The growing personal rivalry between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron poses a serious threat to the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. It, also, threatens the security and stability of the eastern Mediterranean region, which has already been suffering from political and military tensions, since August 2020. The two presidents deliberately inserted the religious-based disagreements between Islam and secularism into the core of their political fights. Their purpose is to inflame the populist sentiments of the far right in each of their countries, to build popular support that will benefit each of them in their separate electoral battles over the presidential seats in France and Turkey, within the coming two years.
More than a year ago, the conflicts between Ankara and Paris erupted as a result of their conflicting interests in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In December 2019, Turkey signed a maritime and military agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which was ruling from Tripoli, at that time. The military agreement allowed Turkey to intervene militarily in Libya and thus gain influence over North Africa and the southern Mediterranean. The maritime agreement gave Turkey the time and space needed to maneuver the international laws and pressure Greece, in the hope of regaining its lost rights in the Mediterranean, since the signing of the Lausanne Agreement in 1923.
France considered the rising maritime and military influence of Turkey over Libya, and consequently over the eastern Mediterranean basin, as an indirect threat to France's interests in securing gas imports via the newly discovered resources in the Mediterranean. Gas imports represent a lifeline for France, Turkey, and most European countries. This prompted Macron to intervene with all his diplomatic and military weight in the conflict between Turkey and Greece, thousands of kilometers away from the borders of his own country, under the pretext of protecting Greece as a European country against non-European Turkey.
In September 2020, Macron launched the “Pax Mediterranean” initiative to pressure the European Union to impose sanctions on Turkey. Up till this moment, the European Union has not responded to France's pressures, given the geopolitical importance that Turkey represents to the security and stability of Europe. Turkey’s unique geographic location and strong military make it a strong frontline of defense against the many troubles coming from the Middle East toward Europe, including the Arab Spring refugee crisis and the threat of terrorist organizations infiltrating Europe.
However, since October 2020, the conflict between Erdogan and Macron has gradually shifted from media battles and diplomatic threats over conflicting political interests, into a mortified battle that is fueled by religious and ideological differences between the West and the East.
On one side, Erdogan claimed to himself the role of the Caliph of Muslims who is responsible for defending Islam against non-Muslim Europe, in general, and secular France, in particular. Erdogan accuses France and the French president of being "Islamophobic," despite France being the European country with the largest number of Muslims more than six million citizens, mostly from Arab and North African origins. Amid the conflict between Ankara and Paris, last year, Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods and products after an extremist French magazine published insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Ironically, some Arab countries, which conflicted with Turkey, at that time, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, supported Turkey’s initiative.
On the other side of this shameful battle, Macron boasted himself as the champion of secularism, by rejecting the adoption of special religious practices by Muslims within their closed communities. Amid his conflict with Erdogan, the French President renewed the call for a government-led campaign, that he initiated in February 2020, for fighting “Islamic Separatism." Macron’s campaign assumes that France should fight against the closeness of Muslim communities, by preventing them from practicing special rituals in closed groups and embracing religious values of their own, that may be inconsistent with the secular laws and values of the French republic. Macron believes that this closeness of Muslim communities preempts a dangerous gap that may generate Islamist extremists, who would eventually lead to terrorist attacks on France and Europe.
After his dispute with Erdogan, last year, Macron directly accused Turkey of being responsible for the extremism that afflicted the Muslim communities in France. Macron said that he would gradually seek to set limits to curb foreign influence over Muslim citizens inside France, in explicit reference to the imams and sheiks who are sent by Turkey and North African countries to France to teach and preach in Muslim schools and mosques. He claimed that most of these imams carry political agendas that hurt the homogeneity of French society.
The disturbing news is that this ideological-based dispute between Erdogan and Macron is being renewed, these days. Two weeks ago, Macron accused Turkey of trying to interfere in the French presidential elections, scheduled for next year, and he attributed this to the great influence that Turkey has on the closed Muslim communities inside France. In an official press release, the Turkish Foreign Ministry rejected Macron’s allegations and called them dangerous and unacceptable. Unfortunately, this ideologically biased rhetoric between Macron and Erdogan, highlighting the points of disagreements between secularism and Islam, is expected to intensify significantly in the coming months, as the dates for the presidential elections in France and Turkey approach.
Macron is going to compete against far-right populist candidates, in 2022, while Erdogan is depending on the ultra-nationalist and Islamist popular bases in the presidential elections of 2023. Intensifying the ideological rhetoric is a winning card that neither Macron nor Erdogan would hesitate to play to keep their presidential seats, for as long as possible. However, this irresponsible use of the ideological differences between Islam and secularism may fuel religious-based conflicts between extremists on both sides and thus recreate the notorious Crusades of the Middle Ages between Europe and the East, into our modern times.
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