The return of the Sultan?


The recent and tragic freedom flotilla massacre has been viewed by many analysts as a turning point both in Israeli-Turkish relations and Turkish-Arab ties. Although it cannot be denied that the Turks are furious at how Israel has treated their countrymen, talks of severing ties with Israel seem premature. The Arabs as usual have gone euphoric, chanting slogans of the return of former glory at the hands of the returning Ottoman Sultan Erdogan The Great who has now become an Arab hero (this young chap here likens Erdogan to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Al Fatih), interestingly. This is an all-telling quote from the same article:

The Turkish President or the “Ottoman Sultan” Recep Tayyip Erdogan is like the famous Turkish sweet, Turkish Delight. For the first time, the nations of the Islamic world tasted the special and unique taste of the Turkish confectionery and wished these kinds of sweets would spread all over the Islamic and Arab world.

So the Arab streets are buzzing with fervent admiration for this leader who has had the guts to stand up to Israel even with words that no Arab leader has managed to do with quite the same media impact. After all, Erdogan resolutely refused to accept that Hamas is a terrorist organization as it is perceived in the West, he has openly declared his support for the Palestinian cause and has proven it with taking action and his government’s stance with respect to the Iranian question is not exactly to the West’s liking. Turkey’s ties with Israel are explained away by the fact that the Islamist ruling party in Turkey isn’t responsible for having established these ties but it was rather the (nasty) legacy of secularist Ataturk.

The West on the other hand is voicing intensifying concerns about the outward signs of Turkey’s reinvention of itself as a Muslim (Islamist even) leader which redefines its historical role as a bridge between Islam and the West. As Turkey (apparently) moves away from the Kemalist legacy of the Westernized political model, whose loss is it? The West’s, Israel’s or Turkey’s itself? Evidently, the beacon of the Middle East (that is Israel) is one step ahead of everybody as it has worked out that ‘Iran and Turkey understand that attacking the Jewish state is the fastest route to the top of the Muslim world‘ as captain Glick informs us in this piece which transforms the freedom flotilla Turkish activists into ‘a murderous mob‘ (but it is they who have ended up being murdered, however, that is an insignificant detail), Iran into ‘a carrot‘ inticing the Arabs to side with Hizbullah and Hamas and the AKP into a ‘radical Islamist party‘.

I am not sure if Turkey will continue being the Arab champion, but at least, unlike Shia-dominated Iran, Turkey is predominantly Sunni which is a factor which will play to its advantage with respect to its legitimacy or suitability as a Muslim leader. Historically however, there has been no love lost between the Turks and the Arabs nor the Persians and this will be exploited not only by the West and Israel but by anti-Islamist, secularist and liberal Arabs in order to discourage any unity between the Muslim countries constituting the Middle East. I think that any unity on that front will spell doom for Israel. I also think that there are many potentially divisive forces between the people of the Middle East for any alliance to emerge in the near future, divisive forces of such a nature that not even Islam could overcome them (in fact one major source of this schism is the Shia/ Sunni split which many Arab governments are using to attenuate the popular support for resistance movements such as Hizbullah). There will never be any hope for unity within the Ummah as long as the Sunni and Shia Muslims are at war against each other whether culturally, ethnically, politically or even ideologically. And this state of affairs will continue because it is encouraged by current Arab regimes and wealthy and influential elites (especially Saudi Arabia which regards itself as the bastion of orthodox Islam), to the extent that there was a time when Shia bashing became a favorite friday sermon topic in Algerian mosques (a trend which has now subsided thankfully) and satellite religious preaching channels (most of which sponsored by the Saudi Arabia). In addition, secular nationalist and pan-Arabist ideologies still have a significant psychological hold over the Arab minset, a hold that is not strong enough not to be overcome by religious allegiance however but the danger there is that the seeds for sectarian divisions over futile identity questions are already sown in a very fertile land (poverty, unemployment and dire socio-economic circumstances), any disruption of the power balance between nationalist currents and religious ones will result in civil unrest (and this has happened in many cases within the last decade, for example in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria).

I would like to end this piece with a happy note, if only to prove to MnarviDZ that I am not under the captivity of my negativity. And so I will say that we live in interesting and exciting times, the winds of change are blowing on the Middle East in particular and the Muslim world in general. My own crazy idea is that globalization will unexpectedly bring Muslims together eventually, it will be a painful and messy process, but the Ummah will get there in the end (insha’Allah).

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8 thoughts on “The return of the Sultan?

  1. Winds of change, how nice! If only it were true…
    Turkey is trying to play its cards right, by maintaining relations with Israel, and at the same time, establishing strong alliances with other countries in the region. However, it still has a long way to go before it can be a true leader of the region. Erdogan has internal problems that need to be dealt with, and which Israel and the West can use in their favour. The army is still very secular and may not support Erdogan in his new strategy. Add to that the secular political parties, quite right wing, and the support they have in Turkey and abroad. There is also Cyprus which recently called, seizing the opportunity of the presence of the pope, for the withdrawal of Turkey from Northern Cyprus. The Armenians, , supported by the Jewish lobby in the US, keep asking Turkey to recognize its 1915 “genocide”…All these issues will make it easier for Israel and the West to destabilize Turkey and weaken its position in the region.
    Another problem, not new to the Middle East, is the opposition of Arab governments to any “outsider” wishing to “hijack” the Palestinian issue. They did it with Iran, and their propaganda machine is already in full swing to tarnish the image of Turkey by resurrecting old problems (Kamel Ataturk, the recognition of the state of Israel etc.)
    Therefore, I think that there is a breeze of change blowing, but it needs to grow into a wind. This may happen if Egypt undergoes political change, and aligns itself with Turkey and not against it. Saudi Arabia may follow suit.

    • Hello Pandora,

      What you say is true, but by winds of change I meant the people’s attitudes and perceptions of the major players in the ME conflict. The current governments are not yet totally impotent and they can still suppress the masses but not for much longer. It is possible that a number of Arab governments will go down the pan at some stage simultaneously (they rose to power almost simultaneously too), the fact that the US hegemony is showing signs of decline will accelerate this. This will create a huge gouffre and the people will naturally look up to whichever Muslim country is still standing. In this respect Turkey has a lot going for it compared to Shiite Iran (am talking with respect to the Arab peoples), and its better relationship with the West is also an advantage. Even our national football team’s supporters are taking Turkish flags with them to South Africa!

      As for Turkey’s internal problems, which country doesn’t have them?! Personally, I think that if Turkey abandons its secular model, it would be a big mistake both for its internal and external influence. Like him or loathe him, Ataurk did modernize Turkey and the key to that was secularization. To those who oppose secularism under the pretext that it is anti-religion, Turkey is an example that secularism doesn’t have to mean that a country will be ruled by the faithless and the infidels.

      • This is in response to the last paragraph in your reply:

        I am by no means suggesting that Turkey needs to abandon its secular model in order to lead the region. I highlighted the problems that Erdogan is facing at home… the generals tried to overthrow his government in 2003! His government is secular but this is not enough for the army and the opposition. The Turks who oppose Erdogan and call themselves secular ( although a more appropriate word would be religion haters) imply that Erdogan’s government is a radical fundamentalist party. These Turks tend to see in him a return to the past, a past they do not seem to be proud of! These people are not happy about Turkey’s new strategy.
        An example that highlights this is the controversy over the lift on the headscarf ban. “On 5 June 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court annulled the parliament’s proposed amendment intended to lift the headscarf ban, ruling that removing the ban was against the founding principles of the constitution. The highest court’s decision to uphold the headscarf ban cannot be appealed. (AP 7 June 2008)” (Wikipedia)
        Although I agree with you in that all countries have internal problems, powerful economies (mostly western) are well insulated and can deal with their problems without being destabilized from the outside. It looks like I am undermining Turkey’s ability to overcome its problems, but it is not easy having to deal with all the abovementioned problems in the volatile middle east.

  2. Turkey is an economic and political regional leader, and Arabs have to accept and live with this fact. This is why I prefer Turkey to be on the Arabs side (even if this stance is following Turkey’s national and strategic interests) than be on the other side. If the Arab states consider their people’s interests, and not the rulers’, then they would find that working with Turkey will be positive for everybody. But allow me to be negative or realistic, it’s the same here, and say Mubarak and co. will be happy to crash Turkey’s efforts.

    Talking of Turkey or Iran, I have a question. It is obvious that the Arab world and Muslim countries around the Mediterranean have failed in their historical leading role of the Ummah. I wonder why we don’t see a bigger influence from Islamic Asia. Ok, El Afghani, Iqbal, etc. have greatly influenced the Muslim world but I think this region should/could do more.

    PS: I agree with your last paragraph. I believe that at some point, the Muslim world will take over, and I am more concerned on what we are doing (we are not doing) to make it happen sooner.

    • It is funny how you and Pandora have stressed that Turkey is mostly interested in its own interests. Well, of course it is and it is a great thing to see a country reaching a stage of maturity where it is capable of defining a clear and coherent vision for its future and role in world affairs. The Arab governments will want to crash Turkey’s efforts because they are also seeking to serve their own personal interests which are diametrically opposed to those of their own peoples.

      As to your question about the Muslim Asian influence or potential leadership role in the Muslim world, I think that it could partly be explained by the Arab hegemony which tainted Islam since its birth. There have always been fierce resistance by the Arabs to any non-Arab attenpt to ‘use’ Islam, the fact that the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic is part of it (they wanted to preserve the Holy Book), but it was more than that, it had a lot to do with politics. Why go as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan, take Iran for example, the Persians (philosophers, scientists and poets) have contributed a lot to Islam and added many layers of sophistication to what the bedouins had initially made of it but their contributions are largely unacknowledged.

      To cut a long story short, I think that the answer to your question lies in the fact that Arabs have hijacked Islam, which is supposed to be a religion for all humankind.

  3. I agree there Pandora, secularism does seem to have been hijacked in practice by religion haters and this is exploited by other types of ‘haters’ from the opposite camp (the religious fundies). It is a shame because I find it to be an elegant political system. I have been meaning to write about this but have not got round to it yet. I think the Turkish democracy has been tested and it has fared well so far, although like you say in volatile Middle East it is very difficult to make long haul predictions.

    One prediction I am happy to make however is that Muslim leadership will not come from Arab nor North African countries. Not in the near, medium, or long term.

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