Looked at in Islamic terms, Turkey joins Iran and Saudi Arabia as the major sources of Islamic “outreach” in the world. This has also meant attempts to influence “infidel” governments, encourage conversion to Islam, and impose Sharia law. These are ominous precursors to a potential Islamic wave. Yet reality is more complicated, given the relationships between these three countries:
- The Arabs, particularly the Saudis, view Turkey as ex-colonizer and overlord;
- Saudi Arabia and Iran vie as, respectively, the representative of Sunni, Arabic-based Islam and that of Shiite, Persian-rooted Islam. This is exacerbated by the bloody warfare between Sunni Iraq and Iran for decades. Iran has made it clear that it regards Saudi Arabia as a rival and enemy, in part because of the Saudi alliance with the United States;
- Iran and Turkey also face each other across a Sunni-Shiite divide, and Turkey has a historic dispute with Syria, Iran’s client.
Beyond this, the Saudis and most of the Arab world — excepting Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas — are mortified at the prospect of the Iranian bomb. The Saudi fear is quite legitimate, based on Iran’s pretensions to control the Middle East and its historic rivalry with the Arabs.
Since Iran has territorial conflicts with the Gulf states and is open about its desire to lead the world into Islam through the mechanism of its expanded sovereignty, the Saudis could not realistically join such an axis. More specifically, they prefer that an Israel that they despise lead an effort to set back Iran’s nuclear program rather than that program succeed.
For Israel, this presents massive problems and certain opportunities. To the extent that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still that, and not simply a subset of the war between Islam and the non-believers, the Arab problem with Iran is a chance to find some common ground. To the degree that Turkey “complements” Iran as a self-proclaimed champion (or ruler) of the entire region, the Arabs have a second non-Arab actor to fear — one with a past history of ruling over them with cruelty and disregard. In other words, the principle of “the enemy of my enemy” could apply here as well.
In theory, Israel has an opportunity for a practical rapprochement with all parts of the Arab world save Syria and Hezbollah-controlled/influenced Lebanon. Certainly Israel has demonstrated, often to its detriment, its desire for peace. The problem — aside from the quality of Israeli outreach — is the measure of Arab animosity to Israel. Using the Camp David Accords as a guide, hope is not the best guideline. The Egyptian government often deals with Israel in the nature of a man who must walk on hot coals to reach the other side of a pit. When Mubarak has an opportunity to embarrass Israel, he has done so (witness Egypt’s enthusiastic sponsoring of a recent UN resolution whose purpose is to disarm Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal).
Saudi Arabia remains the linchpin of ideological Arab/Islamic hostility to Israel, despite Syrian and Hezbollah arsenals. Saudi Arabia is the real test. Given its fierce Wahhabist leanings, the union between Islam and the Saudi leadership, and the many “missions” of its native sons for jihad and Islam, it is nearly impossible to hold onto hope. Approximately 40% of all suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudi. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. The funding of extremist mosques and the efforts to convert Westerners are hardly indicative of a state that is ready to normalize and coexist with the hated Jewish “inferiors” in its backyard.
David Ben-Gurion is long-gone, and the region transformed since his passing. The real question that 2010 brings us is: Can any Muslim state ever be a normal state operating on rational, Western assumptions in its dealings with other states? The answer remains generally and persuasively no.