Given the close relationship, globally, between religious political action and religious charities, it should come as no surprise that there is a long tradition of cooperation between Islamist political parties and Islamic charitable organizations in Turkey. While this relationship has been the subject of considerable discussion in analyses of Turkish domestic politics, less noticed has been the savvy cooperation between the Turkish government and Turkish Islamic organizations in implementing the country’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under the ruling AKP, or Justice and Development Party. Two recent crises, the “Mavi Marmara” incident in 2010 and Turkey’s on-going aid mission to Libya, highlight the ways in which this cooperation has allowed Turkey to assert itself regionally and are suggestive of the sophistication of its efforts to become, in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s words, “a regional power and a global player.”

Due to severe restrictions on Islamist political parties throughout most of Turkey’s history, charitable foundations and organizations have taken on a particularly important role in developing and defining Islamic politics in a country that is constitutionally secular, but, at least nominally, 99.9 percent Muslim.

To take only the most prominent example, the Gülen movement has become one of the most powerful and influential forces within Turkish society, with control of Turkey’s most popular newspaper, a major university, several television stations, a bank, etc. Internationally, the movement, through businesses, charitable groups, scholarly activity, and, in particular, affiliated schools, has done a tremendous amount to increase both its own and Turkey’s influence abroad. In a remarkably shrewd program of public diplomacy, it quietly runs conferences and tours of Turkey for foreign academics and opinion makers, which aim to increase public sympathy both for Turkey and for the Gülen movement’s own vision of Islamic modernism. Its influence has garnered attention; it is the subject of a remarkable literature, some unabashedly hagiographical, and some depicting an almost mafia-like network of control. The Gülen movement is also the most successful example of a religious movement integrating itself into the fabric of the Turkish political system, with strong mutual ties between itself and the AKP and, by all appearances, with influence on major bureaucracies (most notably the police, which it has apparently used to stifle criticism). For decades, the secular government viewed the movement as a direct threat to the state. In recent years, however, despite some apparent tensions, a relationship has developed between the AKP and the Gülen movement and has clearly strengthened both.

The Gülen movement is also the most significant example of a larger process, however. As Jenny White outlined in her landmark Political Mobilization in Turkey, the relationship between religious organizations and charities, on the one hand, and Islamist political parties, on the other, was central to the rise of what would become the AKP. It is a formula that has continued to work and one of the reasons why the AKP has, since it first came to power in 2002, almost completely dominated Turkish politics and, in many ways, initiated an era of transformation in Turkish society that is at least as profound as that undergone during Turkey’s transition to democracy under Adnan Menderes, between 1950 and 1960.

The same type of alliance between private charities and the AKP that marked its rise to power and continues to color its domestic policy can be seen in its foreign policy. In particular, the AKP has worked with the İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetler İnsani Yardım Vakfı (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief), or IHH, in several highly conspicuous missions that have greatly increased Turkey’s regional visibility and prestige. This relationship, in turn, has allowed Turkey greater flexibility of action than it might otherwise have enjoyed.

The IHH initially developed as a response to the targeting of Muslims in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Despite harassment by the Turkish government and early controversies regarding use of funds and its relationship to militant Islamist groups, it has, since the 1990s, become one of the most effective and influential Islamic NGOs in Turkey. Like many civil society organizations, the IHH gained substantial credibility in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1999, which left the Turkish state looking lackadaisical and uncaring in comparison to the proactive and efficient response of civil society. In addition, the IHH highlights the growing prominence of self-consciously Islamic actors within the Turkish public sphere under the AKP.

The AKP has won elections, not just by carrying its base, but also by creating shifting coalitions—pulling in voters who, while not necessarily sympathetic to its religious profile, nonetheless see it as the best electoral option. The IHH, however, represents the AKP’s core constituency: more religious and, while still deeply nationalistic, far more aware of itself as part of an international community of Muslims. Although it is true that many in the AKP’s devout base would prefer a party that was more explicitly Islamic, there is little question that this group makes up the AKP’s most loyal supporters. Like most Turks, they tend to see Muslims in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans as part of their “near abroad.” However, the IHH and groups like it have been especially innovative through their a longstanding interest and activities the Muslim Africa and the Arab Middle East, which has, in turn, helped to redefine the Turkish public’s commitment to these regions (and although the IHH has engaged in charitable activities outside of the Muslim world, the reality is that these efforts have been extremely limited in both scale and duration).

It is precisely because of this “internationalist” outlook that the IHH and similar groups have proven such valuable allies to the AKP in its regional foreign policy, which has taken on an increasingly “Islamic” tone in the past five or so years. Initially, Turkey made real efforts at EU ascension, at addressing the issue of Cyprus, and at improving ties with both Greece and Armenia. Since the middle of the last decade, however, most of these programs have stalled, sometimes because of Turkish decisions, but just as often because of choices quite outside of their control. As the 2000s wore on, therefore, the “strategic depth” envisioned by the AKP’s chief foreign policy strategist, Ahmet Davutoğlu, took on an increasingly (though never exclusively) Muslim character.

Groups like the IHH have been a central component of the “soft power” influence that Davutoğlu sees as central to Turkey’s growing regional role. For example, the IHH served as the vanguard for Turkish reconstruction work in Lebanon in the aftermath of Israel’s 2006 invasion. Their work has included, in addition to medical and other charitable support, the establishment of an “Istanbul Education Center.” Along with technical training, the school offers Turkish classes, Similar programs have been developed elsewhere. A survey of the IHH’s activities makes it clear that it is an Islamic charitable organization, but one also very much colored by its Turkish identity. From the AKP’s perspective, this has made it an important vehicle for Turkish ties to the region (and visits by AKP dignitaries make clear the IHH’s prestige). At the same time, the IHH also represents one means by which the AKP’s devout Sunni base has been able to pressure the government to take policies more in keeping with their vision. In the past year, the IHH was particularly active in pressuring Turkey to take a harder line with the Assad regime in Syria, and it appears to have facilitated Turkish contacts with the Syrian opposition.

The IHH played an even larger role in the dissolution of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, which the AKP has inherited from its predecessors. The close relationship between Turkey and Israel was largely the product of the Turkish military’s determination, in the 1990s, to define Turkish foreign policy. From the perspective of the AKP, a cooling of this relationship was attractive in terms of domestic politics (demonstrating that the civilian government had the final say over all matters of policy), electoral politics (Israel’s standing with the Turkish public was never high and declined precipitously after the Second Intifada), and for Turkey’s standing in the wider Middle East. In order to be an effective regional player, Turkey needed to be able to interact with Israel without appearing to be merely a U.S. proxy. Ideologically, politically, and strategically, the Turkish-Israeli alliance was an unwelcome inheritance for the AKP and grew increasingly sour over time. By 2009, Erdoğan was loudly berating the Israeli government for “knowing well how to kill,” while at the same time increasing Turkey’s contacts with Hamas and Hizbullah.

Although the IHH had facilitated these shifts, both by lobbying in Turkey and through its contacts in Lebanon and Palestine, its most dramatic contribution has been its participation in an international “Gaza Freedom Flotilla,” in 2010, which aimed to weaken the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip by transporting humanitarian aid directly to the Port of Gaza, bypassing Israeli controls. Despite claims that it had no role to play, there is little question that the Turkish government supported the flotilla, facilitating the IHH’s purchase of the Mavi Marmara ferryboat from the AKP-controlled Istanbul Municipal Government. The leader of the IHH, Bülent Yıldırim, specifically thanked the AKP and two other parties for their support at the ceremony marking the beginning of the flotilla. And although Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu later claimed that he attempted to persuade the IHH to bring the aid through an Israeli port, it seems unlikely, given the close relations between the AKP and the IHH, that real pressure was brought to bear. Indeed, the Turkish position at the time was simply that it had no way of controlling a civilian organization.

Although the flotilla was certainly designed to prompt a confrontation that would embarrass Israel and weaken the embargo of Gaza, it seems unlikely that anybody had foreseen Israel’s clumsy attack on the flotilla, which left nine activists killed and dozens injured. Despite the high human costs, however, Turkey had the excuse it needed to finally end an awkward alliance with Israel, while its moral stature in the region was now unparalleled. Turkey’s economy, its cultural output, and the broad model of a Muslim democracy all are important elements of its improved standing in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the assertiveness with which it has positioned itself as a critic of American policy in the region, along with its increasingly vocal support of Palestinian rights, has put it in a class by itself. According to recent polls, Tayyip Erdoğan is the most admired foreign political leader in the Arab world and most Palestinians see Turkey as their best regional ally.

Nonetheless, the AKP seems to have calculated that, while it has no particular interest in a warming of relations with Israel, it also has little to gain from further heightening tensions. The AKP successfully persuaded the IHH to forego a second Gaza Flotilla in 2011. Diplomatic ties will continue to be cool, but Turkey has a strong enough tradition in multi-party talks to serve as a mediator if the opportunity arises. In the meantime, Turkey can enjoy the independence and prestige of a public estrangement. Israel, in turn, is left painfully aware that it needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs it. Official apology or no, hopes in Israel that the estrangement with Turkey is temporary are simply wishful thinking. Posters placed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and the Istanbul Municipality promise brotherhood with the Palestinians in their struggle to liberate Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has voiced interest in a visit to Gaza.

An IHH aid flotilla played a similarly central role in another recent Turkish foray into regional politics. Initially, Turkey met the rise of the anti-Gaddafi resistance movement in Libya with considerable discomfort, finding itself at odds with both its Western allies and regional public opinion. To its credit, however, the Turkish government quickly changed tack, pairing minimal and grudging support for the NATO intervention with a very broad humanitarian effort, with the IHH again taking a leading role. At a time when the Libyan opposition was still protesting against Turkey’s apparent sympathy to Gaddafi, the IHH’s presence enabled the Turks to backtrack from an untenable position: it allowed them to address a real humanitarian crisis, to build bridges with an initially antagonistic Libyan opposition, and to distinguish themselves from their NATO allies by highlighting humanitarian projects over military intervention. As Turkey realized that Gaddafi’s position was hopeless, it began to build on these ties to reach out to the Libyan opposition. By July 2011, Turkey had clearly positioned itself as an ally of the Libyan opposition. Humanitarian aid had played a key role in allowing the AKP to negotiate a difficult transition and to reposition itself for a post-Gaddafi Libya.

The alliance between the AKP and Islamic charities such as the IHH has been mutually beneficial. The AKP mobilized its base as a means of increasing its outreach, both domestically and overseas. This cooperation has both appealed to the internationalist outlook of the AKP’s devout base and afforded Turkey increased influence in its “near abroad,” thus serving as an important component of the AKP’s emphasis on amplifying the country’s “soft power.” Under the AKP, charity abroad has served Turkey well.