Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lays flowers on the graves at the military cemetery of the Canakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Gallipoli Peninsula during the 104th anniversary of World War I battles on the peninsula, March 18, 2019. AFP Forum via Andalou Agency/Ali Balikci

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started to backtrack from incendiary comments he made linking New Zealand’s recent mosque killings with the Gallipoli campaign by Australians and New Zealanders in World War I.

But while the Turkish leader climbs down from the controversial comparison, political leaders aren’t listening.

Erdogan now insists an apparent threat to send Australian and New Zealand nationals home “in coffins” in response to the mosque massacre was a misreading of his remarks and should not damage diplomatic ties with either country.

“President Erdogan’s words were unfortunately taken out of context. He was responding to the so-called ‘manifesto’ of the terrorist who killed 50 innocent Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand,” Turkish government spokesman Fahrettin Altun said on Thursday (March 21).

“As he was giving the speech at the Çanakkale (Gallipoli) commemoration, he framed his remarks in a historical context of attacks against Turkey, past and present. Turks have always been the most welcoming and gracious hosts to their Anzac visitors,” Altun added.

Erdogan angered political leaders in the two countries with an astonishing speech that claimed the massacre of 50 Muslims at two Christchurch city mosques was an attack on Turkey and evidence of global anti-Muslim sentiment.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at Canakkale Martyrs’ Memorial in Gallipoli Peninsula to mark the 104th anniversary of Canakkale Naval Victory Day, March 18, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Andalou Agency/Ali Balikci

Speaking at a political rally, Erdogan screened footage of Australian and New Zealand troops (Anzacs) fighting Turks at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles Strait in 1915-16.

Almost 100,000 Turks and 56,000 Allied troops were killed, including 8,709 Australian soldiers and 2,721 New Zealanders.

“You heinously killed 50 of our siblings. You will pay for this,” Erdogan said in comments referring to Brenton Tarrant, 28, the detained Australian allegedly responsible for the Christchurch massacre. “If New Zealand doesn’t make you, we know how to make you pay one way or another.

“Your grandparents came here … and they returned in caskets,” he said. “Have no doubt we will send you back like your grandfathers.”

The Turkish leader did not mention British, French and Indian troops, who all also fought in the Gallipoli campaign, one of the most bloody of that war.

Toning down his rhetoric in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Erdogan redirected the blame to Tarrant, saying the white supremacist tried “to legitimize his twisted views by distorting world history and the Christian faith” and “sought to plant seeds of hate among fellow humans.”

An image grab from TV New Zealand taken on March 15, 2019, shows a victim arriving at a hospital following a mass mosque shooting in Christchurch. Photo: TV New Zealand/AFP

“Viewing history through the lens of its radical ideology, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a terrorist organization that has killed thousands of predominantly Muslim civilians in recent years, called for the ‘reconquest’ of Istanbul – much like the Christchurch attacker, who pledges in his manifesto to make the city ‘rightfully Christian owned once more,’” Erdogan wrote.

“In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, the West has certain responsibilities. Western societies and governments must reject the normalization of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia …”

Annoying foreign governments is part of the formula Erdogan has used to whip up support for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) since he took over as president in 2014.

The Turkish leader kicked out Israel’s ambassador ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, and accused Dutch and German ministers of being “Nazis” just before a 2017 constitutional referendum.

Playing the religion card has proved highly effective for Erdogan in the past, though some political analysts believe it smacks of desperation as support for his AKP slides in the run-up to March 31 local elections in Turkey.

“Last year, Erdoğan made use of the same trope, and in an echo of Samuel Huntington’s prediction of a clash of civilizations, threatened Austria with a ‘crusader-crescent war’ after Austria closed down seven mosques and expelled 40 imams,” Robert Ellis, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute in New York, noted in an article written for Insight Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish Presidential Palace via Reuters/Cem Oksuz
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Turkish Presidential Palace via Reuters/Cem Oksuz

“The Turkish constitution stipulates that no one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings in any manner whatsoever for the purpose of personal or political interest. Nevertheless, religion has been a powerful weapon in the electoral campaign,” Ellis wrote.

Looking for enemies abroad is Erdogan’s way of diverting attention from the country’s economic woes, which threaten the AKP’s hold on major cities like Istanbul and Ankara. The Turkish economy shrunk by 3% in the final quarter of 2018; unemployment is rising and social unrest is spreading, according to reports.

Erdogan is likely to start mending fences with Australia and New Zealand once the poll is held, but political leaders in those countries are not amused at being drawn into Turkey’s domestic political maneuvers, especially as they have supported Ankara’s role on the world stage.

Australia and New Zealand sent a joint training mission to Iraq to counter ISIS, while Australia and Turkey are part of an informal grouping with Indonesia, South Korea and Mexico that addresses global challenges. There are about 100,000 people with Turkish ancestry living in Australia.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs and consoles a woman as she visited a mosque to lay flowers among tributes to Christchurch attack victims, March 17, 2019. Photo: Twitter

New Zealand announced Thursday that its Foreign Minister Winston Peters will be sent to Ankara to “confront” Erdogan’s comments. Australia, whose Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier described the remarks as “deeply offensive”, is considering expelling the Turkish ambassador.

A travel warning for Australians visiting Turkey, which is already at a high level due to terrorist risks, may also be intensified, possibly deterring thousands planning to attend commemorative services at Gallipoli scheduled for April 25. This could cause substantial losses for Turkey’s tourism industry, reports indicate.

Morrison, whose government faces his own election test late next month, said he did not accept Erdogan’s excuses for the “coffins” remark, even if it had been made “in the heat of the moment” or in an “electoral contest.”

“Australia has denounced, New Zealand has denounced, absolutely and completely, the act of extremist right-wing terrorism, white supremacist terrorism that we saw in New Zealand,” Morrison said. “I will wait to see what the response is from the Turkish government before taking further action, but I can tell you that all options are on the table.”

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