Middle-earth as the Middle East

Tayyip ErdoganSaruman-villains-23624791-500-360

Controversial Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been described as the savior of the Islamic world and as a new Ottoman sultan. But likening him to the wizard Saruman from The Lord of the Rings is novel—as was done earlier this week by a leader in the Turkish opposition party:

"[Turkey has become] a country where headlines and program flows can change with one phone call as if it were Middle-Earth in Lord of the Rings. The [person] who does it is like a Saruman the White who has lost all sense of shame," Republican People’s Party’s [CHP] deputy Emine Ülker Tarhan said in a written statement on Feb. 10.

Since my two main areas of expertise are the Middle East and Middle-earth, I shall thus follow Ms. Tarhan’s example and complete the slate of leadership analogies between Tolkien’s cast of characters, both evil and good, and that of our own clash of civilizations. The template will utilize The Lord of the Rings movies rather than the books,  and not the newer Hobbit ones, for two reasons: 1) more people are probably familiar with the movies than Tolkien’s books; and 2) LotR lends itself more easily to a vast, geopolitical struggle with apocalyptic consequences than does The Hobbit.

Let’s start with the bad guys, and Turkey’s leader as Saruman. This is actually quite accurate, since the original White Wizard was a good guy gone bad—much as Turkey is slowly transmogrifying from a NATO member and secular, Western ally into a neo-Ottoman power dedicated to reviving political Islam in its old domains. (Just keep in mind that the real Saruman would have used a palantir, not a phone, to issue threats.) Gandalf’s former boss, however, only ever reached the status of an evil epigone; far more potent was the ancient enemy Sauron, a political and religious tyrant who demanded that all denizens of Middle-earth submit to his rule for their own good. The only possible Middle East analog of such a powerful figure would be the founder of Islam himself, Muhammad.