Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to cut his visit to the United States short and skip services for boxing legend Muhammad Ali even though he was among the first world leaders to say he would attend.
There are several rumors circulating that Erdogan either left the U.S. in a huff, or was barred from attending the event.
“Erdoğan reportedly attempted to a put a piece of cloth from the Kaaba on Ali’s coffin during the funeral prayers but was refused permission to do so,” reports Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News.
Not only that, but Hurriyet cites other Turkish media reports that Erdogan – and the head of Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs, Mehmet Gormez – wanted to read from the Koran at the funeral, but were denied permission to do so. The official explanation is that Erdogan was removed from the list of speakers because there was not enough time for everyone who was scheduled.
Furthermore, Hurriyet reports there was some sort of “quarrel” between Erdogan’s bodyguards and the U.S. Secret Service, “reportedly because a secret service official wanted to stand in the same place as presidential bodyguards as Erdoğan was getting into his car.”
The Washington Post adds one more possible reason Erdogan took a powder: “There had also been a number of unconfirmed reports that Ali’s family had invited the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a noted rival to Erdogan, to the funeral.”
That “rivalry” has intensified to the point that Turkey declared the followers of Gulen, who lives in the United States, to be a terrorist organization at the end of May.
There may also have been domestic political considerations for Erdogan, as the Post observes that “many in Turkey found Erdogan’s rush to honor Ali distasteful,” since Turkey is currently grappling with terrorist attacks and Kurdish separatists. Some Turks also contend that Ali “would have had no support for many of Erdogan’s increasingly controversial policies.”
Al-Monitor has a few examples of such negative feedback from critics of Erdogan and his AKP Party:
One tweet read, “The people who would lynch me had I said ‘Kurds did not do anything to me, why would I join the [Turkish] army?’ are praising Ali [for his stand against the Vietnam War].”
Another tweet read, “AKP’s spokesperson, Numan Kurtulmus, praised Muhammad Ali for his argument. ‘They did not do anything to me’ against the Vietnam War. What if someone [from Turkey] refuses to go to war in Nusaybin?”
[…] Critics of Erdogan started questioning what Erdogan would say at the funeral, and in social media people commented, “The man who does not attend the funerals of martyrs in his own country is attending Muhammad Ali’s funeral to get more votes.”
According to al-Monitor, Erdogan was roundly lambasted for the cancellation of his speech at Ali’s funeral. Some social media users had reportedly been placing bets on whether Erdogan, Gulen, and their respective entourages would get into a brawl, if they had encountered each other at the funeral.
Though the Turkish leader no-showed, his nation came up during the public service. At the memorial at a Louisville arena, speaker Michael Lerner proclaimed, “Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop killing the Kurds,” amid a rambling series of public policy demands.