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  • Rory O'Keeffe

US advice on Turkey risks wild misunderstandings; skirts with disaster

US national security advisor HR McMaster has claimed that Turkey is ‘funding and encouraging’ extremist Islamic and terror organisations.

He said: ‘Turkish sources have financed groups around the world, from the Balkans to western Africa and southeast Asia. We didn't pay enough attention to how extremist ideologies were being advanced through madrassas and mosques, and so-called charities more broadly.’

McMaster is, we should note, an international security expert, but he should be aware that his audience is not. For this reason we should note that ‘madrassa’ is in fact the Arabic word for school, and that therefore no-one should draw the conclusion that because someone founds (or funds) a madrassa they are in some way spreading the ideals of terrorism.

Simultaneously, we might also consider that mosques are not only places of prayer. They have also, in the past decades, become places where resistance against secular leaders – some of them dictators such as Muammar Ghaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad – has grown.

Of course, this is for religious reasons, but while we might note that of course the direct definition of a ‘terrorist’ is someone who resists the recognised government of their state using violence, the repression of religion by dictatorial regimes is most usually considered a bad thing. We could also remember that, as the by now rather well-worn expression has it ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter’ (this is certainly the case in Syria, where all opponents of Assad, rather than just IS, are referred to by Assad and Russia as ‘terrorists’).

In fact, we may go further and note that in some cases, the militarisation of religious groups has been directly sparked by attempts – real or perceived – to marginalise or eliminate their ideas and/or practices.

This does not mean IS, in particular (as well as Al-Qaeda, Janjaweed, Al Shabab and Boko Haram), should be regarded as anything other than they are – bloodthirsty murderers and (in some cases) desperate people whose families have been kidnapped to make them fight (we could also note that Muslims, including those who regularly attend mosque, make up by far the greatest proportion – well over 95 per cent – of people killed by IS). It just means that some groups who have started by meeting at mosques and feeling threatened by the leader of the state they live in, have been regarded as allies and ‘on the right side’.

We should also note that ‘mosques’ are seldom actually responsible for the groups that meet at them, and that Wahabbism aside, very few strands of Islam advocate ‘extremism’ in any serious way (Salafi Jihadism – IS’ claimed position – is literally named because Salafis and their mosques refuse to recognise those who advocate violence as Salafis).

That is, funding a mosque is very unlikely to mean that a person is deliberately promoting violence.

As for ‘so-called charities’, the statement appears at first glance to have been directly lifted from the states blockading Qatar (including long-time US ally Saudi Arabia) who have claimed Qatari charity workers are in fact terrorists. This claim would seem more water-tight were one of the men mentioned by the four states not the leader of the state’s branch of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Governments are presently far too quick to regard any agency which safeguards its independence from them as in some way ‘undermining’ or counter to their interests.

In any case, the statement appears at best poorly-worded, and at worst wildly inaccurate.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded with predictable outrage – this time perhaps understandable.

Its statement said: ‘The allegations made by Mr. McMaster, who is best placed to judge Turkey's ceaseless combat against terrorism and radicalism in all its forms and manifestations, are astonishing, baseless and unacceptable.’

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