Revolutions, some messier than others, strive for progress and a better future. Not so in the Middle East. There revolutions are used to spring backward.
In 2011, Egyptians poured to the streets, risking their lives in quest for a better future, only to have it hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers then set out to deny freedom of expression, destroy Egypt’s economy, impoverish its people and impose shari’a. The ill-fed, fed-up Egyptians seem to have had enough. Millions are protesting iall over the country. Joined by the military, which until now stood on the sidelines, they are demanding the resignation of the tone-deaf Islamist president, Brother Mohamed Morsi.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing autocratic conduct and attempts to enforce Islamic law, resulted in month-long clashes with demonstrators demanding reform. The violent suppression of the demonstrations shattered the illusion that Turkey is an exemplary Muslim democracy. It proved, again, that “Islamic democracy” is an oxymoron.
The brutal crack-down on the demonstrations led the EU to postpone discussions about Turkey’s membership. However, NATO keeps mum, possibly because it relies on Turkey’s military. In the meantime, Erdogan is moving fast to limit the military’s constitutional power and take over.
Erdogan’s commitment to the Islamist agenda was highlighted when he met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, last month when thousands of demonstrators all over Turkey were attacked with tear gas by the police. The gas smoke is still in the air, but Erdogan is planning to visit to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch Hamas headquarters in Gaza later this week.
As long as the Islamist agenda comes before that of the state, when Islam takes over political systems–as seen in Egypt and Turkey–real progress will continue to elude the people of the Middle East.
appeared in EWI’s No. 128 issue.
Since then, both Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) chapters in Egypt (open) and Turkey (semi-secret) have encountered difficulties. Both are under attack by their nation’s “street” and both economies are in trouble, Egypt in free-fall, and Turkey in contraction. The Muslim Brothers who attended the funeral of one of their most respected leaders, Necmettin Erbakan, in Turkey, certainly did not foresee recent events. In March 2011, the Muslim world was riding a wave that few Brothers visualized would soon reach its apogee. It is thus interesting to check the list of visitors to the funeral (below) and recall the palmy days of March 2011 and contrast them with the more sanguine events of the last few months.
In March 2011, the largest gathering of the Muslim Brotherhood international members (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in more than fifty years congregated in Istanbul to attend the funeral of Turkish politician Necmettin Erbakan (b. 1926).
Described as the founder of the Turkish Islamist movement, the engineer and Aachen- RWTH University educated Ph.D. began his political career in 1969, running as an independent and winning the office of deputy in Konya, in Central Anatolia.
It was with the direct assistance of Erbakan and his Islamist movement that the Turkish community in Germany formed one stream of Europe’s nascent international Muslim Brotherhood movement; The IGD (Islamische Gemeinschaft Deutschland) of Egyptian exile Said Ramadan formed the other. After obtaining a law degree from University of Cairo in 1946 Ramadan had been chosen by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna to become his personal secretary. He would later marry Banna’s daughter. He was one of the first eminent Muslim Brothers to find a home in Europe. He and Erbakan were never known to have worked at cross-purposes.
In Turkey, Erbakan’s spiritual guidance derived from Mehmet Zahid Khotku, a very influential Sufi (Naqshbandi) sheikh. He encouraged Erbakan to create a political movement within Turkey that would serve the specific needs of the Muslim community.
Although religious guidance came from Sheikh Khotku, Erbakan alone hatched the main political tenets of this movement and was active for four decades in that nation’s often-hostile political environment. Prior to Erbakan’s political emergence the Ikhwan al-Muslimun had little influence within the Turkish polity. Turkey then was a nation dominated by secular politics. Still, the Islamist movement had its proponents. The most important had been Bediuyzzaman Said Nursi (1873-1960), a Kurdish Turk and scholar who sought to reconcile the daunting issues of Science and Technology with Islam. His “Risale-i Nur”, a six thousand-page commentary on the Quran, was distributed throughout the Middle East. Nursi had maintained a relationship with Ikhwan leaders, and persistently sought to enhance the “unity in the Islamic world on the social level.”
After Nursi’s death, Erbakan emerged as leader of Turkey’s first important Islamist movement, the Milli Salamet Partisi (National Salvation Party). His early political journeys were far from easy. In 1979 he broke with Mehmet Khotku, his religious mentor who was the leader of the Iskenderpasha movement. The two differed over the issue of Iran. Khotku was troubled by the Shiite revolution in Iran. Erbakan was not. Erbakan was forced out from Khotku’s movement and thereafter led his own political movements.
The future of both Erbakan and his National Salvation Party were clouded following the military coup of 1980, and after which the party was prorogued. Ostensibly forced from Turkish politics, Erbakan was still able to found the Refah (Welfare) Party in 1983. The Refah was an unabashed Islamist party, “which featured strong anti- Western, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-secular elements.”
Maintaining his interest in Europe, Erbakan founded the Milli Gorush in Cologne in 1985. That movement eventually counted hundreds of cells operating clandestinely and closely watched by German intelligence. While Erbakan challenged the unbelievers in Europe, in Turkey he challenged Turkey’s secular dogma. He supported the celebration of Islamic feasts, and the use of Islamic dress. He pushed for a greater role for religion in public life. In economics, he urged the creation of a pan-Islamic currency, and his foreign policy welcomed the Islamist and Shiite government of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Often called “Khoca” — or mentor, a term given to religious teachers or wise men — he was respected even by his enemies and was twice named deputy prime minister.
Erbakan would reemerge as a political force in 1990. By then he was a close friend of such Muslim Brothers as the Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi, Tunisia’s Rashid al-Ghannouchi and Sheikh al-Zindani of Yemen. And with the demise of the Soviet Union, he spearheaded the effort to fund the construction of madrassas and Islamic Centers, and the distribution of hundreds of thousands of Koran in the former Turkic provinces. While the program succeeded thanks to Saudi largesse and funds from Muslim charitable organizations with headquarters in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, Erdagan had reason to be pleased with the outcome. (See “The Revival of Islam in Central Asia and Caucasus,” M. A. Karim, Renaissance, Institute of Islamic Sciences (Al-Mawrid), Lahore, Pakistan. ( http://www.renaissance.com.pk , undated.) As head of the Refah Party, he was personally involved in the Islamist effort in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and directly supported the activities of a number of gunrunning Islamic charities active in the Balkan wars.
In the general election of 1995, the Refah gained slightly more than twenty percent of the general vote. And in 1996, Erbakan reached the apex of his career when at age seventy he emerged as the first elected Islamist Prime Minister in Turkey’s modern history. As prime minister, he sought to loosen Turkey’s ties to the European Union. He traveled widely in both Arab and Muslim worlds. A year after taking office he was ousted by the military, “for violating the constitutional principle of secularism.” Unabashed, Erbakan’s new creation, the Felicity (Saadet Partisi) Party, emerged in 2001.
Erbakan was still a powerful political figure when Felicity was banned a few months after its founding. And in March 2002 Erbakan was sentenced to two years and four months in prison on bogus charges of corruption. He was soon pardoned. By that time, however, Erbakan seemed a spent figure and his Felicity Party would never assume much importance. His place in the Islamist movement was assumed by a former protégé, Recip Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, chaired the emerging Justice and Development Party (AKP), a movement which was seen as more pragmatic and more “modern” in outlook than the movements led by Erbakan.
Nearly two million Turks attended Erbakan’s funeral — at which street vendors did a brisk business selling scarves emblazoned with the message “Mujahid Erbakan.” There were many honored guests including representatives of Turkish political parties, and guests from more than sixty countries. Notably, a plethora of Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood leaders arrived in Istanbul to pay their respects. They included:
* Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish premier.
* Khaled Meshaal. Hamas leader, living in Damascus.
* Mohammed Nazal. Hamas political bureau member living in Syria.
* Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri. Iran’s senior cleric and head of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought.
* Mohammad Mahdi Akef, former Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood with headquarters in Egypt.
* Ibrahim Mounir. Muslim Brotherhood leader living in exile in the UK.
* Yusef Nada. Europan exile and self-described Ikhwan foreign minister.
* Ghaleb Himmat. European resident and business partner of Youssef Nada.
* Rachid Ghannouchi. Tunisia’s leading politician and Muslim Brother.
* Ibrahim al-Masri. Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood leader.
* Mustafa Mohammed Tahan. Secretary-General of the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations (IIFSO).
* Ahmed Abd al-Aty. Secretary-General of the IIFSO.
* Ibrahim el-Zayat. Federation of Islamic Organizations In Europe (FIOE) official, and representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany. Married to sister of Mehmet Sabri Erbakan, nephew of Necmettin Erbakan, Manager of the European Mosque Building Association.
* Ayman al-Ali. FIOE representative.
* Chakib Makhlouf. President of FIOE.
ª Ali Bayanouni, former Ikhwan Comptroller General in Syria. * Qazi Hussain Ahmed. Amir of the Pakistani Jammat-e-Islami.
* Abdur Rasheed Turabi. Head of the Islamic Party of Kashmir.
* Lutfi Hasan Ishaq. Chairman of Indonesia Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
* Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab. Former Sudanese President and Director, International Islamic Dawaa (Outreach).
In addition, former Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie visited the Turkish Embassy in Jakarta to convey his condolences. The former president had been friends with Erbakan during their years in Germany, and he had been witness at the wedding of Erbakan’s daughter.
From Bosnia it was announced that soil from the grave of former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović would be sent to Istanbul to be comingled at the burial site. (AA-Anatolian News Agency, Aksam, Turkey, February 28, 2011).
Other Islamists who could not attend included Hasan al-Turabi; the noted Sudanese Islamist who was under house arrest in Khartoum.
It was Ghannouchi, likely speaking for many of those present, who publicly declared, “In the Arab world in my generation, when [people] talked about the Islamic movement, they talked about Erbakan. When they talked about Erbakan, it is comparable to the way they talked about [Ikhwan founder] Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.” Ghannouchi added, “Erbakan was not only my friend but also my mentor, he had a distinct reputation in the Arab world.” Distinct indeed.
Perhaps no more than a handful of Islamists could expect a similar turn out and such an outpouring of affectionate words at their funeral.
Among Erbakan’s proudest achievements was the creation of the Developing Eight, or D-8, a small group of the most populous Muslim countries. At the behest of Erbakan, representatives of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria had assembled at the “Conference on Cooperation for Development” held in Istanbul on 22 October 1996. The conference was the first step towards the establishment of the D-8, and it was followed by an Istanbul Declaration issued at the end of the Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Istanbul on 15 June 1997. The D-8 Secretariat and Executive Directorship were then located in Istanbul.
Subsequently, D-8 summits were held in Istanbul, Dhaka, Cairo, Tehran, Bali and Kuala Lumpur. There have also been eleven Council of Foreign Ministers meetings, 26 Commission meetings and a large number of meetings held at the technical level. A Headquarters Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Turkey and the D-8 Secretariat situating the organization in Istanbul was signed on 20 February 2009.
While it is easy to ignore the D-8 that had no major achievements, their population still comprises some 1 billion people, or about 15% of the world’s population. Half of the members are cited in top 25 merchandise exporters of the World, and two of them are members of the G-20. In the Muslim World itself, the G-8 accounts for around 45% of all exports of the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s 57 members. While D-8 nations had a trade volume of $1.15 trillion in 2009, the organization acknowledges that intra D-8 trade accounted for only $67 billion, or a paltry 5.7% of the total. Nonetheless, it was believed that once the Preferential Trade Agreement was promulgated that D-8 intra-trade would certainly increase.
Since the ouster of Egypt’s Mubarak, the D-8 put into effect a Preferential Trade Agreement in August 2011. Members were optimistic that it would enhance economic and trade integration, and it is certainly the most significant achievement the organization has achieved to date. Members expressed confidence that a new trade bloc would emerge, and when it does the OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference] will be “on notice” that in trade matters it would have to be “more proactive.”
Two months later, On October 26th, 2011 the D-8 Secretariat announced that a customs agreement had been promulgated. (Despite speculations that Iran would not accede, Tehran ratified the Multilateral Agreement Among D-8 Customs in September.) The agreement involving trade facilitation, customs duties, tariffs and inspection was intended to overcome delays in intra D-8 trade. By its own admission, the D-8, “aims to improve the developing countries’ positions in the world economy, diversify and create new opportunities in trade relations, enhance participation in decision-making mechanisms at the international level, and provide people with better living standards.”
The D-8 has also announced that it will take the initiative in investing in the halal industry and thus provide high quality products for both Muslim and non-Muslim populations. The nearly two billion Muslims already formed a strong consumer base with $610 billion spent annually on halal food, and the increase in demand approached an annual increase of 25%. It is estimated that the global halal industry is worth about US$2.7 trillion and is growing rapidly at an average 25% annually.
The D-8 is hardly the counterweight to the G-7 group of industrialized nations that Erdagan had hoped. Still, a major step has been taken toward establishing economic, political and social unity among eight (often overlooked) Muslim countries. Although the D-8 is generally considered a trade organization, its potential to metamorphose into something much large and more political is now possible. The possibilities are enormous now that the Mubarak government and the former Egyptian stumbling block have been removed and the possibility of an Egypt-Iran alliance grows daily.
It is worth mentioning that two months following the Erbakan funeral Hasan Bitmez, the leader of the Turkish members of the Islamist Felicity Party, other Turkish Islamists were present at the opening of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Headquarters in Cairo. It was reported that the gathering, attended by Ikhwan from many nations (including Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria and Somalia), was the “cause for quiet celebration as the founding chapter of the international Ikhwan al-Muslimun opened its headquarters in Egypt for the first time in sixty years.” The Hurriyet newspaper reported that Muslim Brotherhood Chairman Dr. Mohamed Badie promised that the opening of the headquarters was part of the Ikhwan aim to see that Egypt had “a civilian government with a reference to Islam.”
The real key to the development of the D-8 as an institution, and as an economic and political power, depends on the budding relationship being forged between Egypt and Iran. According to Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood now maintain close contact.
Most recently, in late January 2012, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated, “Tehran is in constant contact with the Muslim Brotherhood.” He seemed particularly pleased with the results of recent elections that brought the Ikhwan’s Freedom and Justice Party to the forefront of Egyptian politics. He added that Iran was prepared to enhance diplomatic relations with Egypt to the ambassadorial level.
According to Salehi, after more than two decades during which Egypt and Iran had no official ties, Iran is now prepared to promote its diplomatic relations with Egypt to the ambassadorial level — “particularly in light of the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent ascendancy to power.” And Iran would “immediately” send an ambassador if Egypt agreed. Salehi noted that some unnamed countries were “not happy about improving relations between Egypt and Iran,” but stated, “If Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia cooperated, all would benefit.”(Al-Masry Al-Youm, Cairo, 31 January 2012.
For certain, the D-8 would benefit, and Erbakan certainly would have been pleased. It was, after all, thanks in large part to his efforts the Turkey-Iran alliance was well settled.
As Fatih Erbakan noted during the funeral, his father had always held Iran in highest regard. When prime minister, he paid his first visit to Iran, and the last country he visited before his death was Iran. “When he was working on the Muslim Unity and D-8 project, he was pressured from inside and outside Turkey ‘to prioritize Arab countries’. They suggested that ‘Iran’s role should be secondary.’ However, my father always asserted that ‘Iran is our closest brother. It is the country that struggles most bravely against world Zionism. Thus we first need to embrace them’. My late father had a famous expression ‘We are [the] opposition in Turkey but [in] power in Iran’.” (Seyfeddin Kara, “Remembering Erbakan, Crescent International, 5 April 2011.)
Just as the chess pieces have been swept from the table, and the success of the D-8 seems possible, the Syria problem has emerged. It threatens to pit Turkey against Iran. should that happen, all D-8 bets are off the table.
*J. Millard Burr, a Fellow at the Economic Warfare Institute, authored with Robert Collins, Alms for Jihad; Revolutionary Sudan and many other publications, and is a former State Department official.