New Delhi: Something unprecedented is likely to happen soon on the Muslim world’s political chessboard: Saudi Arabia may ‘excommunicate’ Turkey from Islam, making it the first country to be declared an apostate in the last 14 centuries.
The Saudis have never forgotten how the forerunner of modern Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, had executed the first Saudi monarch, Abdullah bin Saud Al Saud in 1818. He had ruled the First Saudi State from 1814 to 1818 as its first and the last ruler. He was executed by the Empire in Constantinople, near Hagia Sophia, the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Museum Site, a former church-turned-mosque, which was recently reconverted into a mosque to revive old glory.
This revanchist Turkey has alarmed the Arab nation-states across the Middle East and North Africa and forced them to come to terms with Israel as a foil to Ankara’s grand militarist designs.
For the first time in 14 centuries, therefore, the Arabs and the Jews are headed to establish peace. After the 1979 Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel and then a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1994, the UAE and Bahrain suddenly signed the “Abraham Accords” with Jerusalem in September 2020 at Washington. A careful Saudi Arabia, which pushed the two brotherly Arab states into this deal, is also forging ahead to join this bandwagon of reconciliation with Israel.
In the changed geopolitical scenario, Israel has successfully befriended its former foes, the Arabs, gaining their stamp of the legitimacy of the Jewish State, and thus leaving the Palestinians high-and-dry. These peace treaties mean that the Arab states have recognized Israel as the de facto as well as de Jure Jewish state in the Levant region. In other words, the Palestinians could no longer claim what is now Israel, the Promised Land, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank. For the Arabs, it’s a battle of survival of their dynasties against the Turks.
Israel is a democracy while the Arab states are ruled by the feudal Sheikhdoms. These fresh developments have been forced by Turkey’s ambition to resurrect the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), a century after the Allies of the First World War dismantled it.
It was only after this disintegration that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab nation-states came into existence in the 20th century as they became independent, and threw away the Ottoman yoke.
Trying to resurrect this dead Empire and absorb the Arab states again, Turkey’s hawkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has only pushed the Arabs into the Jewish arms. A maverick, Erdogan, who first turned Turkey from a secular into an Islamic state, now sees in himself the new Caliph-cum-Sultan of the majority of Sunni Muslims, represented by the Ottomans. The Sunnis constitute more than 80% of the world’s Muslim population of 1.8 billion.
To snatch the global Muslim leadership from the Saudis, he has been working on a well-planned strategy. It began to unfold with his support of various dissident and terror groups and interference in war-torn Syria.
In 2019, Turkey, together with Pakistan and Malaysia, tried to set up a non-Arab Muslim shop within the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), headed by the Saudis and headquartered in Jeddah. Besides, Turkey has been supporting and funding various Islamist terror groups in the Middle East and North Africa in a bid to gain their backing for his mega-project.
After securing Jerusalem’s support, the Arabs are now bracing for the next decisive step. Indications came last week with reports that Muslim Azerbaijan is using imported Israeli drones to attack a Christian Armenia in their ongoing war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This put both Turkey and Iran—who were supporting Azerbaijan—into a quandary! It only means a further split in the Muslim world and realignment of Muslim countries within the OIC.
It is to be noted that the Arab nations and Israel came into existence in the 20th century only after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, headed by Turkey, which was also the seat of the last Caliphate-cum-Sultanate. That is why Turkey’s attempt to revive it a century after its death has forced the Arabs and the Israelis to forge a friendship and come on the same page.
Recently, Erdogan infuriated the Arabs in a bid to provoke their reaction. Addressing the Turkish General Assembly (Parliament), he said things unpalatable to the Arabs. This forced the Saudis to announce a business boycott of Ankara, whose economy is already in doldrums. One reason why Erdogan has brought his country to this precipice is the floundering economy. A revival of Ottoman ‘glory’, he dreams, can camouflage his failures on the domestic front.
That explains why he ridiculed the Arabs. He claimed that some countries in the Arabian Gulf were targeting Turkey and pursuing policies that destabilized the region.
“It should not be forgotten that the countries in question did not exist yesterday, and probably will not exist tomorrow; however, we will continue to keep our flag flying in this region forever, with the permission of Allah.” Clearly, he was referring to the Arab countries which were part of the Ottoman Empire until 1923 and, if his plans succeed, may again be forced back into the revivified Empire.
The Arab reaction, as expected, was swift. Ajlan al-Ajlan, Chairman of the Council of Saudi Chambers, openly called for a complete boycott of “everything Turkish” including imports, investment, and tourism, appealing that it is “the responsibility of every Saudi” to boycott Turkey.
Of late, the Saudis have pressurized local businesses not to trade with Turkey and its industries. The Kingdom has detained trucks carrying produce from Turkey. The Saudis have also canceled the employment contracts of high-ranking Turkish nationals working in the Kingdom.
The problem is that the Saudis cannot officially boycott Turkey without inviting sanctions from the World Trade Organisation (WTO). That is why Riyadh has resorted to the unofficial boycott of Turkish goods and services to bleed Ankara as a first warning.
But this has only whetted the Turkish appetite. It has intensified its attacks on the Arabs.
The Saudis, and other Arabs, have always seen the Turks as uncouth and upstarts. Prince Faisal Bin Bandar Bin Abdulaziz had refused to drink Turkish coffee offered to him last year. And Prince Abdullah Bin Sultan Al Saud had called for a boycott of Turkey and its products until “Ankara reviews its policies with the Kingdom.”
In the September meeting of the Arab League, Egypt also voiced similar views. In their joint statement, Arab League foreign ministers denounced Turkey’s “interference in Arab affairs,” including its military actions in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, and asked Ankara to “stop provocations that could erode building trust and threaten the region’s security and stability.”
But Turkey would not listen to these academic pleas. An important reason for Erdogan’s bellicosity and brinkmanship is that this ‘aggressive’ posture and the carrot of a revivified Ottoman Empire keeps the attention of the Turks away from their domestic problems, the way a buffeted President Xi Jinping is keeping the Chinese’ attention focused out of China at various adventure hotspots, including India.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, Turkey was facing a currency crisis since 2018 which led to a sharp recession. In the current fiscal year, the Turkish lira was among the world’s worst-performing currencies, plunging by 22 percent. The situation has rapidly deteriorated on the foreign exchange reserves also.
The Saudis’ attempt to arm-twist Erdogan by an unofficial boycott has led to the Turkish exports plunging by nearly 14 percent in the January-July 2020 period.
But it has not diluted Erdogan’s aggression.
The next step the Saudis could, therefore, likely take to tame Turkey is to excommunicate it from Islam. The best and most powerful weapon Riyadh has is excommunicate Turkey and deny its citizens the right to the Hajj.
In the event of this ex-communication, Turkey’s strategy to dislodge Saudi Arabia from the OIC’s leadership may collapse, prompting it to further intensify its attacks against the Arabs.
What happens when a Muslim is excommunicated?
Although no country as a whole has ever been excommunicated—entire communities, like the 5-million-strong Ahmediyyas (Kadiyanis) have, however, been expelled from Islam in Pakistan in 1984—the well-established principle of Takfir (declaring someone an apostate) has been invoked in such cases. The act which leads to Takfir is known as Mukaffir (finding someone to be an unbeliever).
The Takfir has major consequences of killing, confiscation of the infidel’s property, and denial of an Islamic burial. So, if the Salafis-Saudis excommunicate the Turks, the latter will become vulnerable globally as other Muslims will be duty-bound to wage Jihad against them.
Will the Saudis go to this extent?
According to the school of Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb, the principle of peace cannot be applied to deal with apostates and jahils (uncouth). It means that Islamists must launch a Jihad against excommunicated infidels. Finding the Turks as the tough nuts to crack, the Saudis could prompt the Salafi religious leadership to order ex-communication and a Holy War against the Turks.
Takfir is now the only effective weapon in the Arabs’ armor: After all Turkey is all set to foment civil wars and popular trouble against the Arab dynastic rulers.