The Arab revolts have sparked an ideological struggle between Turkey’s liberal Islam and Iran’s radical Islamist agenda, says a leading analyst – and Ankara has the edge.
A prominent member of Iran’s Guardian Council recently warned that “arrogant Western powers” were promoting “innovative models of Islam, such as liberal Islam in Turkey,” in order to “replace the true Islam” represented by Iran, Mustafa Akyol notes in Foreign Affairs.
He has reason to be worried, but it’s the region’s Islamist parties, not the West, who are driving the agenda, writes Akyol, the author of Islam without Extremes: a Muslim Case for Liberty.
Mainstream Islamist parties have won elections across the region “by explicitly appealing to the ‘the Turkish model’ rather than to an Iranian-style theocracy,” a development which validates the ‘third way’ or neo-Ottoman foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), he contends:
Turkey is … a source of inspiration for the region, particularly for Islamist parties that want to participate in democratic politics and form governments that will deliver to their people. This is because the AKP’s third way, while having clear Muslim cultural tones, also enshrines values that are more universal: democracy, human rights, and the market economy. The way Erdogan defines these concepts is not as liberal as the West might like — especially when it comes to freedom of speech — but neither is it unhelpful. In a recent survey, TESEV, a liberal Turkish think tank, found that the majority of Arabs see Turkey as “a model country,” because “it is at once Muslim, democratic, open, and prosperous.”
The Arab world’s democratic upsurge has definitively killed the myth of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy, Akyol has argued.
Turkey has emerged as the “biggest winner” from the Arab Spring, according to Saban Center surveys, while opinion polls by the Pew Research Center reveal that most Muslim respondents hold an unfavorable view of Iran. Only in Pakistan and Indonesia are more than 50 per cent of respondents favorable towards Iran, while most respondents in Egypt, Jordon, Lebanon, and Turkey are unfavorable. More than 80 per cent of Egyptians and over 74 per cent of Jordanians feel threatened by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“The clash between Turkey and Iran has been more than just rhetorical,” Akyol writes:
Tehran has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest supporter, whereas Ankara has come to condemn the regime’s “barbarism” and put its weight behind the opposition, hosting the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the rebel government and army in exile. In Iraq, Iran is a patron of the Shias; Turkey is, at least in the eyes of many in the Middle East, the political and economic benefactor of the Sunnis and the Kurds…. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has pursued a third way, by strengthening Turkey’s economic and political ties to all of its neighbors. In doing so, he has attempted to walk between the region’s “radicals,” such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and its “moderates,” such as former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
“The AKP’s third way stakes its claim to moderation and modernism ….. on its democratic system and its pragmatism,” says Akyol:
Although the cadre at the top of the party is generally pious, it has not imposed sharia rule in Turkey, as some secularist Turks have feared, and has not geared its foreign policy toward spreading Islamism. Instead, it has focused on soft power and economic interests.
But other observers suggest that in the war of ideas between Turkey’s democratic Islam and Iran’s radical Islamism, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is up for grabs. The group angrily dismissed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s defense of a civil state when he visited Cairo last year and its spokesmen have reportedly been open to overtures from Iran.
A shared Islamist agenda and “the need to find an alternative to American aid are temporarily playing in favor of Iran,” according to Zvi Mazel, a former ambassador to Egypt, and a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
“Iran, fearing to lose Syria, is courting Egypt and hastened to congratulate the Egyptian Parliament after it issued a grievous anti-Israeli declaration this week,” he writes:
Conversations with Iran were cut short by the discovery of an Iranian terror cell in Cairo but are about to start anew at the initiative of the recently elected parliament where the Muslim Brotherhood holds the majority of the seats. The Foreign Relations committee, headed by Issam Alarian, vice president of the Justice and Freedom party of the Brotherhood, has announced that it was reconsidering relations with Iran. The Arab spring having brought to power in Egypt an extremist Sunni organization – the Brotherhood – one would have thought that this would lead to clashes with Iran, leader of the extremist Shia branch of Islam and fighting for supremacy in the Middle East.
But Akyol believes Iran’s Islamic Republic has lost whatever revolutionary élan and appeal it once held in the region.
“The Arab Spring has heightened the ideological tension between Ankara and Tehran, and Turkey’s model seems to be winning,” he insists. “And for all those who wish to see a more peaceful, democratic, and free Middle East, this should be good news.”