The oldest question of Islam and three answers
The three schools of thought are now competing to answer the oldest question of Islam: “Who will rule the Ummah?”
Davutoglu, Clinton and Ashton Photo: REUTERS
Despite the allure of the missile age, cyber capabilities, drones and other
fancy aspects of modern warfare, war and politics are still at the very center
of human nature. Thus, contemporary strategic trends are directly related to
religion, culture and identity issues, and the Middle East is no
The Middle East faces three rising schools, implemented by the
major Islamic powers of the region: Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Now, these three
countries strive to answer the old question: who will rule the Ummah, Islamic
Iran: Shi’ite defiance and revolutionary aggression
Iran sets the most
defiant pattern and represents the revolutionary Shi’ite school, which threatens
the West, Turkey and Israel. After the demise of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny in
Iraq, the Shi’ites have risen to power in this important country, where the
holiest places of the Shi’ite sect are located.
With the rise of the
security elite, Pasdaran, under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and via
the robust influence of the clergy in Qom, Tehran strives to consolidate the
“Shi’ite crescent” in the region. Lebanese Hezbollah’s resistance against the
IDF in 2006 gave hope to Iran, and showed that through irregular warfare,
including terrorism and proxy wars, they can overcome superior
It is argued that Iran’s rogue nuclear program well exceeds
the military strategic calculus. Indeed, it represents the very center of
defiant symbolism against the West by challenging the Gulf States, which are
crucial for the global energy flow, as well as Turkey and Israel, the two
democracies of the Middle East.
Essentially, many Westerners are
ill-informed regarding the major sectarian split in Islam. Historically, the
conflict of Sunni and Shi’ite denominations is not mainly about theology, but
rather about politics.
The essential schism was about who would rule the
Ummah after the Prophet Mohammad passed away.
Iran’s answer is to
challenge the international system through its irregular warfare capacity,
revisionist ideology, strict Imamate culture, and nuclear
Turkey: Imperial assertions, secular character and soft power
Apart from Albania, a former Ottoman territory, Turkey remains the only NATO
member with Muslim majority population. Clearly, Ankara has stronger ties with
the West than do Egypt and Iran. The harmony between Turkish Prime Minister
Recep Erdogan and US President Barack Obama in particular upgraded
Turkish-American relations to a promising level.
Turkey sets the only
secular, democratic example in the Islamic world, although after the Justice and
Development Party (JDP) assumed power in 2002, the Turkish model now seems to be
more of a combination of conservative Islamic values and secular
Compared to its rivals, Ankara enjoys high international trade
and finance performance and political stability. Moreover, in the Islamic world
its military capacity can only be compared to that of nuclear
The first years of the JDP were spent in the Turkish
government’s power struggle against the military elite and the traditional
ultra-secularist bureaucracy and high judiciary.
After the JDP ensured
its influence, the party’s foreign policy architect, Prof. Ahmet Davutoglu,
assumed the foreign ministry post.
Especially after this appointment,
Ankara showed a greater emphasis on Ottomanist imperial identity, and started to
bring its soft power assets into the foreground. On the other hand, Turkey’s
modern face continued to play its charm offensive role in the Muslim
Turkish soap operas, in which themes and scenes generally
represent a secular and modern lifestyle, are getting more and more popular
among Arab societies. Besides, Prime Minister Erdogan courageously advised Cairo
to embrace a secular system in his interview with an Egyptian television in
Thus, Turkey’s “offer to the Ummah” is integrating democracy and
secularism with religious values, in harmony with the West, and of course under
the imperial guidance of the Ottoman Empire’s successor.
faces some challenges which might hinder its ambitions. First, Kurdish
separatist terrorism remains its Achilles’ heel, as it offers proxy war options
to any adversaries. As a matter of fact, on August 20, 2012, a terrorist
explosion killed nine and wounded over 60, mostly civilians, in Turkey’s Syrian
border city Gaziantep. After the attack, top figures of the JDP openly pointed
out “the Syrian connection.”
Second, Ankara should pursue a careful
balance between conservatism and modernist secularism as this is vital for the
country’s political stability, as well as its strategic communications and soft
Finally, the Ottoman nostalgia does not appeal to
Arab societies as it appeals to the national pride of the Turks. Thus, Turkey
might face being perceived as a neo-colonial power because of its
Egypt: The high hopes of the Muslim Brotherhood
protests in Cairo, the West wishfully expected the liberal, social activist
youth of the Tahrir Square to lead the country in the post-Mubarak period.
However, power vacuums are generally followed by the takeover of the most
organized group; enter the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Then, the majority of
analysts expected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi to embrace a gradually
hardening approach, as transpired with the Turkish JDP. However, the power of
the JDP relies on ballots, that of the MB on social momentum.
Prime Minister Erdogan was aware that through good governance and prosperity,
increasing public support would give him the upper hand against the military
elite, while Mursi knows the Egyptian military elite is waiting for the dust to
settle before reclaiming its privileged position.
The main advantage of
the MB is its ideology, which can mobilize masses, and play “the democrat role”
as required. It offers Muslim societies the chance to free themselves from their
monarchs and dictators without embracing West’s cultural values.
the MB has its own challenges to face, involving the international balance of
power; clearly, it can’t go too far in threatening the very existence of Israel,
encourage full-scale oppression against seculars, or exert full control over the
The importance of Syria
Syria is likely to determine the possible
trajectory of the contest.
Turkey is trying to topple the Ba’athist
dictatorship, while Iran diligently supports its ally and gate to Hezbollah.
Furthermore, if Assad’s regime falls, the Syrian MB has a strong chance to
In conclusion, three schools of thought are now competing
to answer the oldest question of Islam: “Who will rule the Ummah?”
who served as a postdoctoral fellow for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic
Studies, holds a PhD from the Turkish War College, and a master’s degree from
the Turkish Military Academy.