According to prominent British historian Eric Hobsbawm, it is a mistake to ignore history but an even bigger mistake to think that history repeats itself! We have been accustomed to study the history of Islam by focusing on three particular nations: the Arab nations, the Iranian nation and the Turkish nation. Marshall Hodgson, one of the founders of the world history approach at the University of Chicago, wrote a seminal three-volume book, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, in which he divided Islamic civilization into six geo-strategic and geo-cultural realms, in which Arabs appear in one founding geo-strategic and three geo-cultural realms, while the Persians appear in two geo-strategic and three-geo cultural realms. The Turks are solely in three geo-strategic realms and no geo-cultural realms.
I do not wish to discuss the philosophy behind Islamic history or civilization. But, what one gains from both Hobsbawm and Hodgson is that national or self awareness in modern crises plays the most prominent role in the movements of nations. Arabs, Iranians and Turks are linked together but the geo-political clash between Iranians and Turks remains dominant in contemporary history, despite the geo-cultural links between the two nations.
We know from the Shahnama (the Book of Kings) that in pre-history, there were clashes between Iran, the land of the Aryans and Turan, the lank of the Turks. But, whereas Central Asia did not establish great empires before Islam, the Iranians had founded a great empire in the six century BC, when they expanded their territory at the expense of Greece and ancient Turks and Babylonians. They also clashed with the Romans and the Byzantine Empire west of the Euphrates during the Sassanid period (228-640 AD), until the appearance of Islam. When the Arabs conquered both Persian and Turkish lands, the population converted to Islam during the next 4 centuries, but retained their language and character. After the 12th century and until the 19th century, Persian culture remained dominant in the Turkic world whereas the Turks controlled the political domain in the rest of the Islamic east until the 19th century.
What’s the benefit of this historical introduction? At the time when the cultural exchange between Persians and Turks was at its apex, the two nations clashed in the geo-political and geo-strategic realms. Both nations witnessed, in the 14th and 15th centuries a political awakening based on a self-awareness and military preparedness/mobilization, with the sectarian dimension Sunni vs. Shiaa added to it in the 16th century, when a Turkic Sunni dynasty, which converted to Shiaa Islam (the Safavid), founded a nation in Iran, at a time when the ottoman dynasty had mobilized Turkic people in Anatolia to fight the remains of the Byzantine empire and later made gains in the Balkans and Europe. The two nations then became neighbors and rivals, until the conflict between the two lessened in intensity when both grew weaker in the 17th century. The Arabs owe this historical division for a modern united Iraq; the British sought to unite the three Ottoman vilayets, in order to become a division between the two and a balance point between the two entities: Turkey and Iran!
If we do not wish to re-ignite the Iranian-Turkish conflict, the Arabs need to effectively prove their presence, in order to establish a balance and safeguard their interests from being exploited by either side.
Throughout the 20th century, each nation built its cultural and national state on the European model. Each underwent a constitutional and reformist and modernist period but the Turks and the Iranians did not fight each other in the 20th century. Both entered into an alliance with the west after the Second World War and remained on the same side during the cold war. As for the Arabs, they suffered, as both sides forgot their presence, due to their long absence from the historical stage. Whereas both the Iranian and Turkish nations succeeded in safeguarding what they considered to be essential national rights, the Arabs failed to unite and build a modern nation (even in Egypt); the crux of their national wound remains the establishment of a Zionist entity in Palestine. Another wound might emerge in Iraq.
Iran broke off from the western alliance with a bang after the Islamic revolution in 1979 and remains, until today, in constant conflict with the west, especially the United States and Western Europe. As for Turkey, it has concentrated on reconciling the national and the (Islamic) cultural realms and has always enjoyed western support, because of its role throughout the ages. The Arabs were divided during the cold war into an Atlantic camp and a Soviet camp. They have since returned to a failed political experiment and continue to suffer from the wound that is Palestine and in recent years Iraq.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz visited Turkey last week at a critical time for Arabs, Turks and Iranians alike. The Iranians are trying to disrupt the US’s strategic hegemony and are targeting the balance of powers in the Arab world that the US intervention in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon rattled in the first place. As for the Turks, they are suffering from two problems, the Cypriot and the Kurdish questions, and from European objections to their EU membership. They remain the least worried about the present and future. They have successfully reconciled state and religion and their economy is thriving. Their oil-poor nation is rich in water and its Turanic expansion into the Caucus and Central Asia is, once again, taking place.
As for the Arab world, it enjoys a strategic location, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean, and it holds the future of the world’s energy and strategic channels in its hands. But, the Arabs suffer from divisions and almost irresolvable problems, in addition to the intrusion of other parties in their lands and interests. Iran is in a state of great “turmoil” since the start of the Islamic revolution. The country claims it is suffering from US sanctions and from an attack on their strategic expanses. On the other hand, their western opponents (and now the Arabs) complain of Iran’s new imperial thinking and from its return to “exporting the revolution” and endangering the security of its neighbors, even Turkey. This is why many Arabs and Europeans believe that Turkey has an important role to play, that of a balancing element in the map of “the New Middle East”.
What is the New Middle East? Shimon Peres was the first to put forward this Israeli concept in the late 1980s. He believed that the age of conflicts ended with the end of the cold war and the era extremist nationalities! He also believed that Israel was the most democratic and developed nation in the Middle East. Therefore, he envisaged a region that would be open and connected to each other by railways, telephone lines and airlines, whose center is Israel. Every nation or region would have a unique role: Turkey would provide water, Gulf countries oil and Arab countries manpower that would train in Israel and return to its country to spread technological development and democracy! At the time, Iran and Iraq were not included in the vision, because of the nature of the ruling regimes in Baghdad and Tehran. The United States, during George W. Bush’s second term in office, has revived Peres’ concept, in war and not in peace, even if the war was meant to bring about peace, democracy and development!
In truth, we are on the verge of a new era and a new Middle East. But, interestingly, it is Iran and Turkey who are molding it and not Israel or the United States. Iran’s aim of taking part in ensuring the security of the region and its equilibrium is legitimate but its methods threaten stability (in the Arab world more than in Israel). The United States fought Saddam Hussein for 15 years until he was toppled. The struggle with Iran will hurt both sides but Iran is set to suffer more. The entry of Turkey through the American door will be to no avail. Turkey was wise and strong when it did not become embroiled in Iraq with the United States, despite the sensitivity of the Kurdish issue, whereas Iran became entangled in Iraq and in Lebanon. At present, trade between Turkey and Iran is worth more than 10 billion dollars and is of a similar value with the Arab world. In order for equilibrium to be reached, an Arab geo-political initiative is necessary, and not just in trade. Saudi Arabia has opened strategic windows of opportunity for the Arabs, in the last two years, with India and China. It is currently engaged in finding new ones. Herein, King Abdullah’s visit to Turkey was economically significant. But, at this stage, political and strategic indications are the most important.
The Iranians and Turks have come forward and showcasing their merchandise. What about the Arabs?
History does not make the present but it doesn’t deny it or imprison it. Turkey used to control the region but never set an example for others to follow; the Arab caliphate remained the ruling model. Iran never held any influence west of the Euphrates, during the Islamic ages, but is now influential beyond Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In order to reign in the Iranian advance, Turkey has to be present. This requires an Arab presence, as well as an Arab vision and initiative.
Turkey is not showcasing the sultanate model and no one wants it. Its model of a positive relationship to bring about development and democracy and between religion and the state is ambition and attractive. Iran has huge oil capabilities; it is a cohesive country where the state is very strong. But its political and fundamentalist model doesn’t interest anyone, except the supporters of
wilayet-e-faqih… and Hugo Chvez. Will the Arabs, the first founders of the state and the first founders of a healthy relationship between the state and religion, come forward?