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    Middle East
     Jul 28, 2007
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Turkey: Islamists pay a price for victory
By M K Bhadrakumar

Nothing can quite surprise on the Middle East's political chessboard. This has been a week in which the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan visited Jerusalem jointly for the first time as envoys of the Arab League, and claimed they heard "many positive responses" from the Israeli leadership.

Also diplomats from the United States and Iran discussed an unlikely alliance to fight Sunni insurgents in Iraq - provoking, in turn, a furious fatwa by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi muftison their

followers in Iraq to go and destroy the holy shrines of Imam Hussein and Hazrat-e-Abbas. Qom's venerable ayatollahs, Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Hossein Nouri Hamedani, promptly called on the United Nations to "condemn such a fatwa, which fans the flames of international terrorism".

Midway through the week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki calmly proposed that he would be willing to "examine" an official request from Washington to raise the level of US-Iran exchanges. The Middle East's politics indeed cascaded - even if one disbelieves Thursday's Ha'aretz newspaper report that Israel is "not far from a photo-op with the Saudis".

But it still seemed audacious to suggest that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Hamas, the United States and the European Union will make bedfellows. As results of the Turkish parliamentary election began appearing on Monday, the Middle East's main protagonists and Western power brokers found common ground to congratulate the leader of the "Islamist" Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, on his magnificent victory.

Revisiting 'Orientalism'
The Turkish election cast a shadow on the geopolitics of the Middle East. One of the region's experienced observers, Rami Khouri, wrote in Lebanon's Daily Star, "The lessons revolve around three related issues: the participation of Islamist parties in democratic transformations in the Middle East; the relationship between secularist nationalism enforced by the armed forces and electoral reformism supported by much of the citizenry; and how Western democracies should most effectively deal with situations in which democracy and Islamist parties rear their heads simultaneously in the Middle East.

"The election," Khouri continued with a Levantine flourish, "in one fell swoop telescoped centuries of Orientalist distortions about Middle Eastern governance and political values into a single, clear affirmation of contemporary Turkey's most important lesson for us all: it is, in fact, easy to reconcile democracy, nationalism, secularism, republicanism, constitutionalism, stability, prosperity and Islam in a single process. That process is inclusive, honest democracy, in which all legitimate players take part and the winner is allowed to govern."

But Khouri would know the equations are never quite that straightforward in his part of the world. The fact is that for the past two decades or so, mainstream Islamists have shown willingness to become part of a democratic way of life in countries as varied as Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. But the Arab regimes haven't felt the need to engage the Islamists. Nor is there any compulsion felt by those pro-Western regimes to make the transformation to credible democracies.

All that can be hoped for is that one day they may choose Turkey's trajectory. Even for the Western powers backing those Arab regimes, Turkey remains a solitary exception. In the Middle East, they haven't seriously engaged the Islamists. The fact of Arab Islamist sentiments being part of the resistance to Israeli aggression and occupation becomes the core issue. Indeed, in Turkey itself, if the Islamists gained power in 2002 and thereafter consolidated their popular appeal, that has been despite the West's often unhelpful attitudes.

No wonder the Hamas statement on Erdogan's victory has been a touching invocation - an ideological cry lost among the region's pragmatic reactions. Hamas insisted that the "Islamic nation is now convinced that there is no future unless it treads the Islamic path". The Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said, "The victory by the AKP signals people's leaning toward Islamic teachings. It reflects the transformation under way in the region, hankering for a return to Islamic ideals."

Erdogan would have been embarrassed. Saudi Arabia, in all its accumulated wisdom, wouldn't even venture to characterize Erdogan's victory in the idiom of religion. It dealt with the AKP in cautiously couched near-secular terms. The Saudi king and the crown prince simply congratulated Erdogan "on the occasion of the Justice and Development Party's win". Saudi commentators complimented Erdogan for his pragmatic, non-confrontational style of politics that knew perfectly well "there were lines not to be overstepped, and that he can win within the confines of the system", to quote from Al-Hayat newspaper.

Conceivably, the Saudi establishment would wish that Arab Islamists emulate Erdogan and "play the game wisely and within the boundaries of the possible". Erdogan is the archetypal "enlightened Islamic leader" for the pro-Western Arab regimes - with no propensity toward radicalism or violence and no particular inclination to provoke confrontations with the established order.

Erdogan doesn't aspire to claim Ottoman Turkey's mantle of religious leadership in the Middle East, though in his first term as prime minister he led Turkey back to the center stage of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Thus, in more ways than one, Erdogan can be "a friend of the Arabs and can become an ally of theirs", Al-Hayat wrote. The London-based Saudi daily's columnist added, "Arab governments should cooperate with it [AKP] ... I know that countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are going in that direction."

Old wine in new bottles
Turkey's non-Arab neighbor Iran, on the other hand, has specific concerns. The Iranian president and foreign minister telephoned their Turkish counterparts and felicitated them, but strictly confined their remarks to Iran-Turkey relations. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed that Turkey's elections are its internal matter, and "Iran respects whatever decision taken by the Turkish nation". It is difficult to be certain whether Iran even considered the AKP as an Islamist party anymore after its transformation as a "rainbow coalition" on the eve of the recent election. Certainly, Iran did not appear to view the Turkish election as a momentous contest of "Islam versus secularism".

What bothers Tehran is the Erdogan government's regional policy, which is of profound consequence to Iranian interests. Tehran's preoccupation, therefore, is on the foreign-policy directions of the new government rather than on the "cultural" aspects. But Tehran needn't expect any major surprises. Despite Erdogan's apparent pro-West outlook, Turkey's foreign policy may not after all reflect such tendencies. The relatively impressive performance of the

Continued 1 2 

Turkish voters want more of the same (Jul 24, '07)

Turkey's election has no losers (Jul 21, '07)

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