Magazine | July 5, 2010, Issue

Turkey Turns

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Roman Genn)
In opposing the West, its leaders think they are joining the winning side

With the “peace flotilla” effort to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, the global Islamist project — a self-acclaimed “grand jihad” to destroy the West — has achieved its greatest coup since the attacks of September 11: After 80 long years, Turkey, seat of the Ottoman Empire and the last Muslim caliphate, is back in the fold.

The United States has never been “at war with Islam,” and the jihadist claim to the contrary is nonsense. Turkey, on the other hand, really did wage a sustained, vigorous campaign against Islam. Across the Mediterranean, this purge of Allah’s deen (way of living) from public life by the modern Turkish republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk), proved to be the last straw for a charismatic Egyptian academic named Hassan al-Banna. It spurred him, in 1928, to create the Muslim Brotherhood. Ever since, the Brotherhood has spearheaded what the Islamist movement calls its “civilizational” struggle against the West.

Now, decades after their deaths in 1949 and 1938, respectively, Banna finally has his victory over Ataturk.

The Ottoman Empire’s defeat and the West’s post–World War I domination of Muslims was humiliating for Banna. But that wasn’t the half of it. He was enraged by Turkey’s conclusion that Islam had to be suppressed.

For Ataturk, Islam was an insular force that retarded Muslim countries, preventing their embrace of modernity. If not suppressed, it would deny newly independent Turkey’s return to great-power status. The most telling thing about this is that Ataturk was a Muslim. In the U.S., where political correctness has stifled inquiry into Muslim doctrine, we’ve conjured up a trendy, modern Islam: one fit for seamless assimilation in a Western society that denies religion authority over secular life. Ataturk knew better. In Islam there is no “secular life” — there is only life controlled in its every detail by sharia, Islam’s legal and political system. Islam, Ataturk understood, is not merely a religion but an all-encompassing social order. Sharia is non-negotiable: deemed by believers to be Allah’s verbatim, indivisible prescription for how human life is to be lived; hostile to the idea that people should be free to make their own laws irrespective of scriptural or ideological dictates.

Ataturk concluded that to compete with the West, a nation would need to adopt the West’s separation of the spiritual from the secular. He knew full well, however, that for Islam to be driven out of public life would be inimical to its nature. He further realized that Islam is not innately moderate and tolerant. To Ataturk, this fairy tale, so popular in the modern West, would have been laughable. Here he was at one with his contemporary and foe, Winston Churchill, another power politician who studied Islam’s history and experienced its ferocity first-hand. “Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith,” Churchill concluded. “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.”

Clearly, to tame Islam, or at least contain it, would require sustained, adhesive state action. Making his intentions unmistakable, Ataturk abolished the caliphate in 1924, a symbolically shattering event for Muslims — in Turkey and beyond — even though the institution had withered by then into a ceremonial office. The Turkish government drove Islam from the public square and marginalized it in the classroom.

Even in the spiritual realm, Ataturk’s new, secular Turkey was taking no chances. As Iranian-born author Amir Taheri recounts, the state took control of the country’s 80,000 mosques. It vetted the imams and controlled the content of sermons and literature. It assumed responsibility for the management of Islamic endowments, enabling the government to deprive jihadist causes of zakat — which, though often misleadingly translated as “Islamic charitable giving,” actually involves fortifying the umma, the collective international “Muslim nation.” Ataturk even regulated the travel of Turks to Mecca for Hajj (an obligation of every able-bodied Muslim) in order to minimize their exposure to Saudi Arabia’s unadulterated Islam.

Ataturk knew that he would not live forever and that Turkey would remain an overwhelmingly Muslim country. He therefore erected a legal and political framework to ensure — so he thought — the permanent shackling of Islam.

The U.S. guarantees freedom of religion, a necessity in a pluralistic society that cherishes individual liberty. By contrast, Ataturk was seeking to forge a pluralistic society. For him, the imperative was protection against a dominant and domineering religio-political system. Consequently, as Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has explained, Ataturk imposed the French model of laïcité: freedom from religion. Islam and its sharia were banned from legal and social policy.

#page#Furthermore, once Turkey permitted multiparty politics after World War II, the electoral system was rigged. While a hardcore minority of Islamists dreamt of Turkey’s reversion to being an Islamic republic, they could never form a parliamentary majority as long as other Turks, reprogrammed by decades of Ataturk’s secularism, did not split into factions. Finally, there was the ultimate trump card, the “deep state”: The military, backed by the judiciary and the extensive bureaucracy, was constitutionally designated the guardian of Ataturk’s secular society. The most ruthlessly reliable institution in Turkish life, it stood ready to oust any coalition that turned away from Ataturk’s program. Indeed, the Turkish military has done precisely that on four occasions, the last in 1997, when Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamists were driven from power.

From the Egyptian town Isma’iliyah, Hassan al-Banna looked at the same post-war world as had Ataturk but drew the opposite conclusion. For him, Islam was the solution, not the problem: There had been too little of it, not too much. And not just any Islam; Banna had in mind a very particular brand: Salafism.

The term salafiyyah refers to the “righteous ancestors” or “rightly guided caliphs,” Mohammed and his companions. Banna reasoned that by degrading the unalloyed Islam of the first Islamic community with countless accommodations to modernity, Muslims had strayed from the prophet’s teaching and example. Banna, moreover, was a student of Rashid Rida, an intensely anti-Western “reformer” who reaffirmed Islam’s indivisibility as a religious and political enterprise. Rida taught that “Islam is not fully in being as long as there does not exist a strong and independent Muslim state that is able to put into operation the laws of Islam.” Like Rida, Banna championed an “archaic fundamentalism,” according to Caroline Fourest, a critical biographer of Banna’s controversial grandson, Tariq Ramadan. This was, in Fourest’s words, a “version of Islamism violently opposed to any form of rationalism that bore the slightest resemblance to Western ways” — in particular, the separation of the secular and spiritual realms.

Only by returning to the Islam of the founders could the umma reverse its economic, political, and social torpor. This called for the faithful implementation of sharia, not its strangulation. With Allah’s injunctions firmly in place, the Muslim Nation would inevitably rise to the hegemony that was its due. “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated,” Banna taught. The mission of Islam is “to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

Banna was neither a dreamer nor an ivory-tower scholar. He was a thoughtful, patient, practical man of affairs. He meticulously schemed his revolution as a ground-up, self-consciously civilizational mass movement. It started with the Muslim individual and built outward to the family, the community, the town, the city, and finally the Muslim state. In each phase, the aim was to instill, install, and spread sharia. This is the divine mandate known as jihad.

Jihad is often violent, but not always. To be sure, Brotherhood ideology inspires terrorism — many top al-Qaeda members, for example, started out as Muslim Brothers. Banna’s game plan, however, is comprehensive. As he put it, “fighting . . . the unbelievers . . . involves all possible efforts that are necessary to dismantle the power of the enemies of Islam including beating them, plundering their wealth, destroying their places of worship, and smashing their idols.” Resort to terrorism would be necessary, Banna knew. Indeed, he stressed combat training and anticipated that in the final stages, military action would be essential. But violence was to be used only when it advanced the cause. If the Muslims were ready only to agitate and not to prevail, the use of force would be counterproductive — prompting a blowback that would set the movement back.

Victory, instead, lay in an incremental jihad. Occasional violence and intimidation would soften up the target, but the battle against secularism and the West would be waged on every front, through dawah — the blend of propaganda, persuasion, and sabotage that is the so-called missionary work by which sharia is spread. In Banna’s framework, the revolution would begin in the classrooms, the mosques, and the Islamic community centers that would form the “axis” of the Islamist movement in every city. With the resulting sense of mission, breeding and conversion would swell the umma’s numbers. Media campaigns would associate the Islamic movement with morality, democracy, human dignity, and “social justice,” while contrasting it with the greed and corruption of infidel regimes.

As the movement grew in strength, it would find secular governments increasingly accommodating, even as Islamists undertook to supplant them. In this regard, Banna’s ideology contrasted sharply with that of such uncompromising terrorist networks as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, another forerunner of al-Qaeda. The latter reject any collaboration with rulers who fail to apply sharia. The Brotherhood, instead, adopted a dual strategy of infiltrating government and moving it closer to Islamist ideology from within while pressuring it from without to appease devout Muslims by making concessions to sharia — violent revolt being an ever-present threat.

#page#Banna’s jihad required extraordinary patience and perseverance. It has had those attributes in spades, because it sees itself as the vanguard of the worldwide Muslim Nation. Starting from scratch, the Brotherhood quickly amassed millions of adherents in Egypt and beyond. It now operates in every major country, its constituents adaptable to conditions on the ground. Thus Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, is a combat operation (with social-welfare components), while the Brotherhood’s American spinoffs, such as the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim American Society, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, are advocacy groups. Jihad and dawah, hand in hand.

The Turkish military’s ouster of Erbakan was instructive for the Islamists. They saw demonstrated the signature lesson of Banna and his heirs: A movement that is too rash, that reaches beyond where the public is ready to go, will be crushed. So they reinvented themselves as the “Justice and Development Party” (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP). The AKP advertised itself as mainstream — deferential to Islam but not overtly Islamist — the better gradually to pry centrist Muslims away from secularists.

Under the cautious leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP stressed good governance, a pro-business outlook, and a steady foreign policy that ostensibly maintained Turkey’s cordial relations with Israel and the West. There was, however, little doubt about who they were. Erdogan, who wrote and performed in an anti-Semitic play (Mas-kom-ya) as a member of an Islamist youth group in 1974, had grown up in Erbakan’s faction, which had explicitly sought to eradicate Ataturk’s secularist order.

In 2002, when the secular parties split, the AKP became the unintended beneficiary of the rigged electoral system designed to keep Islamists out of power, its one-third plurality in the popular vote translating into a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Installed as prime minister, Erdogan was determined not to repeat Erbakan’s overreach. AEI scholar Michael Rubin’s diagnosis hits the nail on the head: He “disavowed any intention to implement the Islamist agenda he had embraced in the past,” even as “his government worked to weaken or disable all of the inherent checks that would prevent the establishment of an Islamic state in the longer run.”

Erdogan emphasized stability and, as Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes recounts, contented himself with the low-hanging Islamist fruit: The AKP moved to criminalize adultery, to condemn Christianity as a polytheistic religion (not a hard sell in a secular-Islamic country), and to loosen restrictions against glorifying Islam in public schools and against freelance Koranic instruction. More important, Rubin notes, Erdogan stacked the civil service, the banking boards, and the judiciary with his political allies, using his influence over the legal system to harass and silence his opposition.

Erdogan’s masterstroke has been capitalizing on the specter of membership in the European Union. In point of fact, Turkey was never going to be in the EU. The Islamists have no intention of Westernizing, and leading EU nations (especially France and Germany) did not seriously entertain the idea of admitting Turkey. But the perceived need to bring his country into compliance with EU standards — a precondition for the membership Turkey has purportedly been working toward — has been a boon for Erdogan. It has enabled him to undermine Ataturk’s legacy of laïcité. Separation of the spiritual from the secular, he argued, required that the government relinquish its stranglehold on the mosques, the Islamic endowments, and religious affairs. European principles, he pointed out, demanded strong civilian control of the military — undermining Ataturk’s trump card against an Islamic revival.

It has worked like a charm. Echoing European sentiment, successive American administrations, seduced by the mirage of an evolving Islam with a Westernized Turkey at the fore, crowned Erdogan a leading “moderate.” They even seemed unembarrassed when the prime minister ridiculed the very suggestion that there is such a thing as “moderate Islam”: Such a term, he admonishes, is “very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.” With the West’s imprimatur and no emergent secular opposition, the AKP increased its electoral share to nearly 50 percent in 2007.

#page#Realizing his hand would never be stronger, Erdogan turned up the revolutionary heat, ordering mass arrests of his political opponents, including some military officers, for purportedly plotting a coup. When this did not rouse the deep state from its slumber, he raised the stakes in early 2010: a second round-up (internally dubbed “Sledgehammer”) was aimed exclusively at the military. Meanwhile, Turkey ended its military cooperation with Israel while adding its increasingly loud voice to the international condemnation of the Jewish state’s “occupation” of Palestinian territories. In a stunning 2009 confrontation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Erdogan upbraided Israeli president Shimon Peres, exclaiming, “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.”

In late May, the “peace flotilla” was led by Turkey-based terrorists, operating with the knowledge and encouragement of Erdogan’s government. The organizer, “International Humanitarian Relief” (IHH), is part of an umbrella organization called the “Union of Good.” Led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, the Egyptian cleric Yusuf Qaradawi (a Banna disciple who promises to “conquer Europe” and “conquer America”), the Union of Good has been a designated terrorist organization under U.S. law since 2008 because of its support for Hamas — itself a designated terrorist organization since the mid-1990s. Hamas has been the Muslim Brotherhood’s signal cause since its launching in 1987, with a charter calling for Israel’s destruction. Erdogan praised the IHH terrorists as humanitarian activists, condemned Israel for forcibly defending its blockade against a transparently premeditated provocation, and proclaimed that Hamas is not a “terrorist movement” but a democratically elected resistance force that is merely defending its rightful territory.

The Obama administration’s fecklessness has only encouraged the Turkish prime minister. Erdogan has drawn Turkey into deeper ties with Iran. Though a NATO ally, Turkey has worked to undermine U.S. and European diplomatic efforts to halt the mullahs’ nuclear program. At the U.N. Security Council, it voted against even the nigh-toothless sanctions the Obama State Department finally managed, after feverish lobbying, to push through. Moreover, the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute reports that Erdogan, at the urging of Hamas chieftain Khaled Mishal, has invited Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to come to Turkey for talks.

As Turkey slides deeper into the Islamist camp, Ataturk’s ambitious experiment in Islamic secularism lies in tatters, and Banna’s Islamist movement is ascendant.

In a 1991 memorandum, the Muslim Brotherhood’s American leadership described the movement’s work as “a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within” by “sabotage.” Islam’s Western apologists — many of the same people who hailed Erdogan as a moderate — dismiss such assertions as farfetched chest-beating. Look at it, though, from the Islamist perspective. The Soviet Union, humiliated by the Afghan mujahideen, is no more. The Twin Towers, iconic symbols of Western economic might, have been reduced to a haunting crater. At the U.N., an organization easily bullied by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an American administration joins in a resolution condemning Israel for defending itself against jihadists pledged to its annihilation. And now, after an 80-year struggle, Turkey — whose defection spawned the modern Islamist movement — is back in the umma and helping lead the civilizational jihad.

Banna’s progeny are certain that history is on their side. They fight on because they believe they are winning, and that they will win.

– Mr. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.

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