The emergency of Turkey in recent years as a regional power – possibly one with world power pretentions – has generated rainforests worth of coverage and analysis, with many commentators adducing a ‘Turkish model’ that is purportedly at the heart of the country’s rapid ascent. As we have previously alluded to on this blog, we at Mediolana are not quite sure what this model is comprised of: the oft-repeated claim that Turkey offers supposedly unique proof of the compatibility of democracy and the Islamic religion conveniently overlooks Muslim-majority democratic states as diverse as Senegal and Indonesia, while Turkey’s outstanding economic progress of the past decade has been exacted at a fairly high ecological cost and is therefore difficult to cite as a model (though notwithstanding this, there are numerous impressive elements to it).
However, a series of intriguing developments during the past month or so has left us wondering whether the real Turkish model is located in a rather different sphere: religious authority. The start point of this hypothesis is Kuwait, where on 15th March 2012 Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abd al-’Aziz al-Ashaikh, prompted by a question posed by a delegation from a Kuwaiti NGO by the name of the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, declared that all churches on the Arabian peninsula should be levelled.
Despite resembling a scenario from the classic sixth-generation console title Destroy All Humans: One Giant Step On Mankind! rather than a considered religious injunction, the grand mufti’s statements were not essentially surprising given that the connection between Saudi Arabia and extremist ideologies is probably the worst-kept secret in the world. By contrast, what has been a genuine surprise is the sustained, detailed and public contradiction of the grand mufti’s opinion by two eminent Turks.
Firstly, Professor Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – the current Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and a man the length of whose CV shames most telephone directories – provided a comprehensive rebuttal of al-Ashaikh’s statement on the basis of sharīʿah law, pointing out that the skylines of major cities in the Islamic world such as Damascus, Istanbul, Baghdad and Cairo are studded with historic churches and synagogues as well as mosques; İhsanoğlu invited al-Ashaikh to ‘amend’ his erroneous position.
The professor’s rejection of the grand mufti’s opinion was echoed by Mehmet Görmez, the head of Diyanet, Turkey’s highest religious body. Görmez quoted one of Muḥammad’s many notable sayings on the status of other denominational groups within Muslim societies to illustrate the illogicality of the grand mufti’s sentiments: ‘Those who persecute non-Muslims living under the authority of Muslims persecute me. And who persecutes me, persecutes God.’
The significance of these occurrences will doubtless be clear to anyone who follows Middle Eastern affairs. By openly and convincingly defying the position taken by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, İhsanoğlu and Görmez – intentionally or otherwise – are creating a space for their country in the domain of religious leadership.
This has potentially enormous consequences. For over thirty years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have vied for regional dominance and influence over the Islamic world more generally, but both nations are hamstrung by two partially interconnected factors: neither country has Sunni Islam – followed by between 75% and 90% of the world’s Muslims – as its orthodoxy, and neither state can presently vaunt much in the way of soft power. The reverse is the case for Turkey, a largely Sunni Muslim country with soft power assets ranging from industrial might to soap operas; indeed, according to a 2011 survey published by the Arab American Institute Foundation, Turkey is evaluated ‘favourably’ or ‘very favourably’ by no less than 98% of the Saudi population. The emergence of a Turkish model of religious authority with real international potency can no longer be ruled out.