ISTANBUL - The war of words between France and Turkey over cartoons portraying Islam's Prophet Muhammad, triggered by the recent beheading of a French teacher, continues to escalate. But behind the diplomatic storm over freedom of expression versus religious sensitivity is a bitter rivalry for influence in Africa.
To rousing applause from parliamentary deputies of his party, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Wednesday accused Western countries of seeking to re-launch the Crusades. Erdogan's latest salvo is over French President Emmanuel Macron's defense of the publication of cartoons of Islam's prophet Muhammad.
Erdogan said it is an issue of honor for Turkey to stand against the attacks against the Prophet who honored Mecca, Medina, Africa, Asia, Europe, in the whole world, and at all times.
The Turkish president has sought to present himself as a global defender of Muslim rights. But the current dispute over the cartoons is part of a growing rivalry between France and Turkey, says analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Edam research institution in Istanbul.
"There is a different positioning regionally with France having established a strategic alliance with the United Arab Emirates ostensibly to fight against the influence of political Islam in the Middle East and Northern Africa," Ulgen said. "And where Turkey is seen on the contrary as belonging to the other camp, namely of supporting political Islam through its relationship with the different entities and the Muslim Brotherhood."
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France and Turkey back rival sides in the Libyan civil war, while Erdogan is a strong critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah, el-Sissi, a key French ally. Turkey is now challenging France's powerful influence in predominantly Muslim West African countries that were once French colonies, says Emre Caliskan of Britain's University of Oxford.
"Turkey, as a newcomer, an emerging power, their interests, and presence is threatening French interests and a vice versa," said Caliskan. "Turkey is trying to secure the region around Libya. We saw Erdogan's visit to Niger and Turkey recently engaging with Mali.
Earlier this year, Turkey signed a defense agreement with Niger. The Turkish military already has a presence in Libya. For now, analysts say Ankara's priority is to build a strategic presence in the region. But Turkish companies are also eyeing African markets currently dominated by French firms, which analysts say can only add to the deepening rivalry between Turkey and France.