The illusion of spring

Turkey’s backsliding into religion frames the reversals in the post-Arab Spring Middle East

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published:December 6, 2014 12:16 am
Why were the Arabs supposed to achieve enlightenment when some non-Arab predecessors had already messed up their springs? Why were the Arabs supposed to achieve enlightenment when some non-Arab predecessors had already messed up their springs?

Muslims have traced a recent trajectory they can’t decipher. Their states have become unstable after seeking to transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The world thought this transition would lead to some kind of Muslim enlightenment and called it their spring. It was an Arab Spring to begin with, but it could be called a Muslim Spring too.

Why were the Arabs supposed to achieve enlightenment when some non-Arab predecessors had already messed up their springs? Iran got rid of monarchy and embraced democracy in the 1980s. Today, it stones women to death and jails them for watching men’s soccer. The shah ruled forever and looks good in retrospect; Iran now has regular elections but looks medieval. Pakistan first slipped into military dictatorship but now has democracy, where the blasphemy law is employed to hunt down Christians and forcible conversions are making Hindus run away.

Before proceeding, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by McGill University professor T.V. Paul — The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World. A chapter in the book seeks to understand the “geostrategic” behaviour of Pakistan in comparison with Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Taiwan and South Korea, all piggybacked by the United States because of their strategic locations.

For a Pakistani like me, whom history inclines towards loving Turkey since the Khilafat Movement of the early 20th century, the chapter is fascinating. A Kemalist Turkey — Jinnah and Iqbal revered the founder of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk — was ruled by generals in the 1950s, just like Pakistan. Both joined military pacts because they wanted to cash in on their strategic locations. But Turkey resisted the suicidal projection of the military state “outward”, unlike Pakistan, which became India-centric because of Kashmir: “The [Pakistani] elite’s use of religion for sectarian political goals widened the chasm among its various ethnic communities. The strategic approach of getting involved in great power geopolitical conflicts, as well as taking on a larger India, often by resorting to asymmetric means, only helped to weaken Pakistan as violent non-state forces now have turned against the state itself.”

Pakistan’s first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, was like Ataturk if you read his astoundingly “modern” diary, but developed an unpragmatic squint when it came to Kashmir. He didn’t win the 1965 War, which he started, and caused the loss
of East Pakistan in the post-Ayub era. He paved the way for the next phase, which was Islamisation — a deep-seated Muslim roadmap interrupted by his decade of “secular” dictatorship. General Zia-ul-Haq “fulfilled the aspirations of the Muslim masses” by enforcing “sharia” and no one has been able to take it out of the constitution after his death.

But Turkey has succumbed to another Muslim pathology: religious retrogression. As a disenchanted Pakistani, I liked the way the secular generals were running Turkey before the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came and rolled back the “unnatural” Kemalist phase to usher in Turkey’s own spring of lemming-like backsliding into religion. Taksim Gezi Park, where he thrashed “liberal” demonstrators in 2013, indicated he was taking Turkey the way of all Muslim states.

Nations have “deathwish” hatreds. Turkey appears to have it for Armenians and Kurds, just as Pakistan has it for minority Ahmadis and India. If Erdogan has anything like the Pakistani Kashmir obsession, it is with Israel, with which Turkey has always had military relations under the generals. The historical rivalry with Greece is old hat now; take on Israel and lead the Muslim world. The Arab state has suffered retardation after several unsuccessful wars with Israel. Some Arab states are therefore scared of the spring and are at odds with Erdogan.

It all started with Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution”, which brought moderate Islamist party Ennahda to power. It was easily hounded by the Salafists it feared. In February 2011, Erdogan sent his messengers to Rached Ghannouchi, head of the ruling Ennahda government, offering Turkish support. Soon Libya went under too, making the world regret the passing of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, just as one has come to rue the day Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was ended by America. Likewise, post-Gaddafi Libya was given the green signal by Erdogan, and its interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil was welcomed in Ankara and rewarded with $300 million, which was flown to Tripoli in cash “stashed in suitcases”.

In September 2012, it was the turn of Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, to receive a pledge of $2 billion in Turkish financial assistance. He was followed by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, dreaded not so much by Israel as by the Arabs. Erdogan agreed to have his next meeting with him in the Gaza Strip. Qatar, isolated after following a similar dollar-loaded policy, regrets that it sheltered Meshaal after facing a more realistic policy challenge from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

When, however, the Arab Spring came nearer home to Syria, a neutral Pakistan was wiser than Turkey and the much-deceived America and its Western allies. Turkey gave bases, weapons, ammunition and money to the majority-Sunni Free Syrian Army, thinking the minority Alawite government under Bashar al-Assad would surrender. Erdogan should have known that Assad would fight to the death rather than be beheaded with his entire community after giving in to any “democratic” reform suggested to him.

Soon, al-Qaeda in the guise of Jabhat al-Nusra went in, pushed the less radical Free Syrian Army aside, to be further pummelled by the Islamic State, a splinter of al-Qaeda deemed too sanguinary. Since the IS is beheading Kurds and Shias, the Turks reportedly rather like what it is doing in Iraq and Syria. After all, Erdogan has not been too kind to his Alevi minority in Turkey, who are only a little different from the Alawites of Syria.

People will tolerate a tough ruler if he gives them economic prosperity. But Erdogan may soon have overspent: trade agreements with Syria have lapsed, which means exports worth $8 billion gone. Trade worth $13 billion through Syria by Turkey’s famous trucking route to the Middle East and Europe is gone too, to say nothing of 2.3 million Syrian tourists lost, replaced by 2 million destitute Syrian refugees.

Turkey’s lucrative transport agreement with Egypt, signed with Morsi, has been set aside by new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, after Erdogan levelled unpragmatic criticism at him. And Iraq is unhappy because Erdogan gave refuge to a rebellious Iraqi Shia politician, resulting in the rejection of Turkish contractors hoping to land Iraqi public tenders worth billions of dollars in the construction sector.

America and its allies have once again fallen for the Muslim masses hallucinating about democracy. They were disillusioned by Egypt, where they now have to look the other way as the army rules once again. They erred in Syria too, where Turkey was trying to usher in democracy with Syrian Sunnis who had no other idea of the state except a revival of the perfect religious state, if you study their evolution under Alawite rule.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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