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Erdogan: 'I Am a Servant of Sharia'

Spring is about to begin and my book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, has just been published in paperback -- originally, it was available only as an eBook. To mark these occasions, and more importantly, to elaborate on why the "Arab Spring" is really the ascendancy of Islamic supremacism (as Spring Fever foretold and as each day's news confirms), Ordered Liberty will be running some excerpts in the coming days. Here is the first:

“Thank God almighty, I am a servant of sharia.” It was 1994, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was proud to proclaim his Islamist roots in his native Istanbul, where he served as the mayor – or, as he customarily described himself, the city’s “imam.”

Erdogan’s star was rising in Turkey’s political firmament, thanks to his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, trailblazer of the country’s modern Islamist politics. In fact, it was as president of the Istanbul Youth Movement, the shock troops of Erbakan’s “National Salvation” party, that Erdogan first made his mark. The main vehicle for his renown was a 1974 theatrical production called Maskomya. It was both virulently anti-Semitic and, this being Turkey, sadly popular. The prodigy, then twenty years old, not only wrote and directed the play but performed the lead role, as well. As Andrew Bostom recounts, “Mas-Kom-Ya was a compound acronym for ‘Masons-Communists-Yahudi’ – the latter meaning ‘Jews.’” In Erdogan’s telling, the common denominator of these evil, conspiratorial groups was Judaism.

Where Islam Meets the West

Turkey is a plenary Muslim country of 74 million. Yet, it does not have a plenary Islamic history. It lies on the fault line between East and West. With a rich, unique history, and one foot planted in Europe, the Turks are not an easy fit in the global ummah that Erdogan, now in his third term as Turkey’s prime minister, is undertaking to lead. Indeed, the relative success of Turkish society and its growing stature among Muslims, though publicly celebrated by Arabs, is, privately, a bitter pill for them. Historically, Saudis, Egyptians and other Arabs, Islam’s primus inter pares and notoriously arrogant about their Muslim authenticity, have been wont to look down their noses at the Turks.

The Ottoman legacy to which modern Turkey is heir was, by the empire’s demise in World War I, substantially Eurocentric and largely detached from the everyday affairs of the Arab Middle East. Yes, the population has always featured a strong Islamist plurality, traditionally concentrated in the rural areas. Most urban centers, however, have been secular, Euro-minded strongholds – including much of Eastern Thrace, where the Western half of Istanbul is located. And then there are Turkey’s ethnic minorities, most notably the contentious, largely unassimilated Kurds.

This is not to say that Arab countries are strangers to ethnic and sectarian diversity. As we’ve seen, they feature varying Islamic sects and non-Muslim minorities. They tend, though, to be much more attitudinally homogenous, especially in their animus toward the West. Kemalist Turkey, by contrast, saw itself as part of Europe and its future inclined toward the West. The majority of Kemalists continued to identify themselves as Muslims, but Kemalist cultural secularism bred an indifference to Islamic doctrine’s supremacist injunctions and an outright hostility to its sharia framework for society. We should pause, then, to consider how remarkable is the advance of Islamic supremacism in Turkey under Erdogan’s cunning stewardship. Comparatively speaking, the Islamist march through the Middle East is sure to be much smoother.

Ataturk’s secularization project, repressive of Islamic doctrine and unabashedly hostile to public displays of Islamic culture, could only have happened in Turkey. This is not to suggest that it was a mean feat to muffle Islam in a nearly 100 percent Muslim country where tens of millions of the citizens are Islamists. In fact, a herculean effort was required – and even with that, the project ultimately failed: Erdogan & Co. needed far less time to revert Turkey to the Islamist camp than the Kemalists took to secularize it.

The point is that Ataturk’s temporary achievement could never have happened in “one of the Arab Spring countries” (as even al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri has fondly taken to calling them). So inscribed is Islam on the DNA of Arab lands that strongmen from Nasser to Arafat to Saddam, despite their secular inclinations, always appreciated the imperative of paying at least lip-service veneration to Islam – and of ostensibly pursuing their agendas within the Islamic framework, not against it – and certainly not by supplanting it.

So how did Erdogan pull off his Islamist coup and provide what is now a template for the “Arab Spring”? He followed the Muslim Brotherhood playbook, a how-to manual for weak but shrewd minorities seeking to strengthen their hands. He was also extraordinarily fortunate in both the self-defeating disarray of his domestic adversaries and the flat-footed fecklessness of his Western admirers. Prominently included among the latter are Bush and Obama administration officials, who have lauded him as a “democrat” while he has dismantled Western democracy, piece by piece.