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Turkey’s divisive model fractures Muslim world

The heart of the Muslim world (Google Maps)

From Afghanistan to Kashmir the rift in the Muslim world is stark. While the Shia-Sunni divide – manifested primarily through the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – has traditionally been accepted as the most enduring one, the current fissures stem from the overarching rivalry between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies on one hand and Turkey on the other.

For instance, a recent report by the DisinfoLab portal pointed out that the epicentre of the Kashmir narrative has shifted from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.

Similarly, with all the chaos and mayhem engulfing Afghanistan we have not heard any coherent joint statement from Muslim countries. Most conspicuous by their silence are Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while their rival Qatar plays an active role. This is strange considering when 9/11 happened, besides Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only two countries that had diplomatic relations with the Taliban. Yet, Turkey, which is already involved in Afghanistan aspires to an even bigger one. 

What does this reveal? The fact of the matter is, the inane statements periodically issued by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Kashmir notwithstanding, the ummah is a deeply divided one. And the fissures mostly are within the Sunni world, where the overarching rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are playing out.

For all these countries, their actions are driven by their anxiety for regime survival. And each is going about it in its own way.

For Saudi Arabia, till now the undisputed leader of the Muslim world, home as it is to Islam's two holiest shrines, its theological orientation is turning out to be a limiting one. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 points to another direction – where it wants the kingdom to be a modern, dynamic, tolerant and stable economic and technological hub. With an increasingly young and aspiring population, and revenues from the oil shrinking there is no other way. At the same time political Islam sweeping across the region is too destabilising and disruptive a factor, with groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State carrying out terror attacks inside the kingdom, directly challenging the status quo.

While the holy sites of Mecca and Medina will ensure that pilgrims will keep coming, religion has to be kept on a tight leash. This explains why the Saudis are loathed to pursue their earlier policy of spreading the Wahhabi doctrine or aiding armed militant Sunni groups, and why organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and groups affiliated to it are banned and any entity found with links to them harshly dealt with. This is as true for the UAE, which also suffers from demographic imbalance, and Bahrain. This also explains their disinterest and increasingly limited engagement with "Muslim causes" like Kashmir or Afghanistan, or Palestine, or their condemnation of the Turkish judiciary's decision to convert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

Turkey on the other hand has a different strategy. The ruling AKP Party of President Recep Tayip Erdogan's has close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, and has sheltered many of its members fleeing the crackdown on them from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Having the Muslim world’s most powerful military, Erdogan leans on centuries of memory to mobilise support for himself and Turkey across the Muslim world – in the Turkic world, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, in the Middle East, in North Africa and in South Asia.

Within Turkey's political setup, survival for Erdogan means shoring up the flagging Turkish economy, and bringing back lost Ottoman glory to his nation. For this reason, Turkey fishes in troubled waters–a policy that has worked from time to time, as in the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the Turkish military and defence sector were primarily instrumental in Azerbaijan's victory, the latter has become one of the leading investors in the Turkish economy to the tune of $18 billion.

The rift between Qatar on one hand and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE on the other also benefited Turkey. Qatar ended up making massive investments in Turkey – $22 billion – as well as hosting Turkish bases.

Qatar is also playing a leading role, hosting the Taliban since 2013, and being the venue for intra-Afghan talks. Given the Saudi-Emirati antipathy to Qatar's backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, this may be yet another factor that prevents their involvement in the war-torn country. The Taliban's obscurantist ideology must be particularly problematic for them. 

Turkey's pan-Islamism explains why the Kashmir discourse has shifted to Turkey from Saudi Arabia, or why Turkey wants to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, which is currently being countered by the Taliban. Both present opportunities as lucrative markets for Turkish products – both defence and otherwise, as well as important geo-strategic foothold, while Erdogan can position himself as the champion of Islamic causes and the rightful leader of the Muslim world. 

This also explains why countries such as the UAE and Bahrain have normalised relations with Israel, with tacit Saudi approval. With a retreating American footprint in the region, and faced with militarily powerful rivals like Iran and Turkey they need strong military alliances. 

Countries such as Pakistan and entities like the Palestinian Authority find themselves vacillating between these two poles – still tied to the Saudi and Gulf purse strings but increasingly disenchanted with their indifference, while simultaneously lured by Erdogan's strongman and Islamic rhetoric. 

Meanwhile the fault lines will continue to widen.

Also Read: https://www.indianarrative.com/opinion-news/why-is-taliban-spurning-turkey-s-embrace-of-afghanistan-106206.html