It’s rather fascinating – sprinkled lightly with some historic irony – that the Arab world has immersed itself in another infatuation: Turkish leader Erdogan. His stance on Israel’s war on Gaza last year, as highlighted in his famed World Economic Forum lashing out made quite an impression during a highly emotional time for Arabs in the Middle East who, for nearly a month, were attuned to nothing other than the brutality inflicted on Gaza. And now, Flotilla enters the picture. The death of Turkish nationals forcing Erdogan directly in to the game, and his stance has, once again, made quite an impression.
The lukewarm relationship that Arabs in the region have had with Turkey since, well, the Arab Revolt, seems to be shifting in recent times, and the rise of secular Muslim leadership in Turkey has perhaps greased those wheels in an increasingly Islamisized region that has become accustomed to failed Pan-Arab leadership and turned to a glorified religious past instead. Enter Erdogan, a seemingly anti-Israeli, Muslim leader in the region whose beliefs are perhaps much more intertwined with the mainstream Arab and Muslim world than Iran could ever hope to be.
While this context is relatively known, if not overly apparent to most – what I personally find interesting with the shifting political landscapes is simply put, the extent to which the current infatuation with Erdogan is in fact representative of our disappointment with our own leadership. In other words, the failed leadership in the Arab world, specifically when it comes to the question of Palestine, has left such a void that the Arab street has sought to fill it with an assortment of leaders from all over the world.
From the Islamisized go-getters like Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal, to Hugo Chavez – any political leader who declares their anti-Israeli position and backs it up with some sort of televisual action that can range from a Hizballah/Hamas guerilla operation to a Chazev cutting off of diplomatic ties with the Zionist state – will not only gain favor in the Arab world, but will do so in a manner that resonates loudly throughout its streets.
However, for the time being, Erdogan is quickly filling the void simply because he resonates so well. A mainstream Sunni Muslim (who doesn’t travel with a thick beard), leading an Islamist party with a reformist attitude that has managed to maintain an increasingly powerful secular and democratic country in a region rife with religious discord – it is perhaps the dream of most mainstream Arabs. In other words, even those marginalized by their distrust in overly-religious figures, such as Nasrallah and Meshal, as well as their uncommonness with a far-away socialist politician, Chavez, to say nothing of their relative distaste with Ahmadinejad – well even these Arabs are putting their faith in the closest thing they have to the ideal – Erdogan.
Again, Erdogan isn’t the leader the Arab world is looking for, but rather what it’s wishing it had of its own. A homegrown Arab version is what tops the wish list and in no Arab country has such a leader emerged. While the Arab world is not a single entity, nor is it a single-issue body – the Palestine issue remains the center stage, and how a political leader plays his or her role on that stage is what the Arab street places its stock in. It is this very absence of such leadership that allows for the void to exist, and for foreign leaders, such as Erdogan, to emerge as de-facto representative heroes or champions of the “Arab” cause. I have even heard some voice their desire to see a return of Turkish rule over the Arab world, i.e. a return of Ottoman Empire. While that may be a bit hasty, it is an opinion that nonetheless is a bold expression to how the average Arab feels about the state of their own political leadership and that available in the Arab world.
On another note, and even closer to home, Erdogan’s rise in Turkey seems to have created an interesting improvement in relations between the country and Jordan. Not only from an economic perspective that has seen various Turkish products flooding the Jordanian market as well as Turkish companies taking on various construction projects – but also from a social dimension. While the raging popularity of the rather un-Islamic Turkish soap, Noor & Muhanned, is perhaps an obvious example, another is actually the apparent increase in travel between the two countries – or at least the number of Jordanians traveling to Turkey, which has risen quickly to become one of the top vacation destinations for Jordanians. A brief look at advertisements in the local papers by local tour operators is some indication of Turkey’s popularity at home. And if size is any indication, the largest advertisements are almost always promoting Turkish destinations. Delving further one could also look at the number of Jordanian families that have Turkish connections, either dating back to the Ottoman empire, or simply the inter-marriages. I would not be the least bit surprised if such marriages actually continue to rise in the coming years.
In any case, seeing Jordanians proudly waving giant Turkish flags (which seem to be all sold out in Amman) at anti-Israeli protests, is quite an impressive feat and most definitely speaks to the unfolding political landscape we see before us.