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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (B)

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The deepest crisis of our world today is of leadership. What happened in the first half of the 20th century was a crisis of world democratic legislature, the inability of the parliamentary to act according to its authority and to impose restriction on the executive.

The result was the breakout of the two World Wars. Unfortunately the beginning of the 21st century witnesses the crisis of leadership, the weakness of the executive to follow a bold courageous policy. The immediate result is the power vacuum created that has led to the encroachment of Islam as the main actor of world politics.

Leadership is not ready to admit the problematic nature of its “mirror imaging”, works to avoid cognitive dissonance and at the same time is busy with appeasement. This means that it has closed its mind to any trend or development that is not acceptable to, and refuses to believe that the problems created originate from its own values and policy. From its point of view, even if the existing reality does not portend good tidings, the leaders work by the approach “minor changes to the midway point”.

That is, in the last analysis, the situation is OK, and the problems that have burst into the open are small and soluble. The main thing is to continue with the policy and not to stop. But the critical question that must be asked of citizens who look at a failing policy and at the conduct of their leaders, is: If the state were a business enterprise, whom would you appoint or choose to run it? And what would you do as chairman of the board of directors of the company, when you realize that the management has failed and is covering up? Would you allow it to continue with the disastrous policy? Now, here we are only dealing with a business. What happens when the failure might bring the state to the brink, and even more, endanger the existence of peoples?

Who is the realist leader as against the extremist? Was it Chamberlain, who promised peace, or Churchill, who promised blood and tears? Was it Clinton, who appeased North Korea, or the Prime Minister of Israel, Begin, who bombed the Iraqi atomic reactor? He who sells dictatorship of utopia and peace now, or he who shouts loudly that the enemy is here and we must fight? He who cried out in the 1930s that the Jews must eliminate the Diaspora before the Diaspora eliminates them, or those who did not believe that the holocaust could occur? Was it Huntington, who offered “the clash of civilizations”, or those who accused him of not understanding Islam?

In reaction to these critical remarks, about the “mirror image” that expresses flaws of leadership, the retort came: Don’t the leaders know this? Aren’t they aware of these phenomena? Don’t they have this information? The answer is clear. They know and see everything, and the information at their disposal is good and much more plentiful than would allow them to overlook key features. But they are politicians, and the most outstanding traits of this breed are their evasiveness and refusal to admit failure. Have you ever seen a gambler losing almost everything get up from the table? No. He will risk what is left, out of the hope that he will regain what he has lost. This picture very much fits political leadership. Politicians’ egoism, their conceptual misdoings, their distorted perceptions are deep and complex. They will not admit failure, and they will certainly not retreat from the line of policy that they have shaped.

As for Islam, Winston Churchill wrote in his two-volume work, The (Nile) River War: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries… The fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog… Insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live… Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities…but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.” Churchill concluded: “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith… the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc, the President of the Oxford Union and a member of the British Parliament, wrote in The Great Heresies (1938): “Mohammedism was a perversion of Christian doctrine… The success of Mohammedanism…was an extreme simplicity which pleased the unintelligent masses… Will not perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed Mohammedan world which will shake off the domination of Europeans – still nominally Christian – and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization?…

The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam… anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom… yet over and over again they have suddenly united under a leader and accomplished the greatest things…”

Belloc concluded: “…Now it is probable enough that on these lines – unity under a leader – the return of Islam may arrive. There is no leader as yet, but enthusiasm might bring one and there are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date perhaps not far distant.”

The First Cultural Flaw in Thinking: The Arab Personality

Arab society is mainly tribal-nomadic, with its outstanding trait being clan loyalty and the anarchy of the desert. Most of its values were shaped in the Jahiliyah. , The important values in Arab conceptions and behavior reflect the pre-Islamic ideals. In the Jahiliyah age, it is stated that “The Arabs did not know Allah and his Messenger and the rules of the religion.”

Therefore, it is defined as “the period of ignorance”. However, since the researcher Goldziher, it has been agreed that the Jahiliyah was a period of wildness, savagery, tribal jealousy and idol worship. The tribe made up the exclusive social-cultural unit. It was in constant conflict with other tribes over sources of subsistence. The political struggle principally embodied the scarcity of resources against the many demands to obtain them. This was a society of, “His hand shall be against all men,” as God said of Ishmael.

The two most important activities of the Arab tribes were constant fights and quarrels on other tribes, embodied by raids (Ghazawat) with the aim of taking booty (Ghanaem), the utmost: kidnapping women and boys and girls. The reason was power politics. Women represent a producing babies machinery and boys as fighters. The bigger the tribe was from fighters on the battleground perspective, the stronger, victorious, and respected it became.

Under Islam, Muhammad took this situation and funneled it into a total warfare against the infidels. From now on Muslims love and cherish other Muslims while they hate and fight the infidels. This has become a religious commandment called al-Wala’ wal-Bara’. Therefore, the social-political tribal syndrome of raids-booty has become a religious fighting-call to battle the infidels wherever and whenever they are. These traits had also been showed in the scourge of Islamic slavery of more than two hundreds of millions of black and white slaves from Africa, Asia and East Europe. It was also shown by the Devshirme system employed by the Ottoman Empire, of kidnapping young boys and girls, converting them to Islam and using them as soldiers, administrators and concubines.  

The extended family-clan-tribe syndrome was as follows: the head of the tribe was the Sayid, who was elected from among by the small group of the elders, and was only first among equals in status. This reality runs all Islamic history and contemporary: the leaders are from among the military or from the respected tribes serving as Sultans or kings. The Muslim peoples have never chosen or elected their own leaders, and were never part of the decision-making processes. They have not shaped or influenced the decision-making process as tribes, before Islam, as subjects of an Islamic empire, and as a contemporary inhabitants of the state political system. One cannot find citizenship, and sovereign electing people in Arab-Islamic political system.

Among the tribes was the Haram area, a place of agreed upon neutral holiness. It was a place for clarifications and intertribal agreements. From this, the Arabs accumulated immense experience in conducting negotiations. Thus, structures developed for obtaining mediation and compromise that were institutionalized. These were called “mechanisms of Wustah or Wasat.”

Despite their desert character, the city was the Arabs’ focus of change and political activity. Mecca was a center of trade and pilgrimage, since it was on the caravan routes. This is the Islamic strategy today in the Free World territories: occupation comes from the cities, and the main activity to achieve this goal has been in the city.

Religion had secondary importance in Jahili society. Religious customs were observed out of tradition and feelings of respect for forefathers, but religion was fetishist, and values were fatalistic, out of absolute faith in the decrees of fate. Secular values took a central place, and were expressed in the concept of manliness (Muruwwah), which meant the whole set of traits of the perfect Bedouin. The most important framework was preserving tribal solidarity (‘Asabiyyah). The tribe was the foundation for personal and group existence.

The critical phenomenon in its importance to Arab-Islamic society is honor. A man’s honor is Sharaf. It is flexible, dynamic, and subject to change in accord with his deeds. A woman’s honor is ‘Ird (also meaning her pelvis). In contrast to a man’s honor, it is firm and permanent. The woman grows up with her honor, and her most important role is to preserve it. The moment that a woman’s honor is lost, it cannot be restored, and a man’s honor is severely wounded. Indeed, Muslim society is based on the virginity of its daughters. Honor is the most important supreme value in Arab life, more important than life itself. A man without honor is considered dead. Hence the saying, “It is better to die with honor than live with humiliation.”

A man’s place in the tribe, as well as the tribe’s place among the tribes, was according to the measure of his and its honor. When honor was harmed, shame was caused which originated in public exposure, overt to everyone, a phenomenon which severely humiliated a man. Indeed, the Arab individual is caught up throughout his whole life in intensive activity to avoid shame and advance his honor. The central means for this was vengeance. Honor is restored only when vengeance has been carried out in public and is known to all.

This syndrome: honor-shame-vengeance is of highest importance in Arab-Islamic life, and is the focus of all other cultural traits analyzed herewith. Everything stems from this syndrome and everything is influenced from it. Publicity is the measurement, the variable that determines the action.

Tribal tradition and clan loyalty had dominant influence in society. Likewise significant were blood ties within the extended family and the clan, which determined group loyalties and identifications. Most of these social traits exist to this day, and influence the functioning of Arab society as a primordial system in which symbolic values are more important and esteemed than concrete values and the overall, holistic system of beliefs. This is “a shame society”, in which everyone must behave according to the accepted norms and internalize his own feelings in the system of group behavior.

A significant phenomenon that typifies the Arab is a basic lack of trust, indeed, suspicion, and hostility toward the “other”, even if he is a neighbor and member of the same clan. This is a central phenomenon in social life, which goes to an extreme of course when non-Muslim foreigners are involved. All the mechanisms of receptions and the intensive activity of welcoming and hospitality are meant to create a defensive barrier, to soften the threatening interpersonal encounter. For this purpose, the political system has proven itself so very flexible and deeply adaptable. Life in such a hostile environment, and with resources so hard to get, has created a society of adaptability that comes to terms with reality. Political conformism is required as well as acceptance of rules of behavior, which define the society’s goals in religious terms.

This reality expressed too the collective’s superiority over the individual. In contrast to modern societies which promote the individual’s interests, and in which the ethos is what the individual takes and receives from the generality, in Arab society, the ethos is what the individual does for the collective. There is a communal consensus in contrast to an individual’s opinion. Islam does not encourage individualism, rather favoring organized, orderly authority. The individual does not exist by his own right, and he and his opinions are unimportant, except through his belonging to a group framework.

This is based on the Hadith attributed to Muhammad: “The opinion of the many [clan, tribe, religious community] cannot be mistaken.” There is nothing more contemptible than individualism, which is viewed as factionalism and as harming the achievement of goals. This is also the basis for the attitude towards political opposition, which is not accepted in principle. Therefore, one may analyze the Arab personality as moving along a continuum in accordance with the following criteria:

a) The syndrome of honor–shame–vengeance. When shame (‘Eb) has taken place, Arab personality urge him to act with unrestrained cruelty and violence in the pursuit of vengeance (Intiqam, Thar). Indeed, the means for preserving honor and even reinforcing it is revenge. In the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab-Muslim perspective is clear: Israel is guilty and deserves to suffer vengeance due to its very existence as a Jewish state, when there is no Jewish people; due to its location as a state in the heart of the Arab world, when it divides the Arabs, preventing them from reaching their goals; and due to its activity as a violent state, expanding to obtain additional Arab territories.

Can a solution be reached in these circumstances? The answer touches more on the balance of forces and Israel’s effective deterrence than on issues of honor, since in the last analysis, national interests are what decide. Nevertheless, the issue weighs heavily on attaining legitimacy and assent (if only resigned and reluctant) for Israel’s existence.

b) Internalized personality in contrast to externalized personality: Jews and Christians internalize the guilt. The Jews extend one cheek in the sense of, “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have committed crimes,” while Christians extend the second cheek, in the sense of “mea culpa.” In contrast, the Arabs externalize guilt: “Do I have a problem? – You are guilty!” Among them, there is no attempt to compromise. They have no tolerance for the justice and rights of the other. From their vantage point, justice and rights are totally on their side. Among Arabs and Muslims, one will not find the phenomenon so typical of Judeo- Christian culture: doubts, a sense of guilt, the self-tormenting approach, “Maybe we were not entirely OK,” or “Maybe we need to act or react differently.”

These phenomena are totally unknown in Arab-Islamic society towards outsiders. They have no doubts about their positions or the justice of their side. They have no sense of guilt that they may have erred. They have no twinges of conscience nor any regret that they may have done wrong to anyone else. From their viewpoint, they have no problem concerning the infidels. The phenomenon of the homicide bombers, mistakenly called suicide bombers, is an indication. There is no condemnation, no regret, no problem of conscience among Arabs and Muslims, anywhere, in any social stratum, of any social position. For the most part, there is total support without reservations. And if there are doubts, they have to do with the effectiveness of the phenomenon, not with condemnation of it.

c) Factionalism vs. Unity. The Arab personality oscillates in the space between the anarchic Arab character, separatist and violent, and the need to act jointly to achieve goals. This is the syndrome of polar reversals between factionalism and unity, between competitiveness and cooperation, between the aspiration for tribal freedom, the free spirit of the desert, and accepting authority and submitting to government. This is the syndrome between the stormy, violent personality, and the demands of society and the environment for conformity and submission. This is the syndrome between clan loyalty and tribal separatism, on one hand, and accepting tyrannical, authoritarian rule submissively, without challenge, on the other.

In this anarchic and violent society, the fear of social breakdown and disorientation is paramount, and dictates passive patterns of behavior. Above all, the most important continuum for understanding the Arab personality is that between submission to and fawning over those with perceived power, at one end, and cruel, violent, anarchic, unrestrained wildness, at the other.

Hostility and suspicion are dominant characteristics in the Arab personality. This is expressed by the saying: I and my brothers against my cousins’ sons; I and my cousins’ sons against the neighbor; I and the neighbors against the other. On one hand, flattering welcomes and gestures of politeness, but at one and the same time, continuing suspicion of the other and his intentions. The custom of hospitality, which is so famous an Arab social phenomenon, can be seen in the context of obtaining honor and externalizing it towards the environment. The mechanisms of reception and the polite welcomes in Arab society are meant to soften the interpersonal encounter which is so oppressive and threatening, to create a defense barrier.

d) The Collective Culture of Stubborn Social Limits. Characterizing Arab personality are various taboos and prohibitions of social and class hierarchy, in a constant attempt to be “OK” and to protect the accepted rules, to avoid failure in a matter that is likely to embarrass or to shame your rival in public. This refers to a puritanical society of firm prohibitions, which is based on its daughters’ virginity. This is a culture of hierarchy and discipline, of stiff homogeneity, contrasting with the pluralism and competition which indicate flexible heterogeneity in Western culture.

This is a culture wherein rumors are an integral part of social activity, and they quickly become absolute truth which cannot be challenged. It has to do with exaggerations, flights of fancy, and especially, in a society that believes in conspiracies, a society wherein every date is important, that remembers everything and forgives nothing. This is a society wherein the lie is an essential component of behavior patterns, and lying is endorsed by religious sages.

The famous Muslim theologian, al-Ghazzali, claimed that the lie is not wrong in itself. If the lie is the way to achieve good results for Islam, then it is permissible. It is necessary to lie when the truth might lead to unpleasant or undesired results. This is a society in which looking someone straight in the eye is forbidden, since it constitutes a challenge. There is also the prohibition to use the left hand, “the dirty hand”. Body language, like the manner of walking and the way of sitting, is very prominent. Indeed, the Arab personality is very diffuse from the structural and stratification standpoint.

e) The language as a cultural phenomenon, which makes it possible to understand the social environment and communicate with it. Language is critical in importance in Arab culture. The Arabs are motivated by admiration for the Arabic language and wide use of witticisms, sayings, fables, and allegories, as a filter of high importance for preventing shame, and consequently, for evading frictions and conflict. These bring the Arab personality to pathos and bellicose rhetoric, and from here to exaggerating reality, to overemphasis, to overstatement.

In all forms of interpersonal communications there are several phenomena: exaggeration in describing events (Mubalaghah); personal boasting of one’s deeds (Mufakharah); and repeated stressing of words (Tawqid). The role of the word in the Arab world (the word is a decoration) is totally different from that in the West (the word is a commitment). For the Syrian poet, Qabbani, the Arabs have been subject to 1,500 years of imperialist occupation by poetry.

What happens in the cultural encounter between the overstatement approach of Arab culture and the understatement approach of Western culture? Indeed, the influence of the Arab language on the behavior of the Arab personality is astonishing. Not only are they convinced that it is the most beautiful of all languages, but also that it proves their superiority and the superiority of Arab culture.

The Arab linguist al-Tha`alibi stated: “Whoever loves the Prophet, loves the Arabs. And whoever loves the Arabs, loves the Arabic language. The Prophet Muhammad is the most excellent of all prophets; the Arabs are the best, most admirable people of the world; and the Arabic language is the most excellent of all tongues.

f) The Phenomenon of Time. This too is a cultural matter totally different from its counterpart in Western culture. Western culture sanctifies the “here and now”. It wants “to make time”, to achieve everything now, to arrive much more quickly anywhere. In contrast, in Arab culture, there is time in abundance. It can be wasted indefinitely. After all, it is not necessary to do everything here and now. This is the reason for the totally different approach to negotiations among the Arabs, for the lack of speed in agreeing to accords, and for the tendency to postpone till tomorrow dealing with complex problems. In Western culture, everything is viewed as a “window of opportunity”, in an admired and attractive expression. Meanwhile, in Arab culture, the belief is that one should not hurry, since haste is the work of Satan (al-‘Ajalah Min al-Shaitan).

An apt summary of the matter was written by the famous Egyptian journalist, Muhammad Hassanayn Haykal, former editor of the daily, al-Ahram:

Arab logic tends to retreat in the direction of the instinct. Our thoughts are dust while our emotions are fire. We were and still are tribes, raging at one moment and quiescent at another. We hold our weapons in front of one another, and later we clasp each other’s hand and embrace as if nothing had happened.

The late Fuad Ajami proves that the kind of Western modernity that the Arabs imported gave birth to a monstrous, arid world, a false image of modernity, since they have no spirit of curiosity, nor hunger to know by totally changing values, nor openness to absorb and process other matters.

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Gender in the GCC — The Reform Agenda Continues

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In my previous Op-Ed about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I talked about the importance of the human capital. Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day this March 8th, it is a good moment to take stock of the impressive progress that some countries in the GCC are making in expanding opportunities for women in order to utilize all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged over the last couple of years as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that are allowing women to more fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.

The benefits of such trendsetting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is being seen in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, gender equity for women in both the public and private spheres. To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, those GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective implementation, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbors for inspiration.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ranking in the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report jumped by the largest number of points of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking. This was in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a raft of measures to expand women’s roles in Saudi society and give them unprecedented economic freedoms. The reforms included increasing freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own; enabling women to be heads of households in the same way as men and allowing them to choose a place of residency; a prohibition on the dismissal of pregnant women from the workplace; a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit; the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment; the equalization of retirement ages between women and men; and a removal of the obedience provision for women. A year later, amendments to the Labor Law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.

As for the UAE, in September 2020, it became the first country in MENA to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation, which, at 57.5%, is one of the highest in the MENA region. The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritize gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. In 2019, the UAE introduced a first set of reforms, including guaranteeing equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households like men; passing legislation to combat domestic violence and impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining. These reforms were recognized in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 report, in which the UAE was the highest-ranked country in the MENA region.

The additional reforms introduced in 2020 address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. Specifically, the reforms include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands and to lift restrictions of women’s ability to travel outside the country, new provisions to allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and an amendment to the Labor law that mandates equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.

Lessons Learned and Ingredients for Success

Three common elements underpin the success of these reform efforts: strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries, and the deployment of information campaigns supporting the reforms.

Strong government commitment is crucial because it ensures not only that reform-minded legislation is passed in the first place, but that it is underpinned by tools to ensure implementation. In the UAE for example, the government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective implementation of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. To support implementation in Saudi Arabia, the government updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.

Effective collaboration and cooperation among government ministries is also key. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by a broad swath of government entities. And in Saudi Arabia specifically, a June 2019 royal decree established the Women’s Empowerment Committee, which includes representatives from a wide range of ministries and has as its mandate the coordination of efforts to achieve women’s empowerment through legal reforms.

Such cooperation among ministries is important because it can help support governments’ effective decision-making going forward. Specifically, all ministries whose mandates touch on issues related to women can collect reliable, uniform data to be used to support policy choices aimed at helping both women and the economy. In the UAE, for example, ministries are collecting gender disaggregated data on topics ranging from women’s opportunities for entrepreneurship to their dropout rate from the labor market to the incidence of domestic violence.

Effective implementation efforts have also included strong communication and information dissemination campaigns. The governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed great emphasis on raising awareness of the new provisions to ensure compliance with the legal framework and to show the economic and social benefits of these reforms. The reforms were widely covered by local and international media. The government also used social media, government websites, and government-sponsored seminars and workshops with various stakeholders to spread the word.

Throughout history, women have played a critical role in economic recovery following global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal reforms in the Gulf are enabling women to contribute more effectively to recovery this time, as well. The role of regional leaders like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not just for inspiring reforms, but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learned from the reform effort. These three countries can play a transformational role in the MENA region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the implementation of gender-neutral laws.

World Bank

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Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

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A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.

The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.

In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.

The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.

Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.

Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.

Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.

Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.

Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.

Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”

With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.

Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.

For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.

They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.

The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.

While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

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Notes on Turkish Politics (5): The Need for a Vibrant Civil Society

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This is the last piece of my “Turkish politics” article series. In this piece, I will try to address the role of civil society in Turkish political life and democracy in a brief way.

The role of civil society is very important in shaping the democratic institutions and processes in a polity. Turkish political culture has long been characterized by having a weak civil society and strong state mechanism. As noted in my earlier piece titled “Notes On Turkish Politics (I): Strong State Tradition”Turkey has a “strong state tradition” as first stressed by distinguished Turkish academic Metin Heper. The non-state units and grass-roots movements have been weak in Turkish political life due to a number of reasons which also lead to democratic erosion.

Civil society is related with autonomous social units and organizations like voluntary associations, private companies, private associations etc. These social units or organizations that make up civil society are based on the principle of recognition of basic human and civil rights. It is known that civil society is seen as one of the basic social bases of  liberal democracy.

The historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. The military, the high bureaucracy and some academics along with some particular media actors used to show a certain amount of distrust towards the society until the multi-party politics.

In the post-1980 period, a revival of civil society was witnessed. Turkey went through important changes in the 1980s as the free market economy policies were accepted. One of the most important consequences of this change was the development of the systems of communication and information and this development empowered civil society actors as well. Turgut Özal has been one of the influential political elites paving the way for the strengthening of Turkish civil society. Özal challenged Kemalist state tradition to some degree. As an extension of Özal’s liberal policies, a free market economy was formed and legal obstacles to political freedom were also removed by abolishing Articles 141, 142, and 163 of the 1982 Constitution, which prohibited the free expression of thought (Çaha, 2001).

The 1990s witnessed a military intervention and this “post-modern” coup narrowed the arena for civil society associations and certain identities like that of Islamic identity were vilified by the state elites.

In the early years of the AK Party rule (up until 2010 referendum) Turkey saw positive developments in terms of democratization and this played a positive role for civil society as well. However, in the last years, Turkish civil society has begun to weaken once again. A recent example of this is Turkey’s NGO bill that was introduced in late 2020. In a news article published by Duvar English, the warnings of Human Right Watch were addressed. According to HRW, the bill introduces “annual inspections of nongovernmental groups, which will severely affect their activities since the inspections frequently last months and reduce the group’s capacity to operate. It introduces severe fines if the Interior Ministry deems a group’s online fundraising unlawful.”

In one of my articles titled “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” published in 2011, I wrote the following about the relationship between civil society and political culture for Turkish context:

“The Turkish case indicates that the advancement of civil society is closely related to the function of and the role of state. The governance of state in accordance with the rule of law and its neutrality is necessary for the advancement of a competitive social environment where social groups can freely compete. Also, it is important to note that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy.”

Turkey needs a vibrant civil society to have a working democracy and of course civil society is only one piece of the prerequisites for democracy!

Cited resources

  • Burak Begüm, 2011, “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?”  19264 (dergipark.org.tr) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
  • Çaha Ömer, 2001, “The Inevitable Coexistence of Civil Society and Liberalism: The Case of Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social Research 3, 2.
  • Duvar English, (Dec. 24, 2020), “Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW” Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW (duvarenglish.com) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)

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