Turkey at the shores of purgatory

Turkey at the shores of purgatory

With hearts pounding for the (Sunni) Muslim paradise but minds not too silly to risk a (Shiite) Muslim hell, officialdom in Ankara is going through the country’s century-old conundrum: Unfortunately, Muslim Turkey is privately viewed as an “infidel land” both by Wahhabi (or other fellow) Sunni Arabs and by the Shiite (not-so-fellow) Persians. It is simple to understand. For the Wahhabi and other Arab Sunni supremacists, Turkey, despite its all-too-willing Islamists, is too Western, too secular, too infidel and too un-Arab. For the Shiite supremacists, despite its all-too-willing pro-Muslim-solidarity rhetoric, Turkey is too Western, too secular, too infidel and too Sunni. 

Turks are trying something – most probably in vain. They sang music to Persian ears numerous times in nice, Kodak-moment pleasantries during state visits in both Ankara and Tehran. In one such moment, last April, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “Whether it’s Shiite or Sunni does not concern me; what concerns me is Muslims.”  

Mr. Erdoğan was honest and not. Honest, because what concerns him really is Muslims when they should come against others. And not, because it does concern him a lot whether it’s Sunni or Shiite when the two sects should come against each other. Unlucky for him, the Persians have mastered “taqiyya” much better than the Turks, and have not provided any indication of taking him seriously – other than giving him fake hugs, and that, despite his “awfully Western attire.”

Mr. Erdoğan and his men are not luckier when they play their role to a much more “home” (read: Sunni) audience. In a recent fancy state visit to the Saudi Kingdom, Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, Professor Mehmet Görmez, said: “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among the biggest countries which, in the Muslim world, have been able to preserve their national integrities and [at the same time] resist sectarian ‘fitna’ [the Arabic word for civil strife].” In response, the cheerful grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, said: “Muslims should stay away from conflict … Saudi Arabia will always side with Turkey.”  

How nice to know all that and hear the words of peace. And timely, too. It’s the same play-acting that has taken place in Ankara and Tehran numerous times before, and elsewhere in the “our-Muslim-brothers-and-our-solidarity” parts of the Middle East. 

Occasionally, though, Turks should be reminded of a little bit of history. For instance, in 1916, the sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire – which Ankara now wants to revive – in order to secure Arab independence and create a single unified Arab state spanning the Arab territories. The idea was to end the centuries-old Turkish claim to the throne of the Islamic caliph. One needs to be too naïve to believe that that Arab sentiment has faded away for good. 

Just like the mullahs in Tehran or Hezbollah’s men in Beirut, in Riyadh, too, the Turks are simply viewed as a bunch of neo-Ottomanist, hostile infidels wearing the Western necktie with whom a good Muslim can only forge a tactical alliance, not a strategic one.  

Most recently, Saudi Arabia has probably done something bad, willingly or not, to worsen its ties with Turkey. In another Kodak-moment pleasantry, like those between Turkey and Iran, it has signed a treaty to establish “high-level strategic councils” with Turkey. That, from recent history, means that the two Sunni Islam champions may soon have to engage in a cold war.  

Some of the countries Turkey in recent years have signed the same treaty with include Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Russia. Not a good sign for Turkish-Saudi relations.