AKP frets over sectarian strife
Prior to leaving on a working visit to Tehran this week, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu gave an extensive interview to the semiofficial Anatolia news agency in which he reflected among other things Turkey’s deep concern over the growing sectarian divide in the Middle East among Sunnis and Shiites.
Referring to attempts at trying to kick start a regional Cold War along these lines, Davutoğlu said Turkey would do all it could to prevent this. As usual he was cryptic about who is fueling the sectarian strife.
This nevertheless remains a crucial question, since there are Sunni regimes in the region accusing Tehran of trying to stoke the sectarian divide in Syria, Iraq or Bahrain while Iran feels it is increasingly facing a “Sunni bloc” headed by Saudi Arabia and supported by the U.S.
Davutoğlu also went out of his way to indicate the state of ties between Turkey and Iran was exemplary. He made no mention, however, of the protest Ankara lodged with Tehran a few weeks ago after ranking Iranian military officials threatened to strike NATO bases in Turkey in the event of any attack on Iran.
Ankara has also been displeased over comments from mullahs or politicians in Iran accusing Turkey of trying to spread secularism and a liberal approach to Islam in the region. The problem that emerged as a result of such remarks has ostensibly been resolved between the two countries. Given the volatile situation in the region, however, it would be naive to assume that it will not surface again depending on developments.
Recognizing the threat from religious and sectarian divisions, Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke out in support of a secular state during his visit to Egypt last year. This raised eyebrows among Islamic fundamentalists and also caught many in the West by surprise, particularly those who look on Erdoğan as a fundamentalist.
In his interview with the Anatolia news agency, Davutoğlu touched on the same point, albeit with different words:
“No one should act, as they did before, according to the opinion that a single ideology, a single sect or a single ethnicity can predominate in this or that country. People in the region want a new political understanding. At the root of this understanding lies a structure that is not based on ethnic, sectarian or ideological states, but a political system that is all enveloping, and where everyone’s opinion carries weight.”
A cynic could ask, of course, just how much Turkey itself fulfills its responsibilities in terms of the political structure described by Davutoğlu. But that is beside the point. The crucial point here is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration is now acknowledging the importance of a political structure that by definition has to be secular in order to be successful.
This is a big change from when the AKP approached the Middle East from the perspective of “solidarity with co-religionists.” The Arab Spring made short shrift of all that, and Turkey is now trying to garner support for a political system in the region that will not be based on any religious or ideological considerations.
Just how successful it will be in convincing people in the region where many regimes are based on religion and ideology on this score remains to be seen, of course. The important fact, however, is that the AKP increasingly realizes that Islam is not necessarily an automatic unifying factor among predominantly Islamic countries but also carries in itself the seeds of major divisions that threaten the whole region. This alone is an important development in itself.