Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Erdogan's Neo-Ottomanism, Political Islam, Fascism and Anti-Semitism

Last month I wrote about some of the divisive and fear-mongering language that Erdogan and his ministers have used since the rise of the "Gezi Park" movement.

Over the last few weeks, the language has become more aggressive and paranoid: the latest salvo from the AKP is the accusation from the Deputy Prime Minister is that the "Jewish diaspora" is also involved with foreign conspirators in a plot to destroy Turkey's economy.
As well as blaming the foreign media (and even threatening legal action against CNN), Erdogan himself has rounded on his those Turkish journalists who have reported on the protests, using the example of Selen Girit, a Turkish BBC correspondent, who he called a "traitor". The purpose of such appallingly-aggressive language is clear - to threaten all domestic journalists into not daring to criticise the government. So while critical foreign media are called "conspirators" who want to destabilise Turkey, critical native journalists are called traitors.
As well as the war on the media, there is a clear trend of victimising foreigners. In the last two weeks, a British teenager was attacked until unconsciousness by Turkish men in the tourist resort of Marmaris because he was seen kissing a Turkish girl in a bar.
Apart from such vigilante attacks, the state itself has deported two foreign women for being involved in the protests, even if only incidentally: a Swedish tourist was deported for being seen to chant along with anti-government slogans; while a French foreign student was deported for being in a DSP (Democratic Left Party) building during mass disturbances with the police.
The message here is clear: for foreigners to mind their own business, and not interfere with Erdogan's "national will".

I wrote last year about Kaiser Wilhelm's plan to ally himself with the Ottomans in order to raise a "jihad" against the British and the Russians. Linked to this is the rise of anti-Semitism, which was first exported from Imperial Russia (using the propaganda tract "The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion"), to post-war Germany, where it quickly got the attention of would-be Nazis. Anti-Semitism then spread to the Middle East, the Nazis (and other Fascist movements) taking up Kaiser Wilhelm's old cause of raising trouble with the West through the force of Islam, by forming loose alliances.

The gradual rise of Political Islam

Like Fascism, the rise of Political Islam in the Middle East in the inter-war period grew through a perceived "victim complex", and a desire to purge society of impurity.
Most of the Middle East had been under the power of the Ottoman Turks for centuries, but hadn't had power in their own right. Similarly, Egypt had been under the power of the British Empire. Organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood grew in the 1930s, as Fascism was becoming a force to be reckoned with in Europe. They had spread across much of the Middle East by the Second World War. Both political creeds were viciously anti-Semitic and against what they saw as Western immorality; their answer was pure authoritarianism and tight social control. Both creeds blamed the Jews for much of their plight.

Political Islam was kept under close watch by the various regimes around the Middle East, so as Fascism was defeated in Europe, Political Islam and organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood were not allowed to spread. Meanwhile, the Jewish state of Israel was created out of the ashes of old Palestine, adding further insult to injury. The Cold War gave another reason for the West to financially prop up secular dictators in the Middle East, in competition with the Soviet Union. Neither "The Great Satan" or the atheist Soviet Union wanted anything to do with Political Islam. While Nasser of Egypt was the nearest thing that the "Arab Street" had to an "anti-Semitic idol" in the Cold War, it all ended in humiliation in the Six Day War of 1967. The re-match, the Yom Kippur War six years later, fared little better, leaving Arabs feeling humiliated and impotent.

That idea received a shock with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, making the West realise its complacency in thinking that Political Islam could be forever kept down on a diet of bullying and political marginalisation. Yet, there was still no other method that anyone could think of. While the Arabs remained divided by borders drawn up after the First World War, the strongest Arab state in the Middle East was Saudi Arabia, followed by Egypt. As one was a hardline Islamic state, and the other a secular dictatorship, the chance of the two ever getting their act together seemed remote in the extreme. It would take a revolution to bring Political Islam to the fore, and no expert thought that was conceivable.

Turkey, another Muslim secular state, provided the answer. As I've described before, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to "break the mould" in Turkish politics in 2002, becoming the first party of Political Islam to gain a foothold in a Middle Eastern country.
Erdogan's path to power, and his manner of maintaining it, became an exemplar to other would-be parties of Political Islam across the Middle East. For ten years, he had successfully deceived the West into thinking he was a true democrat, gradually consolidating his grip on power through a smokescreen of "democratic reforms" on a path to eventual EU membership - destroying the influence of the military, judiciary, opposing parties and the media in turn. At the same time, he has taken baby-step after baby-step towards an Islamic state in Turkey, so that by the time of the Arab Spring, Erdogan was the benchmark that Arabs could use to bring Political Islam to power across the Middle East.

In Egypt, Political Islam's biggest "success story" in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood has overstepped its mark. Unlike in Turkey, Egypt's military had not been yet "neutralised". let alone filled with government sympathisers, so it would have been much wiser had the Muslim Brotherhood's President Morsi taken a much more careful and gradual approach like Erdogan. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood showed their cards far too early, and it is difficult to say what the next step for them will be.

Neo-Ottomanism, the main force of Political Islam

In the meantime, Erdogan's "Neo-Ottomanism" is more and more becoming a force to be reckoned with. With Egypt's future still uncertain, the other Arab governments dominated by Political Islam will continue to look to Erdogan as their mentor.
Erdogan and his ministers are increasingly looking back to the old Ottoman Empire as their inspiration. The secular symbols of Turkey are, one by one, subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) being discarded, and being replaced by an increasing affection for the "old ways". Erdogan himself had implied years ago that he was keen to restore some of the old symbolism. The replacing of Gezi park with an Ottoman-era barracks is but one small sign of that.
The expansion of Turkey's ties and alliances with the Middle East, and the rapid frosting of relations with the West is a statement of Neo-Ottoman geopolitics put into practice: to restore Turkey's relations, power and influence so that it is comparable with that before the First World War, when the Turks controlled much of the Middle East. "Neo-Ottomanism" is therefore a kind of localised neo-colonialism; except that while Western Neo-Colonialism is resisted by its erstwhile "colonies", the contemporary Middle East is largely embracing Neo-Ottomanism, as a means to an end: as the coming-together into an informal alliance of a restored "Ottoman Muslim" power that protects the conjoined interests of Political Islam in the Middle East.

"Neo-Ottomanism" as the main agent of Political Islam in the Middle East might therefore be more similar to the politics of Fascism than one might think. Neo-Ottomanism might not threaten the political integrity of Europe, but it does put the Arab Spring in a new light. The Syrian Civil War can be seen as a battle between a (failed) "secular" regime and a militant force of Political Islam. In this way, Neo-Ottomanism has the same kind of stake in the Syrian Civil War as the Fascists had in the Spanish Civil War.

The battle for Syria has become a symbol of the wider future of the Middle east: "Neo Ottoman" Political Islam (and supported by the Gulf States), or Iranian-backed satellite? Iraq is another toy for the larger forces nearby to play with, squeezed between Turkey's Neo-Ottomanism and Iran's Shia theocracy in one direction, and with the Syrian Civil War boiling over in another.

Europe in the 1930s was an ideological battleground between the forces of Fascism and liberal democracy; but also behind that was the threat of Communism, which tempted liberals to indulge Fascism as the "lesser of two evils", and then allowed Fascists to claim "democratic" support.
The Middle East in the 2010s faces a similar ideological battle between the forces of Political Islam, and the varied regimes of the "old order" still allied to the West; but also behind that is the threat of Iran. Thus in the Middle East of the 2010s, Iran has become the bogeyman that Communism was to Europe in the 1930s. While in the Europe in the 1930s it was Fascism versus Communism, in the Middle East in the 2010s it is "Sunni" Muslim Political Islam versus "Shia" Islam Iranian-style theocracy; ideological battles in Europe are instead sectarian battles for control in the Middle East, with liberals used as pawns in the same manner.

Thus the initial indulgence of Political Islam by Westernised liberal Arabs compares with European liberals' indulgence of Fascism in the 1930s.

Following this comparative logic, as Mussolini pre-dated Hitler's rise to power by a decade, so Erdogan pre-dated the rise of Political Islam in the Middle East (i.e. The Arab Spring) by a decade. Hitler learned from Mussolini's example. However, Morsi failed to learn the proper lessons from Erdogan's careful, incremental approach to applying Political Islam (and, fatally, never had the support of the army), leaving Erdogan as the unopposed ideological leader of Political Islam in the Middle East, with no near-comparable rival in the scene.
Thus, in an ironic way, Erdogan may actually benefit politically from Morsi's fall from power: giving greater ammunition to the "victim complex" trait that Political Islam shares with Fascism, sowing further unrest in Egypt, and giving Erdogan further scapegoats to use for his own advantage. The fact that Erdogan's AKP supporters have so clearly allied themselves with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood tells you how closely-linked the two are.

The rise of Political Islam back in the 'thirties was originally intended to restore the old Islamic caliphate, which had resided for five centuries in Istanbul. Day by day, the Islamist Turkish government distances itself from the West, and opens its arms more and more to the East. Turkey is building a hospital in Gaza, in partnership with the Hamas government (and doubtless to Israel's fury); Turkey is looking to buy a missile system from China instead of the West, that would render it incompatible with NATO.

To what end are these symbolic moves?

The anti-Semitism coming from Erdogan's ministers is more likely opportunism rather than paranoia, but whatever its reason, its purpose is to cement the divisions in Turkish society, between an "us" and "them"; leaving it unspoken but obvious that "they" are not "real" Turks.

And in the cynical numbers game that Erdogan and his ministers are playing, they hold all the trump cards. And if "they" don't like it, it goes without saying, "they" know where the door pointing West is: in the other direction, the East beckons with open arms.

No comments:

Post a Comment