By Anastasios (Tasos) M. Ioannides
There are three modern contenders to the prize of a re-created Islamic Empire (caliphate): Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. What does each of these countries bring to the contest?
Saudi Arabia, of course, is the geographic birthplace of Islam, the custodian of its most important shrines, the host of the millions pilgrims practicing each year the Hajj, or firth pillar of Islam. It is extremely wealthy and the leader among oil-producing Middle Eastern countries. Intellectually, it advocates a moderate version of the faith that claims to promote peace, tolerance and love. This explains its close association with the West and more specifically with the USA. This also explains why its prodigal son chose to attack the Twin Towers in 2001, hoping to drive a deadly wedge in that relationship. The country is signatory to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and as far as it is not known, it is not engaged in any efforts to procure a weapon of mass destruction.
Iran is the geographical and political successor to the Persian Empire, which in the 7th c. became converted to Islam and provided refuge to the Twelve Imams (i.e., the Prophet’s relatives and those subsequently anointed by them in a kind of “apostolic succession”), who had lost influence upon the Prophet’s death. In crude terms, if S. Arabia could be compared with “Islamic Sola Scriptura Protestantism”, Iran is the area where the “traditions of the Holy Fathers” remained the rule of faith. Accordingly, Iran lays claim to preserving unchanged the dogmatic and experiential elements of the Prophet’s legacy. Moreover, Iran has the privilege of being grounded on a long-lasting intellectual culture and of a history of superlative education, while simultaneously being endowed with significant oil resources. Most recently, it has been the instigator of the worldwide Islamic Resurgence, first on its own soil in 1978-1979 and subsequently in many other countries, including such Islamic intellectual bastions as Egypt and Pakistan. Nonetheless, its misadventures in Iraq and Kuwait (which would have allowed it to expand its territorial reach, a pre-requisite for any successor to the Caliphate) have been thwarted by decisive action by the USA and its western allies, hence Iran’s intense hatred for America and its perceived Middle Eastern proxy, Israel, as well as Iran’s tenacious effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
This brings us to Turkey. What can that country claim as its legitimate legacy or its modern-day accomplishments on behalf of Islam and of Muslims? Turkey is arguably the biological descendant of the Ottoman Empire and of the world’s last widely recognized caliphate, which in the 17th century enabled Islam to make its most significant inroads into Christian Europe. Two centuries earlier, the Ottomans dealt a knock-out blow to the last (Christian) Empire in Europe, whose center they renamed to Istanbul, and whose jewel cathedral they turned into a mosque. Yet, after decades of languishing as “the sick man of Europe”, its own most celebrated modern leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, renounced in 1924 its imperial aspirations and even treated much of Islam as little more than superstition and uneducated legend. Such a radical turnaround would have been impossible under a less authoritarian and ruthless leader than Atatürk, or without the generous support on many levels by the USA and Europe. Successors to Atatürk wavered between following his directives and their own nostalgia for the Empire that could have been, as witnessed by the many coups, political executions and ethnic turmoil within Turkey’s modern borders. Whereas Orthodox and Armenian Christians could be cleansed with little internal resistance, the Kurds, being Muslim themselves, proved a perennial thorn in the side of every post Atatürk Turkish administration.
The Turkish economy has gone through many more downturns than upswings, requiring the continual influx of USA capital and weapons, ostensibly for the protection of the NATO border against the Soviet Union and, since the 1990s, Russia. Beyond her achievements using American crutches, Turkey has little to show for herself, and this is hardly enough to qualify her as a credible contender for the Imperial throne, until one considers its victories over Christianity. Her greatest modern success has been her invasion of 80% Christian Cyprus and the forcible islamization of the northern 40% of that essentially unprotected island republic along Turkey’s southern underbelly.
Enter Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first elected as Turkish Prime Minister in 2003. Under his leadership and often out of the blue, it would seem, Turkey invaded Iraq in 2008, Syria in 2016 (much to the chagrin of both Russia and the USA), first opposed (2014) but then supported ISIS (2016), pursued the destruction of the Kurds far beyond Turkish borders (2020), compelled Europe (2016) to finance Turkey’s hospitality to refugees rendered homeless in no small measure by the tripartite feud for Islamic dominance, and perhaps more importantly by Turkey’s own machinations in that effort. Most recently, Erdoğan allied himself with the figure-head leadership of Libya (2019), risking the ire of Egypt, and has unnecessarily alienated Israel (2009) with his fiery rhetoric in support of the most intransigent Palestinian elements and stoking the Muslim fervor for the Dome of the Rock (2017) and of the City of Jerusalem (2017), itself.
Efforts to develop a nuclear power plant on the Turkish Mediterranean coast across from Cyprus started in 2010, and an agreement to that end was signed by Turkey and Russia. Construction began in 2018. Moreover, although Turkey signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1980, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, Erdoğan declared in 2019 that he finds it unacceptable that Turkey is not permitted to have nuclear weapons by those states that already possess them, mentioning Israel by name. He claimed that “all developed countries have them”, but he stopped short of threatening to try to acquire them.
It appears that envying the laurels of Turkish Prime Minister Mustafa Bülent Ecevit, who in 1974 ordered the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Erdoğan chose an even softer target than that island republic, in reverting the Christian Cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Meanwhile, his saber rattling in the Aegean Archipelago is baiting his other perceived soft target, fellow NATO-member Greece into a conflagration. The Turkish President aspires to exploit a Greek miss-step as an excuse for invading and grabbing a broad swath of the Aegean Sea, dozens of Greek inhabited islands included.
Meanwhile, the EU and the USA, as well as the other two imperial contenders, S. Arabia and Iran, are perhaps waiting for sixty-six year old Erdoğan to grow old and die, or to be removed by a coup (like in 2016) or a national uprising (like in 2013). Or perhaps they are hoping that per the Turkish Constitution his current second presidential term will expire in 2022 and he will not be eligible for re-election. Constitutional experts, however, point out that by some “creative interpretations of the Constitution”, he may be allowed to continue to serve until 2033.
I am not comforted by midsummer night’s dreams, given the rude awakenings of the West after the Iranian overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and the cleansing of his opponents in Iraq (a country that could have emerged as another imperial contender prior to its invasion in 2003 by the Western Coalition), not to mention the attacks of 9-11-2001. The Greek Government will need to tap deep into Hellenic wisdom in order to avoid handing Erdoğan his much desired “July 15, 1974” moment. The West and Russia are playing with fire in a powder keg, by waiting to see how far Erdoğan will go in his imperial pursuits. Ironically, China is more than happy to watch the contest from the spectator stands, while pursuing its capitalist inspired conquer-by-purchase policies in Africa and in other poverty stricken areas of the world.