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Why Does Saudi Arabia Fear Turkey's Democratic Islam?


Turkish secularism, democracy, and moderate Hanafi Sunni Islam represent an existential threat to the Saudi regime. Turkish Islam is less austere, less harsh, and less obtrusive than the Wahhabi way of life. Turkey's Islam appeals to the educated internet generation, especially women. While Saudi women are treated like chattel, Turkish women participate in public life, are free from the demeaning male guardianship sustem, and enjoy a modern personal status laws and courts.

In the November 2015 general election, 16 political parties competed for the 550-seat parliament. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), won 49.4% of the votes cast with 316 seats.[1]AKP was formed by Mr. Erdogan in 2001. It has been in power since the 2002 election.[2]


The Ottoman Empire ruled over most of the Arab world for four centuries (1517-1918). The Turkish Sultans belonged to the moderate Hanafi Sunni rite. In the Balkans, for example, they did not force their Christian subjects to convert to Islam in the sixteenth century. Had they done so, the savage sectarian wars in the former Yugoslavia four centuries later (1991-1999), would most probably not have happened. In 1492, the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid-II (1481-1512) allowed Jews driven out from Spain and Portugal to settle in the Ottoman territories.[3] 

The firm hand of the Sultans had kept religious extremism and hatred-of the–other culture in check.[4] This control was lost when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in 1918 and separate states with different religious agendas were formed, especially the extreme Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia in 1932. 


Turkey was the first independent Muslim country to separate religion from the state, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empirein the First World War. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) blamed Islam’s rigidity during the previous four centuries for the decline and calamitous fall of the empire. While Europe was undergoing Christian reformation and progressing towards the industrial revolution, Ottoman modernization was impeded by the ulama’s resistance to innovation.

Although Turkey’s reforms evolved cautiously since the early 1800s under the reign of Sultan Mahmut II (1808-1839) and his son, Sultan Abdulmecit (1839-1861), their speed and depth became revolutionary under Ataturk. Between 1924 and 1935, Ataturk implemented a rapid and extensive program of fundamental change in Turkish society the likes of which the Islamic world had never seen. In addition to abolishing the Islamic caliphate (March 3, 1924), the Kemalist secular revolution included abolishing Shari’a laws and courts (1926), which was replaced by the Swiss civil code and the Italian penal code. It also replaced the fez by the Western-style hat or cap (1925), the Islamic calendar by Western calendar (1926), Latin alphabet instead of Arabic alphabet (1928), Western weights and measures (1931), and Sunday as the day of rest (1935) instead of Friday.

Arabs, on the other hand, believed that the abandonment of Islam by the sultans was to blame for the Ottoman defeat. From such thinking, the Wahhabi State in Saudi Arabia was born in 1932 and the Muslim Brotherhood organization was formed in Egypt in 1928. 


While it is true that Erdogan has been taking tough measures against his critics, especially the media, he has not repealed Ataturk’s secular laws. Cosmetics aside, Erdogan has not altered any of Ataturk’s basic reforms. The Swiss civil code and the Italian penal code, which replaced Shari’a laws and courts in 1926 are sacrosanct. Civil marriage,gender equality in divorce, custody, and inheritance continue to be the laws of the land. Polygamy is illegal. The changes Erdogan effected since AKP came to power in 2002 have been rather modest: construction of mosques, lifting the ban on wearing the hijab (scarf over a woman’s hair), encouraging enrolment in Islamic schools, restricting the sale of alcohol, and the introduction of Islamic banking.


On the other hand, Erdogan added to the Ataturk reforms. He has adopted a series of fundamental judicial reforms to harmonize Turkey’s legal system with that of the European Union as part of Turkey’s interest in joining the EU. In January 2004, Turkey abolished the death penalty.[5] In 2009, the judicial provisions that allowed civilians to be tried in military courts were removed from the Turkish Constitution.[6] Judicial reforms were also adopted to restructure domestic judicial institutions in terms of their power and functions. The 2010 constitutional referendum expanded the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors from 7 members to 22.[7] Also, it granted Turkish citizens the right to individually apply to the Constitutional Court if government decisions, laws or the implementation of laws violate their basic rights and fundamental freedoms.[8]


Ankara’s contribution to a democratic Islam in the Arab world can be a sharp ideological weapon to counter the Wahhabi ideology that grips Islamist terror organizations. Turkey’s democratic Islam is the cure to Arab rulers' absolute dictatorship, which they impose in the name of Islam, whether kings or military presidents. Ankara’s contribution to a democratic Islam in the Arab world is a sharp ideological weapon to counter the Wahhabi ideology that grips Islamist terror organizations. In an interview on TV channel, Dream, before visiting Egypt on September 12, 2011, President Erdogan courageously called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, noting that secularism does not mean renouncing religion and that a secular state respects all religions.   
For this alone, the US and its allies owe Mr. Erdogan a debt of gratitude. For this alone, the US and its allies should give Turkey high marks.

Turkey helped spread democracy in the Arab world through the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood embraced democratic elections and coalition governments during the brief period of the Arab Spring in Egypt (June 2012, until General al-Sisi's coup a year later), Tunisia (October 2011), Morocco (November 2011), Jordan (September 2016), and Kuwait (November 2016). As far back as 1961, in Syria, the Brotherhood was a part of the a democratically elected Parliament and coalition cabinet. No other organization could be as effective as the Brotherhood in convincing the millions of Arab Sunni masses that democracy is compatible with Islam. The Brotherhood possesses the religious credibility to be an agent of change. 


The demonization of Mr. Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood by the US and Western politicians and media has wrecked the Arab Spring. In the confrontation between democrats and autocrats in the Arab world, the democratic West sides with the oil autocrats: A hypocritical and Machiavellian stance which brings into question whether the democratic West is truly interested in spreading democracy in Arab countries. 


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[1]Turkey Election: Ruling AKP Regains Majority,” BBC,(November 2, 2015).


[2]Erdogan Triumphs—With Plenty of Help from His Enemies,”The Economist,(November 7, 2002).


[3]Bernard Lewis,The Jewsof Islam(Princeton University Press,Princeton, New Jersey, 1987), P. 50.

[4]The first Sunni empire was the Umayyad Empire (661-750) with its capital in Damascus, Syria. The second was the Abbasid Empire (750-1258) with its capital in Baghdad, Iraq.

[5]Turkey Agrees Death Penalty Ban,” BBC,(January 9, 2004).


[6]Meltem Mü üler-Baç, Judicial Reform in Turkey and the EU’s Political Conditionality,(Mis)Fit between Domestic Preferences and EU Demands,Maximizing the integration capacity of the European Union, MAXCAP Working Paper No. 18, January 2016, PP. 13-14.


[7]Ibid. P. 15

[8]Ibid. P. 16



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