By Saladdin Ahmed
December 12, 2019
For decades, Sunni Islamism was led by Saudi Wahhabism, while the Muslim Brotherhood developed strategies for taking over governments. When King Salman assumed power in Saudi Arabia in 2015, a major shift took place in Saudi politics. For the first time in the history of the kingdom, Wahhabis were confronted in the centres of power. This coincided with the escalation of Turkey’s Islamist ambitions to become the leading Sunni imperial power, led by Erdogan. The centre of Sunni Islamism gradually moved from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, and this was reinforced when the Saudis came out in support of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to reinstall their ousted president, Mohamed Morsi. Erdogan, on the other hand, lost a strategic ally when Morsi was deposed by el-Sisi.
Parallel to this shift of the Sunni centres of gravity, Al-Qaida was losing ground while ISIS emerged as the main force capable of recruiting fundamentalist youth to join jihad. As many of Al-Qaida’s funding sources dried up due to new Saudi policies, Turkey did everything short of openly professing support to empower ISIS. Erdogan’s regime allowed tens of thousands of jihadis to join ISIS from 2012, when ISIS became a major force in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, to 2018, when it ultimately fell under the Kurdish attacks supported by the United States.
More to the point, Erdogan has leveraged alliances with ISIS and tens of other Islamist forces to counter the Syrian Kurdish revolutionary movement, which has remained the last obstacle in his path to establishing geopolitical hegemony in the region. Aligned with PKK ideology, as Kurdish forces gained ground in northern Syria in the bloody conflict against Sunni Islamists, Erdogan’s plan to expand his imperial Islamist project southward all the way to Sudan and Somalia began to unravel. Thus far, he has been successful in blackmailing Europe with the threat of opening the gates for millions of refugees, which is the worst nightmare of the European governments. Erdogan also had already neutralized Russian opposition to his invasion of the Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria by purchasing the Russian S-400 system. This gives Russia long-term strategic and military advantages at the expense of NATO, while also undermining U.S. arms technology, which is used heavily by Turkish air forces. At the same time, Erdogan continually made deals on the ground with Putin, exchanging the city of Aleppo for the Kurdish city of Afrin, and now Idlib for other Kurdish areas.
As for the American presence that had prevented Erdogan from an aggressive invasion of the Kurdish-controlled areas, Erdogan tried various manipulation tactics over a number of years to remove this obstacle. However, it was only on October 6, 2019, that he succeeded in suddenly making Trump order the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from northern Syria. Of course, we do not yet know what transpired between Trump and Erdogan during their phone call on October 6. It does bear emphasizing, though, that Trump was a prime candidate for a blackmail plot, given the impeachment proceedings. Whatever Trump’s motivation, like his European and Russian counterparts, he has bowed to Turkish pressure, allowing Erdogan to unleash the full power of his own military forces as well as his Islamist militia allies against the Kurdish movement in Syria.
At this stage, there is very little the West can do to put a stop to Erdogan’s grand plan, which is dependent on routing out progressive, secular, and liberal projects in the MENA region. Therefore, even if the Shia bloc led by the current regime in Tehran falls, Islamism represents a fatal historical threat to the emancipatory project that has been struggling to come to fruition for over two centuries. It was 100 years ago that fascism rose from Turkey to Italy and then on to Germany and Austria. The liberal incompetency to join arms with the anti-fascists, especially in Spain, led to the ultimate victory of the fascist camp, and, thus, World War II. Eventually, the liberal Europe had no choice but to confront fascism systematically throughout Europe, almost completely unrooting it, but fascism faced no such challenge in the MENA region and Turkey in particular. More than a century has passed since the Armenian genocide, but acknowledging it remains a crime in Turkey, and even the U.S. government does not dare to formally recognize it.
Erdogan has stoked the flame of national fascism in Turkey, bolstering it with religious fascism to form a global Islamist bloc that will inflict violence comparable to the horrors committed by European fascists in the first half of the twentieth century. This fascist threat will eventually overcome continental boundaries if an internationalist front is not formed to confront it resolutely. Nazism began its reign of death and destruction with an anti-Jewish crusade; the parallels to Islamism’s ongoing crusade against Kurds are striking. Unfortunately, the plight of Jews was not addressed by the European majority until it was too late, and the fate of Kurds is similarly drawing little international attention. The same is true of the political project being advanced in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, where the multifaceted marginalization of Kurds has given their cosmopolitan, feminist, and ecological perspectives a unique (and under-appreciated) epistemological advantage.
The Green Revolution and Arab Spring uprisings can only loosely be called revolutions because they lacked a revolutionary alternative worldview for society and politics beyond the important, but not sufficient, goal of free elections. As I argued at the beginning of the Arab Spring, attempts to replace twentieth-century totalitarian regimes with liberal democracies are valuable and progressive, but we must resist the temptation to label them revolutionary simply because they are taking place in the MENA region. Moreover, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that liberalism itself is in crisis, even in the West. Besides, as alluded to previously, liberalism does not advance a doctrine of social justice, and it lacks the resilient militant inspiration necessary to forge the will to confront fascist forces on societal levels.
With perhaps the sole exception of the Sudanese Revolution of 2019, the Kurdish revolution in eastern Turkey (Bakur) and northern Syria (Rojava) is the only popular movement of dissent in the MENA region that has provided a substantial new worldview. It is a worldview capable of establishing an inclusive emancipatory space, both horizontally and vertically, theoretically and practically, to move beyond the crisis of the twentieth century, including the disastrous project of the nation-state. This revolutionary movement began in the late 1970s and early 1980s under extremely fascistic conditions in Turkey. However, it was not until the uprisings against the Baathist regime in Syria in 2011–12 that there was an opportunity for the movement to operate freely in urban spaces outside the immediate control of nation states.
The Bakur-Rojava revolution should have become the focus of international solidarity for the left across the world, if for no other reason than because it emerged as a promising horizon of hope and will for a change that has been lacking since the demise of the October Revolution of 1917 and the tragic loss of the anarcho-communist struggle against fascism in Catalonia and Aragón in 1939. On a historical stage so desperate for a cosmopolitan and inclusive revolutionary alternative, progressives around the world cannot afford to fail Rojava, and yet, many are doing just that. Too often, the left fails to recognize a revolution when it is taking place. Only years later do leftists then mourn it, speak of it nostalgically, and write bad poetry about it. While I hope Rojava will not become the subject of the next generation of bad poetry, the world must act quickly if we are to have any chance of not falling back into another age of fascist destruction reminiscent of what followed the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (SUNY Press, 2019). He is currently a visiting assistant professor of political theory at Union College.
Original Headline: The 21st-Century Crossroad of Islamism and Enlightenment, Part 2: The Rise of Turkish Islamist Imperialism
Source: The Telos Press