far appeared subdued in their responses to Erdogan’s authoritarian policies inside and outside Turkey. Erdogan’s solidarity with fellow Muslim brothers and his embrace of millions of Syrian refugees have played a key part in silencing potential criticism from other Islamists from the region and those living in the West.

This clearly illustrates the moral dilemma in which American Muslims find themselves. The issue has another dimension. It must be noted that the movement has also mistakes of its own making. Given that Gulen community who are the biggest targets of RTE’s brutal assaults has a large presence in the U.S., has the nature of its relations with other Muslim communities anything to do with this? Probably. What comes to mind is the efforts of the U.S. elements of the Gulen movement to keep a distance from other Muslim communities during post 9/11 era when the U.S. law enforcement aggressively pursued MB sympathizers in ways sometimes bordered on a witch-hunt. This stance is known to have fueled resentment and caused alienation among some Muslim communities. The inter-faith dialogue and inter-cultural interaction that are the defining hallmarks of the Gulen community are mostly focused on establishing inter-communal relations with Christian and Jewish Americans. What was missing from this perspective was a recognition of the need to build intra-Muslim bridges among a diversity of Muslims in the U.S. Separately, the Gulen community’s exclusive tendency to reserve the leading role in such efforts only for people from its ranks might have engendered some form of grudge among non-Turkish Muslim groups. That said, none of these shortcomings or flaws justify the ICNA’s embrace of the Erdogan administration and its senior leaders. If the ICNA claims to seriously present a model platform to incorporate American Muslims to the U.S. society and the wider Western world, it needs to revisit its ties to controversial figures such as Kalin and other senior AKP leaders.

In Conclusion

One of the most basic expectations from ICNA would be adopting a course and discourse to take a position regarding the unlawful and inhuman efforts of the Erdogan administration to snatch opponents from anywhere across the globe in a global kidnapping campaign. Recently, a group of global media outlets well documented the stories of Gulen people being hunted like animals by Turkish secret service elements. More disturbing is the discovery of black sites inside Turkey where detained political prisoners have been subjected to gruesome torture. During these tumultuous times when authoritarianism creeps into the heart of political systems simultaneously across the world, it is clearly an imperative for enlightened Muslim intellectuals to make a solid moral choice, with no reservation or hesitation, between endorsing the preachers of thuggish acts and defending human rights.

This is not a matter of a simple binary opposition or a clash of two interpretations of Turkish Islam given the animosity between the Erdogan government and the Gulen community. This is about most basic human values, which are threatened after Kalin’s unscrupulous call for the capture of Erdogan’s critics abroad. His unabashed embrace of thuggish policies deprives him of any moral high ground and right to speak about matters concerning Islam, the West, democracy or other topics. American Muslims need to see that. Thankfully, ICNA, at the last moment, avoided such a mistake that would be regrettable from countless points of view.

But while Kalin was not there, Umut Acar, Turkey’s Consul in Chicago, who devotes much of his time trolling against Erdogan critics on Twitter, used the occasion to indulge in mere propaganda. It is true that Turkey’s efforts for refugees deserve much commendation and praise. But it must not obscure the fact that Turkey’s own citizens, who were dismissed by government decrees during the emergency rule without due process and fair trials and who were deprived of any chance to find gainful employment, become refugees themselves under the same Erdogan government. And Turkish citizens — professors, teachers, diplomats, journalists, officers and soldiers — risk their lives while crossing Evros/Maritsa (Meric in Turkish) River in a bid to reach Greece. While some make it after risky endeavors, many citizens fail and drown in the river that demarcates the blurred territorial borders between Turkey and Greece. These are today’s unpleasant facts that Umut Acar omitted from his speech at ICNA convention in Chicago. But history has a solid record on the tragedy that engulfs dozens of Turkish refugees in the notorious river- border as well as a verdict against politicians responsible for the unfolding humanitarian drama.

New York-based writer. Politics, culture, literary criticism, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store