If the fight for Syria is the dominant issue in Turkish foreign policy, an observer can be forgiven the conclusion that Arakan is the second. The plight of the Rohingyas, the Muslim minority of Myanmar, who are trapped in the sectarian violence in the Arakan region of that country, has emerged as a major issue for Turkey’s leaders, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. They are devoted Islamists. No Muslim cause is too distant for them. During the Holy month of Ramadan, every day, there was always an opportunity to refer to the cause of Arakan, and on one such occasion, speaking at the “Fifth Traditional Fast-Breaking Dinner for Foreign Mission Chiefs & Ambassadors,” Prime Minister Erdogan urged the United Nations to take up the cause of the Muslims of Myanmar. ”Today people and humanity are being assassinated in the Arakan region.” “We call on the United Nations to take action on this issue.”
Turkish politics have become suffused with religious symbolism and concerns, a renowned trade union leader spoke in the same vein as Mr. Erdogan: “The world must also show an interest in Myanmar for the same reason they show interest in events in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan.”
This oversensitivity of the devout bourgeoisie to the agonies of Muslims the world over harks back to the Ottoman imperial grandeur that flatters modern day Turks. It is also a politically useful pillar of the ruling AK Party that sees itself as the standard bearer of a Muslim International.
As the AK Party consolidated its power and took on the omnipotent military institution and pushed the officer corps back to the barracks, the government grew more self-confident and more vocal on behalf of the Muslim ulmma. As the leader of a rising regional power, Prime Minister Erdogan chose to distance his country and his government from Israel. In doing so, Erdogan became the “darling” of that fabled Arab street which was on the lookout for a new leader. For some Arabs, Erdogan became something of a successor to the legendary Gamal Abdul Nasser and a competitor of the Iranian theocracy in the region. Turkey’s booming economy further enhanced Mr. Erdogan’s appeal.
With the eruption of the Arab uprising, Turkey was quick to endorse the fall of the Tunisian autocracy. More importantly, the Turkish government associated itself with the celebrated Tahrir Square rebellion which toppled the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak. Turkey was making a remarkable return into Arab domains it had quit in the aftermath of the First World War. The “Turkish experience,” the Turkish example, offered itself to the Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt, and to other Arabs as a model that combines religious piety and democratic politics. Arab Islamists were looking to Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan’s description of himself, when he visited Egypt, as a Muslim prime minister of a secular government was a milestone in the evolution of this new Arab Awakening. Now for Turkey this all seemed as paying huge political dividends.
But it is not easy for Turkey to play pan-Islamic politics, for the politics of Islam today – all the more so in Arab lands – are sectarian, and Turkey is and is seen as a Sunni power. In Iraq the sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia cast Turkey on the side of the embattled Sunnis. This had happened in 2010, and Turkey emerged as a counter to the power and weight of Iran. And sectarianism would rear its head again in the drawn-out struggle in Syria. Here Mr. Erdogan cast aside his alliance with Bashar al- Assad, and took up the cause of the Sunni-dominated opposition. Both the Syrian National Council, and the Muslim Brotherhood are present in Istanbul, and Turkey had become their sponsor. This is a role it now shares with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two quintessential Sunni societies.
This Turkish role has had the tacit endorsement of Washington. The United States itself had begun to make its peace with (Sunni) political Islam. Prime Minister Erdogan had become a central player in this historic transformation. In contrast with the Salafis and jihadists, Turkish Sunnism is the most benign future that could await the Arab Islamists.
The danger for Mr. Erdogan lies in excessive involvement in the turbulent affairs of the Arab Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The old Ottoman authorities had the imperial luxury of rising above sectarian conflict. This is a different landscape, and Turkey may yet know the price that comes with the power.
Cengiz Candar is the senior political columnist for the Turkish daily Radikal.