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Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan: Will an axis of the pious form Islamic world’s future?

The murder of Paris teacher Samuel Paty catalysed a searing debate within France.

October 31, 2020 / 01:01 PM IST

Flying mounted on ships’ masts and dead horses, armed with snakes, and hurling the decapitated heads of animals, the vampire-wizards of Circassia rose from their graves to do battle with their rivals from Abkhazia. Then, the crowing of the cocks announced the coming of dawn and the wizards returned to their graves. The human prey whose blood these armies were fighting over now had a few precious hours to fight back: the undead, “eyes like cups full of blood”, had to be disinterred from his grave and despatched by hammering “a wooden stake into his navel”.

Luckily for history, the great Ottoman explorer Evilya Celebi was was on hand to record an eyewitness account of the battle of the undead, even providing us with its exact date Şevval 20, 1076, or April 24-25, 1666CE: Who, after all, would otherwise have believed such a tale?

Foreign policy is not just conducted in smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors. It is also a form of theatrical production, intended to awe and beguile the audience— us.  Problems arise, though, when the actors begin to mistake their costumes and script for the real thing.

The murder of Paris teacher Samuel Paty for the 'crime' of attempting to teach his students the philosophical debates on blasphemy that emerged from the Charlie Hebdo case, catalysed a searing debate within France. To many, Paty’s execution was part of long-running war on the country's muscular secularist code, laicite.

“Islamist separatism”, French president Emmanual Macron argued, posed the danger of a minority of France’s six million Muslims forming a “counter-society”. He proposed stricter oversight of schooling and control over foreign funding of mosques.

"Islamists want our future”, Macron said, unequivocally supporting the right to publish text that caused religious offence. “We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil,” he concluded.

Led by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erodogan—with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan ably playing Sancho Panza—the armies of the Axis of the Pious unfurled their banners, and marched to confront this purported French assault on Islam.

In a series of tweets, Prime Minister Khan responded by accusing Macron of “encouraging Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists”. Khan, it’s worth nothing, had no words of criticism for Zaheer Mahmoud, a Pakistani teenager who stabbed two Paris residents to protest Charlie’s republication of the purportedly blasphemous cartoons.

Qatar’s university announced it had cancelled French Cultural Week; Kuwait’s al-Naeem supermarkets removed their stocks of French cheese; L’Oreal was reported to have disappeared off the shelves in some Doha stores. The campaign even spread to countries like Bangladesh and India, spearheaded by Islamist groups competing for legitimacy. Posters of Macron were, for example, strewn over some Mumbai streets on Friday, inviting passers-by to trample them.

There’s more to the Axis of the Pious, though, than slain cartoonists and camembert. The Turkish-Qatari bid for leadership of the so-called Muslim World reflects a dangerous vacuum at the heart of the structure of power in the Middle East.

Late in 2019, Mahathir—still Malaysia’s prime minister—met with Erdogan and Khan at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, to discuss the creation of a transnational platform to combat Islamophobia. In December that year, Mahathir sought to convene a summit that would examine “what has gone wrong, with a view to eventually reclaiming the Muslim world’s fame and glory of yore”. Perhaps, Mahathir told the media, the summit could be “regarded as the first step towards rebuilding the great Muslim civilisation”.

The countries invited to the Kuala Lumpur summit were Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar and Indonesia. Mahathir described the invited countries as “a few people who have the same perception of Islam and the problems faced by Muslims”.

Little was needed to see the real purpose of the exercise: Saudi Arabia’s long-standing leadership role in the so-called Muslim world was being challenged by a new axis of powers.

Erdogan’s early years as the prime minister, starting in 2003, saw the rise of what some scholars have called Market Islamism. The regime aggressively pushes cultural causes like the headscarf or religious education, but within a framework of economic liberalisation. Long-standing problems with Iraq and Syria over the Kurdish issue were resolved. Erdogan, the commentator Nuray Mert has noted, pushed back against the Turkish military, motivated “by the desire of eliminating a secularist power centre”.

Then, in 2009, came the so-called Arab spring: the moment of destiny Islamists across the Middle-East had long fantasised about.  Turkey’s new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, declared that his country sought a born-again Ottoman Empire, in which Istanbul would “reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus” through Islamist parties.

Ankara wasn’t the only capitol to enter the Arab Spring with grandiose ambitions. Energy-rich Qatar saw an opportunity to reshape West Asia’s politics, using its linkages to the Islamist networks of the Muslim Brotherhood—the wellspring which gave birth to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Turkey imagined an Islamist-led future in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia, which would allow it to balance out the competing pressures posed by its own immediate neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Things didn’t run to plan, though. Egypt’s military, panicked by the Islamist excesses of its elected government, cracked down hard. Saudi Arabia, fearful of the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its weight against the jihadists. The Turkish-backed rebellion in Syria degenerated into chaos as the Islamic State and al-Nusra battled Turkish-backed Islamists for centre stage. Iran backed Syria, and, taking advantage of the chaos, Turkey’s historic adversaries, the Kurds, emerged empowered.

Doha’s expansive foreign policy, scholar Ana Echague has noted, also failed:  “Its Islamist bets have not worked out, its neighbours have turned against it, there has been a backlash against it in the transition states, and its main public diplomacy channel has been discredited”.

There is, as the Turkish economist Mustafa Sonmez has noted, an element of silliness to the Axis of the Pious’ boycott campaign. Among the crown jewels of Erdogan’s economy, Sonmez notes, is the partnership between the Turkish military’s pension fund, OYAK, and French car-maker Renault. OYAK-Renault manufactured some 35% of cars made in Turkey last year and was also the top exporter, selling some 300,000 vehicles last year.

France’s investments in Turkey—estimated at over $5 billion, about a fifth of the $100 billion in European investments—span textiles, clothing, cement and concrete. Those investments helped Turkey become a net exporter to France for the first time last year.

The Axis of the Pious isn’t the Middle-East’s future: it points not to the rise of a new order, but the irrevocable breakdown of the old.  The alliance is significant, then, not for what it is, but what it tells us about the fragility of the geopolitical order. Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman fantasies;  Doha’s hubristic ambition; Pakistan’s pyromania: all these are symptoms of a world where great powers are no longer willing to invest the resources needed to uphold the international system.

Fighting blasphemers in the West, like warring against vampires, might seem like a low-cost, low-risk means to gain status and legitimacy. Experience has shown that this addiction to religion can have serious costs, though—and dangerous, unanticipated consequences.

Praveen Swami
first published: Oct 31, 2020 01:01 pm