Tears of King Abdullah, Atatürk and women
The most read story on Hürriyet Daily News website on March 6 was the story about (and a photograph of) King Abdullah II of Jordan shedding tears before the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic as he was paying respect during his visit to Turkey.
One agency reported that it might be because of watering of his eyes due to cold air. Even so, the picture had a symbolic value regarding the political balances in the Middle East and the legacy of Atatürk which is starting to be remembered in and out of Turkey; Abdullah I, the great-grandfather of the king of Jordan, had been hosted by Atatürk himself in Turkey and the king is now carrying a crown under the treat of radical Islamists, like some other rulers of the Arab world.
The winds of the Arab Spring have not only removed a number of dictators from power who used to abuse the secular way of life as a mask for themselves to sustain their power over their people. They also opened the way for Islamist regimes in the region which are not likely to bring Western-standard democracies to the greater Middle East area, but perhaps cause the social and political situation to get worse in certain areas, like the role of women in society. Islamic movements under pressure by those dictators started to get organized during the 1960s and 1970s in Ikhwan Muslim (The Muslim Brotherhood)-type formations and have survived until today as an alternative to power. But in the meantime, thanks to the U.S.-sponsored Sunni radicalism against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and the Shiite-led Islamic Revolution in Iran, Wahhabi and Salafi movements like al-Qaeda have emerged – but we don’t need to repeat the whole 9/11 story. When the winds of the Arab Spring started to blow in the 2010s, the Ikhwan and its ilk started to be seen as moderates with respect to subsequent newcomers in the eyes of the West, which tends to categorize and simplify complex problems when it concerns the East – the bad old habit of Orientalism. This is the position of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia regarding Western governments, who hoped that an Occidental-style ballot box would bring Occidental-style democracy to Islamic societies under the Ikhwan. Now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and others are trying to persuade Ikhwan rulers to pay some respect to their opposition, while also respecting human rights themselves and women’s rights.
That is one of the main reasons why Western governments are hesitant about toppling Bashar al-Assad. The fear is not only that al-Qaeda and the like will seize chemical and biological weapons in al-Assad’s arsenal, but that their capture of the power will turn Syria, once an Arab country in which women could have relatively more freedom than the rest, will be treated worse as in the examples of Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt and Tunisia. There is a fear that dictators with secularism masks are now being replaced by dictators with Islamic masks.
Women’s rights are the litmus test in this part of the world. Jordan is a country in which women have relative freedom thanks to a secular-in-practice king in power, but there are no guarantees if the Hashemite Kingdom falls.
It was Atatürk who opened the way for women in an Islamic society on their road to full equality with men. It is true that Atatürk’s name and legacy have been abused with political purposes by those who want to exercise power on elected governments; not only by the army but by other politicians who prefer to hide behind them. But it seems that soldiers are less involved with politics under the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government; Atatürk has started to have a comeback with a more civilian touch. And it is interesting to see that more world leaders want to have photo ops at Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum, when they visit Ankara – perhaps in order to underline the need for a secular and modern Turkey in the greater Middle East.