Part Five of “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity”
This is part five of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
The theme of this series of essays is “The Isolation of Israel.” So far, I have dwelt on the facts of Israel’s increasing isolation within her own neighborhood, where, for the entire span of her modern-national existence (since 1948), Israel has withstood the toxic hostility of the Arab and Muslim world. This hostility has been found to be unappeasable because it is rooted in theology – in Muhammad’s pronouncement that the Jews are not like other people – indeed not people at all, but the sons of pigs and monkeys, liars and deniers of God, whose very existence (let along their evil deeds) has been enough to thwart every good intention that God has for all human beings. I intend to elaborate upon this theme at the end of this series; for now, I need only to point out something that our secular commentators, intent on discovering ever new forces swirling about on this landscape, are doggedly refusing to notice: that it is the oldest force of all, the lethal contempt for Jews and Judaism, that holds the key to understanding the present and predicting what is to come.
Rivalry of Turkey and Iran for leadership of the Islamic Middle East
Among the most conspicuous forces affecting the emerging geopolitics of this region is a contest between Turkey and Iran for leadership of the cause of Islam. There is a “secular” dimension to this contest, in that each intends to build empire of some sort in the region, and each expects the other at the end of the day to reduce its ambitions and retreat to a lesser role in the region. But what secularists miss is the fact that each measures empire ultimately in terms of the ability to give direction to the religious hopes of the masses of the region. Being incapable of imagining such a possibility in their own lives, our secularists simply re-work this dynamic in other terms.
Until very recently, our political leaders could imagine or pretend that the intentions of the Turkish politicians were essentially continuations of those that were formed in Kemal Ataturk’s secularizing revolution. Our political leaders imagine that Turkey has been sufficiently weaned from the age-old Islamic fanaticism that we can safely discount the newly-refurbished Islamic rhetoric.
The leaders of Turkey and the leaders of Iran each imagine that the outcome of the contest between the world of Islam and the world of unbelief will be decided first in the Middle East – the region from which it sprang and where, they imagine, there has so far taken place the least amount of adulteration of the faith by aggressive activities of the rival faiths. The leaders of each of these two ambitious nations have a clearly-expressed intention to put the dynamic energies emerging from the Arab Spring to the service of the cause of extending the empire of Islam, initially within the region, but ultimately throughout the world.
The intention of the present Turkish leaders is to re-establish the eminence of the Turkish nation as the rightful custodian of the keys of Muslim empire. In Muslim-historical terms the task is to restore the Caliphate under political auspices of Ankara.
By contrast, Iran’s plan for the Middle East is based not upon historical precedent but upon a whimsical vision of the future. Iran’s present leaders intend to re-invigorate Muslims with the vision of perfection of human community with which Islam began. The triumph of that vision, they say, was thwarted by evil men – false Muslims who murdered the true heirs of Muhammad. The successors of those false Muslims have contrived ever since to keep in subjection the rightful successors and their heirs – the Shiites. Iran holds out the claim that the perfect human community intended by Muhammad is even known being rebuilt in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
From our perspective, the Iranian vision is reminiscent of many secular utopias, of which Communist Russia and Communist China are the best-known types, that caused incalculable ruin during the Twentieth Century; but it draws upon a deeper legacy of nearly fourteen centuries of struggle to make Islam the ruler of all aspects of human life. This history is little-known in our part of the world, and insofar as it is known its motivational dynamics cannot be made to fit with the models that derive from our own historical experience. It is a history of unremitting bloody war over issues that make no sense whatever to us but to which the masters of Iran appeal constantly for edifying examples of martyrdom in the cause of human perfection.
Inevitably, the chaos that has overtaken Turkey’s nearest Arab neighbour Syria, is causing the masters of Turkey to think hard and long about their own future. What seems clear now is that these Turkish statesmen have concluded that this is an opportunity for articulation and practice of a foreign policy fundamentally different from that which the present government has pursued since coming to power.
Turkey’s determination to resume its place of Ottoman Times
Turkey’s geopolitical plan is easier for us to discern and to describe than is Iran’s plan, as it amounts to reinstatement of an empire that existed not long ago. A half-millennium of conflict between the Ottoman Empire and our European Empires ended after the First World War with the submission of the former’s rulers to the Great Powers and the release from their fold of most of the nationalities previously subject to Turkish rule. Our history books speak of the triumph of Arab nationalism as the most important facet of this story. The Turks tell the story differently: they were struck down by Christian imperialism, having been betrayed by local villains, traitors to Islam. According to the Turks, the inadequacy of Arab nationalism as a basis for happy existence has been exposed by nearly a century of political turbulence and economic and cultural weakness.
Israel responds to Turkey’s threats with creative diplomacy
As pointed out in the previous essay, Turkey’s campaign to establish its pre-eminence as the champion of Islam has led it to take up recently a hard anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish line in word and in deed. After Turkey fell out publicly and loudly with Israel over the 2010 Gaza-bound “Freedom Flotilla,” Israel began forming alliances, some extending to bilateral defense and intelligence cooperation, with several countries in the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Croatia. All of these states are frail reeds. And yet bundled together they might constitute a significant bloc. Their nuisance value was shown when some of their leaders withheld support from proposals raised some months ago in the UN General Assembly in support of immediate recognition of the “State of Palestine.” Added impetus has been given to this new strategic alliance of Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan states by the discovery of massive gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean basin. Currently, talks are underway among Israel, Greece and Cyprus on how these resources can be exported to European markets, while discussions that had been going on between Israel and Turkey about constructing a 460-km oil and gas pipeline stretching from Ceyhan to Haifa are apparently now on the back burner.
In seeking these many links with Israel these states are looking backward as well as forward: they are acting, in large part, out of angry recollection of the Ottoman Empire and in recognition of the clearly-expressed intention of the present Turkish regime to restore the dear-dead days, before the Western allies carved up, the Ottoman Empire and before the infidel Kemal Ataturk drove Islam out of the public life of Turkey and embarked upon his “europeanization” of this once Muslim land (Sigurd Neubauer, “Despite Fallout With Turkey, Israel Forms Strategic Alliance With Greece and Cyprus,” Huffington Post, September 30, 2011). However, much of the intended benefit of this diplomacy is being lost as both Greece and Cyprus slip towards economic ruin. Cyprus, whose banks carry huge amounts of Greek bonds, is today the fifth Eurozone economy to apply for financial bailout.
The new note of truculence that has overtaken the masters of Turkey’s foreign policy owes much to the government’s evident success in challenging what our experts on Turkish political history had previously believed to be the bedrock of public order in Turkey since Kemal – the public’s fear and awe of the military. But then, in February 2012, the pre-eminence of the government over the military seemed to have been settled for the foreseeable future when more than forty senior military officers were arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the legally-elected government.
As Syria hurtles towards chaos; as the electorate of Egypt turns to a leading light of the Muslim Brotherhood (officially banned during the entire Sadat-Mubarak period); as Libya sorts out the mayhem following upon a parliamentary election in which 130 political parties and 2,500 individual candidates vied boisterously for 200 parliamentary seats; as Lebanon’s politicians struggle with the impossible task of finding space on their political chessboard for yet more sectarian players; as the Kingdom of Jordan trembles at the prospect of further radicalization of its political life in consequence of the triumphalism that has come over Islamist political movements everywhere in the neighborhood – Turkey’s leaders are making clear their contempt for Kemal Ataturk’s worldview. Turkey’s duty, they are saying now, is to rally the Middle East in affirmation of those values that Islam does not share with the universal civilization.
Syria as the theatre of Turkey-Iran conflict
Until the eruption of the present civil war in Syria, Turkey and Syria had got along very well at the official level. Among the Turkish citizenry, however, it has always seemed un-natural that Syria’s masters are drawn from the ranks of the Alawites, a late-appearing sect whom Sunni and Shia Muslims alike regard as traitors to Islam. Turkey’s masters, who rule over a population officially calculated at over 98% Muslim, of whom 70–80% are Sunni, see in the present crisis an opportunity to win the approbation of world opinion by putting itself at the forefront of the accusers of Syria’s regime. It is safe to guess that Turkey’s leaders are even now preparing a Syrian Sunni replacement to the Syrian Alawites, anticipating steps that Iran is no doubt taking to promote a governing Shiite bloc.
The anti-Assad noises that Turkey’s masters are now making put it side-by-side with the United States and Western nations and will undoubtedly assist its efforts to prove its eligibility for complete participation in the European community. At the same time, Iran, the pre-eminent champion of Shia Islam, is putting greater distance every day between itself and “world opinion” by its continuing dalliance with Assad’s doomed regime.
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