By Irakli Tusiashvili
Looking at the Middle East, whether through Realist or Constructivist lenses, it is clear that the region remains one of the most contested places in the world. The ongoing strategic and ideological competition incorporates regional and external powers, competing for power and influence. This regional competition ranges from rivalry from Iran with the Gulf, Russia with the West, to Turkey with Iran and Saudi Arabia. To look at the internal challenges between major powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Turkey – that are at varying degrees of conflict with each other, the biggest regional rivalry today that largely carries sectarian character is undeniably between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Nonetheless, some Middle East analysts believe that the future division within political Islam in the region will not be between Sunnis and the Shias, but between various understandings of Sunni Islam.
This presents a potential scenario where, in the coming years, the larger geopolitical and ideological challenge that will shape regional politics may not be the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it has been, especially since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Erdogan’s win in Turkish constitutional referendum together with his assertive foreign policy, sparks fresh debates on the possibility of transitioning the country’s secular identity to one associated with political Islam and affect it could have especially in the Middle East. This scenario earns attention for its potential to add to the ongoing Sunni-Shiite conflict; escalating into a fierce geopolitical struggle for power and influence that could have a farther negative impact on regional peace and security.
Because such a possibility cannot be dismissed, a close analysis of such development suggests that for their conflicting aspirations for primacy, the biggest challenge to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will come from a respected, influential regional state.
Turkey as an aspiring regional player
The concept of political Islam incorporates the range of modern political movements with diverse ideologies that have one in common, that is, giving Islam authoritative status in domestic political life as well as a role in foreign policy formulations. In this context, the biggest threat the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faced came from the Islamic State’s (also called ISIS) Caliphate project as it directly challenged the concept of allegiance and the legitimacy of authority of all Muslim-majority states based on the Salafi understanding – the strictest interpretation within Sunni Islam on which the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also based. As this threat is now largely neutralised, the Kingdom should expect a geopolitical and ideological challenge from an influential Turkey based on far more liberal – and more appealing to the wider masses– interpretation of Islam.
Giving Islam authoritative role in Turkish politics began by gradually moving away from country’s founding father Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of revolutionary secular ideology since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (or as it is officially known by its acronym AKP), came to power in 2002. The worldview of AKP and its leader Erdogan lies in political Islam. Therefore, as Islamic theology regards the community of believers (umma) as the most important political community, crossing national and cultural boundaries presenting it as transnational and cosmopolitan is an integral part of political Islamic movements’ activism.
This means that Turkey has turned towards its region that once mostly belonged to the Ottoman Empire, as well as Muslim-majority countries elsewhere, largely ignored by the Ataturk’s ideology. Erdogan’s factor plays the main role in Turkish politics and foreign policy. He is increasingly seen as a strong leader capable of bringing prestige that will raise it to a regional power. In this regard, Erdogan’s foreign policy ventures are perceived as an open declaration of building Turkey’s influence and readiness for the leadership of the region and beyond. Some of the AKP’s regional party leaders have even called for Turkey to “get ready for the caliphate”, suggesting Erdogan as its leader. At the recent summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Erdogan went so far as to even suggesting changing the name of the Arab League to the “Islamic League” presenting it as the region’s political necessity. Taking such an atmosphere into consideration together with Erdogan’s accumulation of personal political power in Turkey, the Arab League together with the OIC – an organisation that presents itself as the “collective voice of the Islamic World” – are structures of high importance. The high importance of these organisations even leads some to call them “proto-Caliphate”, and can be seen as platforms for harnessing all the members under strong leadership spearheaded by Turkey. Erdogan knows that Palestine is one of the most important regional issues, and he has continually used it to position Turkey to revive and strengthen the unity, especially of the OIC, as its task to fulfil. As some analysts point out, by using the flotilla affair to demonstrate its firm stance against Israel, Erdogan aimed to renew a claim for the leadership role in pressing regional concerns by taking the Palestinian issue, also aimed at playing a central role in competing with Iran. What’s more, an official apology Israel made to Turkey for the flotilla raid was presented as a great success for Erdogan’s foreign policy and was widely celebrated throughout the country, and applauded by many Islamists abroad. These quests for leadership include Erdogan’s recent initiative to call all the leaders of the Muslim-majority states for urgent OIC meeting in Istanbul to discuss Jerusalem after Trump’s decision to move the US embassy there.
Turkey’s quest for the leadership role or, for some analysts, even ambitions for domination, can also be measured by a widely believed agenda of religious outreach attached to its foreign policy that aims to establish itself as an influential power in the Middle East and the wider Muslim-majority countries. Erdogan’s emphasis on a “religious generation”, together with his growing usage of religious concepts, is understandably seen as going beyond domestic consumption. Therefore, AKP’s level of success in foreign policy performance can be seen through the grand strategy of promoting theological education abroad.
Turkey is active in Mosque building programmes worldwide and sending Turkish Imams there. Furthermore, the Turkish state Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is actively employed for both domestic purposes and foreign policy goals. The Diyanet promotes theological education internationally, based on its own interpretation and understanding of Sunni Islam which does not adhere to strict dogmas, for strengthening the soft power and for wider legitimacy purposes. Its theologians have even carried out their own project of reinterpretation of Hadith (volumes of reported speech, sayings and teachings of the Prophet of Islam) – the second most important source of Islamic theology. The project’s purpose is aimed at looking at Islam with a new liberal perspective to ease reconciliation with faith and modernity, by moving away from the literal and strict dogmatic interpretation that the President of Diyanet, speaking of Islamic learning centres of Egypt’s al-Azhar University and Saudi Arabia’s Medina University, called problematic.
The AKP’s politics with roots in political Islam, together with its foreign policy endeavours, are widely believed to be aimed at making Turkish model a source of inspiration for other Muslim-majority countries; as well as imperial ambitions to bring the Ottoman legacy back to today’s Turkey, which had for centuries dominated the wider Muslim-majority world. One expert on Turkey calls this model “arguably the most dynamic experiment with political Islam”. With Erdogan’s effective leadership in both domestic and foreign policy, the AKP projects to the region and beyond its vision of democracy and its compatibility with Islam. Furthermore, The AKP’s political Islamic model can continue to be a source of inspiration for many Islamic movements in the region. This model can remain tactically appealing for various political players in the Middle East that adhere to political Islam, as a model to be emulated and used as a vehicle for gaining power and legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia and challenges of Turkey’s aspirations
One of the essential things to understand concerning the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is that the Saudi ruling family and the official Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment view the Kingdom they govern as the centre of the Middle East and all Muslim-majority countries in the world. The establishment of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest multinational organisation that claims to represent “collective voice of the Islamic World”, was an important foreign policy initiative for this claim to be the centre of such domain. The organisation served its purpose of asserting the Islamic agenda during hard times of fierce geopolitical and ideological competition with Nasser’s aim for domination over the Arab world. In this context, as Saudi Arabia could not afford to watch the danger that came from Nasser’s Egypt then, it cannot afford to watch this potentially growing danger for its leadership coming from Erdogan’s Turkey now.
On the domestic front, it is of utmost importance for both ruling family and the official religious establishment to maintain the propagation of the Salafi-Wahhabi doctrine that there is only one single religious truth, and they are the ones who represent it. The Kingdom strives to be seen as an ideal Islamic state, which comes with the responsibility to safeguard its exclusive legitimacy. This has been a driving force for the Kingdom behind maintaining its theocratic nature – especially in its social sphere – despite continuous phases of modernisation.
The ruling AKP’s ideology, rooted in political Islam, and its gradual distancing from Turkey’s founding father Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of revolutionary secular ideology, is enough reason for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be worried. From the Saudi perspective, Turkey’s assertive foreign policy is an extremely negative development as it can instigate domestic discussion on adequate models of political systems that align Islamic forms of governance with the modern state. The official religious establishment has a strong influence over the Kingdom’s politics which also incorporates Saudi monarch’s religious responsibility based on the historical Saudi-Wahhabi pact that goes back to 1744. This mutual dependence and the cooperative relationship has made the Kingdom one of the most stable states amid the wars and revolutions in the region. But, in this regard, Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, a prominent authority on Saudi politics and religion, says that Saudi-Wahhabi politico-religious model is facing legitimacy crises as debates including challenging interpretations of Islam that supports reforms for the democratic form of governance gathers force. In this regard, Turkey’s Hadith project, designed to ease reconciliation with faith and modernity, is seen as a dangerous development as it can convert into Turkey’s greater soft power to influence Saudi population as well as to give way to broad acceptance in the region and beyond. This could render Salafi-Wahhabi thought as a just local religious practice which cannot be applied to the rest of the Sunni-majority Muslim world. This can be truly challenging for the system based on the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance as both could lose absolute dominance over all segments of society as the legitimacy of this alliance is largely based on their interpretation of these textual sources.
On the external front, the Turkish political Islamic model is a direct challenge to traditional pro-status quo Gulf Arab states, especially that of the politico-religious system of Saudi Arabia. This is understandable when considering the possibility of a growing number of competing voices from political parties, with the worldviews rooted in political Islam, aiming at becoming governing powers, in the Middle East or wider Muslim-majority countries (inspired by AKP’s success who would also be regarded by Turkey as natural allies). Such a possibility of emerging and expanding competing voices may eventually result in surrounding and capturing the Kingdom itself. This would mean a direct challenge to the Kingdom’s distinguished asset based on the notion of a true Islamic state and its dedicated foreign policy effort to promulgate an obligation to promote its official religious interpretation (the greater jihad). This asset and its foreign policy efforts serve the Kingdom’s geopolitical and ideological goals, reinforcing the wider legitimacy of its politico-religious model, designed for spreading its influence and soft power.
Furthermore, unlike its present main geopolitical and ideological competitor Iran, with its relatively strong position within Shia Muslim world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is facing challenges not only from competing voices sympathetic to the Turkish political Islamic model, offering an alternative to ultra-conservatism of Salafi Islam for the masses, but even within the followers of Salafi Islam itself. It faces challenges to its claim for leadership of Sunni-majority world at the lower level of politically active Salafi and Jihadi groups, like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and also at the state level: Qatar (also the member of the Gulf Cooperation Council), whose majority population adhere to Salafi Islam, challenging, in some fundamental ways, ultra-conservatism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Qatar is also considered by the Kingdom to be one of the sponsors of political Islamic groups in the region. But given Turkey’s strong political and economic position in the region, its continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood organisation is the main front the Kingdom pays attention to. The Brotherhood’s coming to power in Egypt in 2012 was a dangerous zero-sum development for the Kingdom, as it is considered a dominant force of political Islamic agenda in the region, the significance of political Islamic model of Egypt could have undermined the basis of the Kingdom’s politico-religious system and its status as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. This support to moderate Islamic groups makes AKP’s Turkey and its leader Erdogan a challenging task to counter. The Kingdom has historically employed its most effective tool based on the ultra-conservative Salafi-Wahhabi preaching at home and abroad to counter those perceived as a threat to its legitimacy. Therefore, Nasser in Egypt, Khomeini in Iran, and other political leaders were portrayed as blasphemous rulers not worthy of following. In this context, the question is this: could the same tool be used against Erdogan who enjoys relatively greater public legitimacy in the wider Sunni-majority Muslim world?
By accessing Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards politically active movements whose worldviews lie in political Islam, one can conclude that this attitude is informed by a fear of Islamic governments in other countries that could contend with its pivotal position in the Arab world, the Middle East, and Sunni Islam. Turkey, on the other hand, is aiming at exporting the AKP’s vision of political Islamic model to the wider regional geopolitical arena and beyond for influence and wider legitimacy. As long as the appeal for Turkish political Islamic model lingers, Turkish-Saudi Arabian geopolitical and ideological rivalry for the leadership of the region and the Sunni-majority Islamic world can be expected to escalate further. This rivalry will be in close connection with other political Islamic forces as well as the ongoing Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region.
This negative scenario can also further negatively affect promoting human rights in the region. This regional geopolitical and ideological competition creates strained internal, as well as external security situation, and could result in an even more closed atmosphere for NGOs. These organisations dedicated to helping improving governance and human rights by demanding equality and political participation could face greater challenges, which continue to hardly have any impact.
All in all, in such a contested region, this ongoing geopolitical and ideological competition within the Sunni political Islam is taking the region toward new dynamics; therefore, a real possibility that can result in farther growing negative perceptions cannot be dismissed. Such a scenario can lead to outright rivalry, animosity and even outside interference.
Irakli Tusiashvili is a researcher at Liberation. His research interests include Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on Political Islam and their foreign policies.