On November 2, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to insist that more pressure be put on Saudi Arabia to answer lingering questions about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Erdoğan’s op-ed is symptomatic of the way his government has maneuvered to gain maximum benefit from the Khashoggi case. Erdoğan hits several important points: He emphasizes that Turkey is a “responsible member of the international community” and a NATO ally, and refers to Khashoggi as a “kind soul” and “honorable man.” He claims Turkey has “moved heaven and earth” to get to the truth of the case, and has shared evidence with the U.S. government to make sure others “keep asking the same questions.” Most importantly, Erdoğan writes that he does not believe “for a second” that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques—that is, King Salman—would have ordered the murder.
Deconstructing these arguments tells us a great deal about Turkey’s interests in the case. Rarely in the past several years has the embattled Turkish President been able to wear a robe of righteousness in leading Western media. Now, given the intense media interest in the Khashoggi affair, the Turkish President sees a chance to present his country in a positive light. It is hard to blame him for seizing that opportunity, given that Turkey faces more than $200 billion of debt coming due after its currency lost almost half of its value in the past year. Ankara has no alternative to striking a deal with the IMF, which will require a rapid improvement of Turkey’s relations with Western powers.
Similarly, Turkey’s indignation over a movie-like murder plot executed on its territory is understandable. But the irony of Erdoğan shedding crocodile tears over the fate of a journalist is impossible to miss. As many an analysis of the situation has noted, Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, and the country has dropped to 157th place of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index (still, it should be noted, 12 spots higher than Saudi Arabia). Erdoğan’s supposed outrage also must be seen in the context of growing Turkish intelligence involvement abroad. As the New York Times reported this past April, Turkish intelligence agents are believed to have seized close to 100 political opponents in 18 countries since the 2016 attempted military coup against Erdoğan, generating diplomatic scandals from Kosovo to Mongolia. European states have grown increasingly alarmed at the brazenness of Turkish covert activities on their soil.
Thus, there is obviously more to Turkey’s response than sincere horror at Saudi Arabia’s behavior. A number of observers have noted the masterful way in which Ankara has stage-managed the release of information surrounding the Khashoggi case, one even likening Ankara’s drip-drip release of uncorroborated allegations to Turkey’s blockbuster serialized television dramas. Indeed, lurid stories—of audio and video recordings of Khashoggi’s death, of bone saws being brought into the Embassy, of a body dissolved in acid—have dominated the news coverage. None have been backed up by publicly available evidence; all have been traced to unnamed Turkish officials.
Less obvious is why Ankara is capitalizing on this story to land blows on Saudi Arabia. True, the Saudis and Turks are regional rivals for leadership in the Muslim world, and Turkey came to Qatar’s rescue when Saudi Arabia started a campaign against the small Emirate in June 2017. More questionable is the frequently made assertion that Ankara and Riyadh are on opposing sides of a spectrum pitting “popular demonstrations and democratic politics” against “stability” and “authoritarian powers.” Turkey and Saudi Arabia are indeed on different sides of a geopolitical and ideological divide in the Middle East. But a contest between “democracy” and “authoritarianism” has nothing to do with it.
Getting to the bottom of all this requires asking what Jamal Khashoggi was doing in Turkey in the first place. And that, in turn, leads us back to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the geopolitics of the region.
The reason Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on that fateful day in October was to obtain paperwork to marry his fiancée, Turkish national Hatice Cengiz. Cengiz graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Theology in 2013. She then pursued postgraduate studies on Islamic traditions in Oman at the small, private Sabahattin Zaim University. Zaim was a leading specialist on Islamic banking, and one of the founders of the Society for the Dissemination of Knowledge (Ilim Yayma Cemiyeti), which also founded the university in 2010. Ilim Yayma, founded in 1951, was among the key organizations in the emergence of political Islam in Turkey. As the late investigative journalist Uğur Mumcu documented in his groundbreaking 1987 book Rabıta, Ilim Yayma and circles around it benefited from Saudi largesse traceable to the Muslim World League for decades. A declassified 1953 CIA report on the Muslim Brotherhood’s activity in Turkey describes Ilim Yayma as “the cover name of an Arab secret organization which has as its purpose the establishment of secret schools to train Imams and preachers.” This, of course, was when the Kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood were still allied.
Following her graduation in 2017, Cengiz moved to set herself up as an independent expert on Gulf issues, and published a number of articles and studies for the think tank INSAMER. INSAMER is the “Humanitarian and Social Research Center” run by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, IHH. That organization gained fame in 2010, when it served as the chief organizer of the Gaza Flotilla against Israel, prompting 87 U.S. Senators to request the Obama Administration to consider designating IHH a terrorist organization. While IHH has considerable humanitarian activities, it has also been implicated as an instrument in Turkey’s covert support for armed groups in Syria connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Cengiz also serves as a coordinator of the Center for Turkish-Arab Relations, a role in which she met Khashoggi in May 2018.
Khashoggi is known to have been a member and advocate of the Muslim Brotherhood for decades. These sympathies were obvious from an August 28 piece he wrote for the Washington Post titled “The U.S. Is Wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood.” In this full-throated defense of the Brotherhood, Khashoggi framed the organization solely as a defender of democracy and called the Egyptian crackdown on the Brotherhood “nothing less than an abolition of democracy.” “The choice,” he added, is “between having a free society tolerant of all viewpoints and having an oppressive regime.” What Khashoggi conveniently omitted from his analysis is that Muhammad Morsi’s tenure in Egypt was far from democratic, and involved a brazen attempt to grab power in extra-constitutional ways. By no means did it involve the “toleration of all viewpoints”: As Eric Trager and others have documented, it involved a rapid descent into authoritarian rule and intolerance of dissent.
The rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentally altered the nature of Middle East geopolitics, and pitted Turkey and Saudi Arabia against each other. This had not always been the case. Back in 2007, when King Abdullah visited Turkey, President Abdullah Gül and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan departed from diplomatic protocol when they went to visit the King at his hotel suite. This caused considerable uproar in Turkey, where it was widely interpreted as two Islamists groveling at the feet of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques rather than having the foreign head of state pay respect to them, as is common practice. Then, when the conflict in Syria escalated, Ankara and Riyadh joined forces to support the Sunni armed groups against the Assad regime, which was boosted by Russia and Iran. For a brief time, the Middle East seemed to align neatly along sectarian lines, with a Sunni bloc led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia pitted against an Iranian-led bloc supported by Moscow.
This did not last long, because the Sunni bloc itself fractured deeply over the crisis in Egypt. The rise of the Brotherhood to power in 2011-12 was greeted warmly by Ankara, not least since the Brotherhood forms a core ideological influence on Erdoğan’s AKP. In fact, Turkish leaders saw the Arab upheavals as a historic chance to establish Turkish leadership in the Middle East, using the Brotherhood and its affiliated groups from Tunisia to Syria as the vehicle. Qatar, with close ties to the Brotherhood, took a similar stance. Conversely, Erdoğan was outraged and alarmed by the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Morsi’s government, not only because it hurt Turkey’s regional leadership ambitions, but because he saw it as part of a broader regional plot against his own power. This also explains Erdoğan’s decision to pull out all brakes to come to Qatar’s rescue. Sources close to the Turkish leadership make clear that Erdoğan views the failed coup against him in July 2016 as part and parcel of the same conspiracy that unseated Morsi and sought to overthrow the Emir of Qatar. Behind this conspiracy, in Erdoğan’s mind, stands not just the Gulf monarchies but “world Zionism.”
But the monarchies of the Gulf—with the exception of Qatar—saw matters otherwise: They viewed the Brotherhood as a dangerous, subversive, and revolutionary organization that could threaten stability in the region as well as their own hold on power. The United Arab Emirates took the lead in designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, something wholeheartedly endorsed by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Both the Crown Prince and the Brotherhood advocate reform, but the type of reform they have in mind is diametrically opposed. Where the Brotherhood wants to entrench an Islamist political ideology that is inherently anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and mildly sympathetic to Iran (which supports Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing), the Crown Prince has embarked on a process of modernization and reform that would turn Saudi Arabia into a something entirely different. He views Iran as the Kingdom’s archenemy, the United States as his chief ally and partner, and Israel as a de facto ally. There is nothing democratic about his reforms: As has been widely noted, he has brought greater personal freedoms on a societal level but further restricted the boundaries of political expression. In other words, Muhammad bin Salman has embarked on a traditional process of top-down authoritarian modernization. For Turkish Islamists, what the Crown Prince is trying to do is reminiscent of the top-down authoritarian secular reform process of its archenemy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
No wonder, then, that Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan media reacted with alarm to the Crown Prince’s reform program. The tone taken by the chief AKP mouthpiece, the Islamist daily Yeni Şafak, was telling: In October 2017, its editor-in-chief Ibrahim Karagül blasted the Crown Prince’s announcement that Saudi Arabia would move toward “moderate Islam” tolerant of all religions as a “very dangerous game” instigated by the United States and Israel. Never able to refrain from hyperbole, Karagül went on to claim that the Crown Prince’s announcement was part of an American plan whose final aim was to occupy Islam’s holy sites, Mecca and Medina.
Erdoğan himself chimed in: reacting to Mohammed Bin Salman’s talk of “moderate Islam,” he retorted that “there is no moderate and immoderate Islam: there is one Islam.” Going further, he castigated the Crown Prince for adopting a Western idea: “The trademark of ‘moderate Islam’ does not belong to you, it belongs to the West. . . . Why did this emerge again? It is about weakening Islam, weakening our religion.” Not to be outdone, Mohammed bin Salman called Erdoğan part of a new “triangle of evil” with Iran and terrorist organizations (presumably referring to the Brotherhood), and accused him of trying to build a new “Ottoman Caliphate.” In statements after the Khashoggi killing, Erdoğan has studiously avoided mentioning the Crown Prince, but has repeatedly cited his respect for King Salman. His aim appears to be to enlist the West to force the King to sideline his ambitious son, and replace Mohammed bin Salman with a more pliable and less assertive figure.
Against this background, it is clear that the conflict between Riyadh and Ankara is in part about geopolitics and leadership of the Middle East. But it is equally about ideology and even survival. For a brief time between 2011 and 2013, Erdoğan and the Muslim Brotherhood were on the offensive, and sought to establish a new regional order. But they then faced a severe setback in Egypt, and both Qatar and Turkey were put on the defensive. Erdoğan and the Emir even saw their very hold on power threatened. Meanwhile, the prime beneficiary of this intra-Sunni conflict is Iran, which has exploited it to consolidate its positions in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The Khashoggi affair has allowed Erdoğan to present Turkey in a positive light. But the conflict between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is deeper and more complicated than it is made out to be. As the United States determines how to respond, nothing less than the balance of power across the Middle East is at stake. If the episode has any lessons, the first is that there may be no “good guys” in the triangle of rivalries in the region. Most importantly, the experience of the past decade suggests that forces that advocate revolution in the name of “democracy” very often have something entirely different in mind. For them, “democracy” is an instrument that allows them to enlist Western support for their ambitions of power. But under the surface, it has become clear they have a view of the world that is fundamentally incompatible with Western values and directly hostile to Western interests.