Who Will Win the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Arab Street: Turkey or Iran?

, December 16, 2010

Vol. 10, No. 16     December 16, 2010

  • Iran and today’s Turkish government are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street. Iran represents the Shiites and Turkey represents the Sunnis. The Arab world is largely Sunni, with the exception of many of the Persian Gulf Arab countries and Iraq.
  • Iran and the Turkish government are also working together against the non-Muslim world – most specifically against the U.S. and Israel.
  • Both the Saudi government and private Saudi individuals are funding Islamist extremism throughout the Muslim world, most importantly in Turkey. They have a willing partner in the current Turkish government.
  • It appears that the Saudis and the present Turkish government are interested in reestablishing the Caliphate – at first culturally, but later possibly even politically – most likely in Istanbul, the seat of the last Sunni Caliph until the early 1920s.
  • Iran is Shiite and is appealing to the Arab Sunni street by trying to co-opt the agenda of the Sunni masses – the existence of Israel and the sanctity of Jerusalem – neither of which are traditional Shiite issues.
  • In doing so, Iran seeks to undermine the existing autocratic and dictatorial Arab Sunni regimes by going over the heads of their leaders and appealing directly to the Arab street. That is the major reason why almost all of the regimes in the region hate the Iranian regime more than they hate Israel.

The Sunni-Shiite Divide

Iranian Shiites and Turkish Sunnis are engaged today in a huge battle to capture the hearts and minds of the Arab street, most of which, outside of Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and southern and eastern Lebanon, are largely Sunni. Sunni Arabs feel more of a bond with Turkish Sunnis than with Iranian or Arab Shiites, in spite of the Arab Sunni world’s historical animosity toward what they define as Turkish/Ottoman imperialism.

When Muhammad died, the question arose as to who was going to inherit the mantle of Islam. Some supported the family of Muhammad, and later became known as the Shiites. Others – much stronger – who supported the aristocracy in Mecca, later became known as the Sunnis. The Sunni-Shiite divide occurred more than 1,400 years ago, but it is still alive and well. Iran represents the Shiites and Turkey represents the Sunnis in today’s battle for the leadership of Islam.

Sunnis and Shiites have very different world views, and their disputes have often descended into violence (with the Sunnis almost always winning military confrontations). Even so, this basic disagreement has not prevented them from working together against the non-Muslim world – most specifically today against America (the leader of the West) and Israel.

Iran is at a terrible disadvantage in the Arab and Muslim worlds because it is Shiite. Besides a god they call Allah and a prophet named Muhammad, they do not have much else in common. They do not even agree on the role of Muhammad, because the main figure in Shiism is Ali, Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law who was married to Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima. From this line come the Shiite imams. The Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam will return and their version of Islam will triumph.

Shiites and Sunnis often do not view each other as fellow Muslims. In Iran, it is not uncommon to hear Iranian Shiites ask foreign Middle Easterners, “Are you Muslim or Sunni?” The Sunnis – especially the Saudis and other Wahhabis – return the “complement” by labeling the Shiites “apostates” or even “Jews.” The punishment for apostasy in Islam is death.

About 85 percent of the Muslim world is Sunni and most of the Arab world, except for Iraq, other Persian Gulf countries, and parts of Lebanon, does not really know what Shiism is. Therefore, the Shiites are at a disadvantage because their brand of Islam seems, at best, strange, if not heretical, to most of the people in the Arab world.

Some two-thirds of Turkey’s population is Sunni. The Ottoman Empire, on whose embers modern Turkey was founded, was a Sunni empire which treated the Shiites and their allies – like the Alevis in Turkey – badly.

About a third of Turkey’s population are Alevis. Historically, Alevism is closer to Shiism than Sunnism, as Alevis venerate Ali and traditionally have made pilgrimages to Najaf, where Ali is buried. Alevis are being terribly discriminated against by this Turkish regime. The government refuses to fund Alevi religious houses of worship – called Cemevis – but does fund mosque construction for Sunnis. The government also forces Alevi schoolchildren to take classes on Sunnism, trying to convert Alevis to Sunnism.

I have heard senior Turkish government officials call Alevis “dogs” and claim that Alevis engage in immoral acts. These are traditional Sunni accusations that were hurled at Alevis during the time of the Ottomans. During the earlier years of the secular Turkish Republic, where Ataturk and his allies, who had much Alevi support, tried to extinguish the differences between all citizens of Turkey, it was considered in bad taste for Sunnis to make such accusations. Since 2002, when Erdogan et al came to power, that is no longer the case.) Such discrimination was not always the case.

Until the 1500s, Iran was largely Sunni, but for various political reasons it became very Shiite within a hundred years, largely as a means of protecting Iranian culture from the Arab/Turkish/Sunni non-Iranian world around it.

Now, both Iran and this Turkish government are working together to undermine the West and to advance the Islamic cause around the world. The battle will continue until the entire world becomes Muslim. But deep down, they also loathe each other.

Jerusalem Is Not Holy to Shiites

Jerusalem is an important case in point in understanding the Iranian-Turkish battle for the Arab street.

Jerusalem does not matter for traditional Shiites. They see the city’s sanctification as a Sunni innovation and therefore summarily reject it. In the late 680s CE, the Sunni Umayyad rulers of Damascus built a dome over the Rock on the Temple Mount as a way to help smother a local revolt in Mecca at that time. The Umayyads were afraid that people who made the pilgrimage to Mecca would join the rebels’ cause, and therefore blocked pilgrims from going to Mecca. That is when and why they turned the Temple Mount into an alternative pilgrimage site. Jerusalem, in short, became holy in Islam as a result of a local revolt in Mecca, some 55 years after Muhammad’s death.

The Shiites hate the Umayyads and all that the Umayyads did. Some Shiite Grand Ayatollahs even have argued that Jerusalem was given to the children of Isaac, while Ishmael, Abraham’s older son, received Najaf, which is in Iraq. In other words, from a Shiite perspective, Jerusalem is a Sunni heresy.

Why then did Shiite Iran adopt the Jerusalem and Israel issues as its own, given Shiism’s historical antipathy to the Sunnis? Because these issues are so close to the hearts and minds of the Arab Sunni masses whose leaders have been unable to dislodge Israel from Jerusalem or to eliminate that country.

Additionally, the Iranians named their most elite unit the “Quds/Ghods” forces – the Arabic and Persian Muslim names for Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem/Israel issue has proven to be a wonderful tool for Iranian leaders to use to garner support for the Islamic Republic in its fight against the Arab Sunni rulers. The Iranian Shiite interest in Jerusalem is, therefore, nothing more than a political tool the Iranian government uses to bash their Arab Sunni enemies.

The Saudi Connection

The Saudis – Sunni Wahhabis – know they are too weak to rule over the Sunni world, and they are petrified of Iran, as the WikiLeaks cables make abundantly clear. The Saudis are interested in Turkey because traditionally: 1. the Turks are very militaristic and have been the soldiers of Islam; and 2. Istanbul was the capital of the Sunni Caliphate which in 1924 was abolished by Ataturk, the founder of the secular Republic of Turkey. The Saudis know they are impotent desert nomads and therefore need to enlist other, more powerful Sunnis like Erdogan and his crowd in their goal to “Sunni Islamify” the entire world.

Wahhabism is fanatical and for Islam is the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan brand of Christianity. The difference, however, is that the Ku Klux Klan never had oil money to spread its brand of Christianity. The Wahhabis have lots of money and they are using it to propagate their hatred of Shiites, the West, and Israel. While they are doing all they can to eradicate radical Islam in their country – which really means anti-Saudi activity – they lavishly support radical Islam everywhere else. Erdogan and company are therefore their natural allies and beneficiaries.

It appears that the Saudis and the present Turkish government are both interested in reestablishing the Caliphate – certainly culturally and probably eventually politically – most likely in the capital of the last great Sunni empire in modern times: Istanbul. The Turkish government is very receptive to that idea. If they reach their common goal, an Islamist Turkey would be a bulwark against both the Shiites and against Westernization.

The Turkish government claims that there is no Wahhabi money going into Turkey. Maybe so, but gorgeous, expensive mosques are being built in Turkey’s poor, small villages. The locals obviously do not have the money for this. Moreover, mosques are also being built in Alevi villages which have no Sunnis and therefore don’t need mosques. The money to build these mosques comes from somewhere, and the Turkish government simply does not have the money to engage in such a massive building campaign. Everywhere else in the world, the Wahhabis are building mosques – but, if you choose to believe the government of Turkey, not in Turkey.

In addition, beautifully produced and very inexpensive books which spread hated and advocate violence against the West, America, and Israel are easily available in Turkey. Again, the Turks simply don’t have the money to produce such beautifully crafted books. If one chooses to believe the Turkish government, then it is curious that Wahhabi money is going into every Muslim country except Turkey, which, the Turks claim, is one of the most important countries in the Muslim world.

Iran Sees Its Opportunities

The Iranians are great strategists and know how to wait. The Iranians cannot stand up against the whole Arab world because they do not have the resources or the military to do so. So they have devised a campaign to go over the heads of the Arab Sunni-ruled regimes, directly to the Sunni masses. That is the major reason why almost all of the regimes in the region hate the Iranian regime more than they hate Israel.

Their first audience is other Shiites. In the Persian Gulf, where there is oil there are Shiites. Saudi oil is found in an area approximately 80 kilometers by 400 kilometers along the northeastern coast of the Gulf. That area is Arabic-speaking and overwhelmingly Shiite, and was independent until 1902 when the Saudis captured it, much to the chagrin of its local inhabitants. In Sunni-ruled Kuwait, which is probably 40-50 percent Shiite, the government does everything possible to placate the Shiites because they are a natural target for Iran. Bahrain is 80 percent Shiite, but its ruling family is Sunni.

In the game of Shiites versus Sunnis, Iranian cunning has to be admired. The Iranians are trying to steal the agenda of the Sunni Arab leaders. At the same time, the current Turkish government and its Wahhabi cohorts are trying to block the Iranian Shiites from succeeding. And all of them together are working against America and Israel.

Khomeini Stands Up to America

When Ayatollah Khomeini got off the plane upon his return to Iran in 1979, he said he had come to rectify a wrong which took place 1,400 years ago. What he meant by that was not lost either on the Shiites or the Arab world’s Sunni rulers. They knew he meant that his form of Islam – Shiism, which is of course the only true Islam from his point of view – must defeat Sunnism. As part of his plan, Khomeini, unlike the rulers of the Arab Sunni world, constantly harangued against and humiliated the West, most specifically the United States – the leader of the West. In doing so, Khomeini was standing up for Islam which had for centuries suffered territorial losses at the hands of the Christian West and later their Jewish allies in Israel.

The Muslim world in general, and the Arab world in particular, feel that Islam has been losing ever since 1683 when they were routed at Vienna, and that Islam has been in retreat ever since. When Khomeini’s “students” took American diplomats hostage, the U.S. acted as if it were afraid. In response, students throughout the Muslim world put up pictures of Khomeini, who said he was restoring the honor of the Muslim world. This describes the Iranian battle for the Arab street, as Iran has been going over the heads of Arab leaders – appealing directly to the Arab street – to claim it is restoring Muslim honor.

Khomeini and his successors thus touched a deep cord among Muslims everywhere, and particularly in the Arab world. When he, and later Ahmadinejad or Khamenei, gave public speeches, behind them often was a sign in Persian, and sometimes also in Arabic, saying: “America can’t do anything.” In other words, we (Shiites and Iranians) are the ones standing up for Islam and, by extension, the Arab (Sunni) rulers either kowtow to the Americans or are incapable of doing anything to stop non-Muslim advances. Over and over again Iran’s leaders repeat: “America can do nothing.”

The Arab street sees that neither America nor Israel is doing anything about Iran’s nuclear capability. Few Sunni Arabs outside of Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and Lebanon really know much about Shiism, but they see that the Shiites are standing up for them, while their own rulers do nothing. The Iranians have been doing this for over thirty years and they have made some headway in the Arab street.

Turkey’s View of the World

There is an enormous Islamist revival going on in Turkey today, strongly encouraged and pushed by Turkey’s Islamist rulers. They are slowly but surely trying to reestablish the Caliphate, and are encouraging journalists to write articles about Ottoman control over areas over which the Ottomans once ruled – i.e., southeast Europe and the Arab world. Arab Sunnis appear to be willing to overlook the Turkish imperial past because Arab nationalism has failed them and so many now look to Islam to save them.

When the current Turkish government took power in 2002, it began a slow process of returning the Turkish polity to its Islamic roots. However, the Islam that Turkey’s government is pushing isn’t the more tolerant Ottoman Islam but a version much more closely attuned to that of the Wahhabi, extremist, anti-Western Islam pushed by the Saudis.

 

Reactions to the Flotilla Crisis

How did the Turkish masses react to the Turkish government-inspired “flotilla crisis”? To be sure, many Turks supported the flotilla terrorists, but that is because they had little or no knowledge about who the people were on board the ship. Even so, many common people in Turkey reacted otherwise. They said: Gaza is “Arab” and the word “Arab” in Turkish often has a pejorative meaning. Turks associate Arabs with money and laziness. (Industriousness is a highly prized commodity in Turkish culture.) Turks see Arabs coming to Istanbul not to see the sights but to go to prostitutes. These Turks wonder why Arab Egypt – which also blockades the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip – and the oil-rich Arab countries with limitless financial resources have not taken care of the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. Why should Turkey, they reason, which has many people who do not have enough money to put bread on the table, be more concerned about the Arabs than the Arabs themselves?

Arab Sunni reaction to the “flotilla crisis” was different. Arab Sunnis, especially among the Palestinians, started naming children after Erdogan. When Erdogan later visited Lebanon, Sunnis referred to him as “Sultan Erdogan,” i.e., their ruler – calling him by the title that had been reserved for the ruler of the Ottoman Empire to which their ancestors had belonged – the (Sunni) Caliph of the Muslim world.

Which Side Is Winning?

So how have Turkey and Iran fared in their battle to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street?

The press in every Arab country besides Iraq is government-controlled, so we cannot get a true reading of what the masses think from the press. Nevertheless, a foreign polling company recently asked Arabs what they thought about foreign leaders. No one could get in trouble if they mentioned Turkey positively, but had they mentioned Iran favorably, they might have suffered consequences at the hands of their authoritarian and totalitarian rulers. We must keep this in mind when trying to analyze who is winning this battle.

The pollsters asked, “Which is the foreign country friendliest to the Arabs?” France came in first, Turkey was second, and Iran did not even make the top ten. In essence, public opinion in the Arab world is by and large fickle. What is important is who can destroy Israel, and the Iranians have been working at it since 1979 and seem to be doing a much better job than their own Arab rulers. Yet even though Iran has gone to great lengths to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs, they come up short because the Turkish government is Sunni, as are most Arabs.

In the end, Iran will always remain at a tremendous disadvantage. The Turkish government has only been engaged in efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street since 2002, when Erdogan’s party came to power, while the Iranians have been at this for 31 years. Only if Sunni Muslims converted en masse to Shiism would Iran really be able to gain the upper hand. This does not seem to be in the cards for the foreseeable future.

What would happen if Turkey and Iran switched places? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Turkey abandoned any pretense of secularism and re-established the (Sunni) Caliphate in Istanbul, while Iran returned to secular non-clerical rule. While we can only speculate, it is likely that, with the exception of Shiite-dominated Iraq and the Arab Shiites of the Persian Gulf and parts of Lebanon, the Sunni Arabs would look to Turkey and abandon any pro-Iranian feeling because they would no longer see Iran as the center of the battle to defeat the non-Muslim world. In that case, Turkey would clearly be the winner in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world.

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Dr. Harold Rhode studied in Iran at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad in 1978 during the early and middle stages of the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in Islamic history. He joined the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1982 as an advisor on Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Since then he has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as advisor on Islamic affairs on the Pentagon’s policy planning staff. From 1994 until his recent retirement, Dr. Rhode served in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. He is currently a Senior Advisor at the Hudson Institute, New York. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on October 21, 2010.

 

About Harold Rhode

Dr. Harold Rhode, served for 28 years as an advisor on the Islamic world in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. He is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at the Gatestone Institute in New York.