January 10, 2016

Clash of religious fundamentalists

Şahin Alpay

Last week Saudi Arabia in one day executed 47 opponents of the regime, including Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, one of the foremost representatives of the Shia minority in the country, and 46 others, mostly members of al-Qaeda.

In mass demonstrators staged in retaliation, the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was set on fire. The tension between two religious fundamentalist regimes, one belonging to the Sunni and the other to the Shia sect, in fierce rivalry to extend their influence in the Muslim world hit the top.

There are lessons to be drawn from the current conflict. It is true that both regimes exploit sectarian beliefs to bolster themselves and extend their influence. The conflict is not, however, one between Sunni and Shia believers in general. It is a fight between two regimes and their supporters who subscribe to the fundamentalist interpretations of the teachings of sects within Islam.

It is true that the execution of 47 individuals in a single day is an atrocity seldom seen. The two regimes, however, extensively implement capital punishment, which violates the most basic human right, the right to life. According to Amnesty International, in 2014 the number of countries where capital punishment is legal diminished to include only 22. That year Saudi Arabia executed 102 and Iran 743 individuals. Just three weeks prior to the mass executions in Saudi Arabia, Iran executed three individuals in a single day.

These two religious fundamentalist regimes, which do not respect human rights, engage in torture and execute their opponents -- even gays and those involved in fornication, compete in barbarity. Both are living examples of the threat to humanity posed by religious fundamentalism and bigotry. The president of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the Sunni state institution which monopolizes and controls religion in Turkey, recently blamed secular fundamentalism of crimes against humanity. The truth is that humanity has suffered equally from both religious and secular fundamentalism and continues to do so. The threat to humanity arises from fundamentalist fanaticism, be it of secular or religious origin.

It is misleading to label the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran as Islamist. Perhaps the most obvious evidence against it is the fact that Islamists who claim to have formulated a political ideology that rejects both capitalism and communism are violently opposed to both of those regimes. If the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is the pain in the neck of the regime based in Tehran, al-Qaeda is that of the one in Riyadh.

The government of Turkey, which at least constitutionally has a secular regime, should pursue a policy at equal distant to these regimes. It is obvious that Ankara should establish political and economic relations with all countries in line with national interests. It should not, however, maintain intimate ties with these religious fundamentalist regimes, and its leaders should refrain from any statement (like “feeling at home” in their capitals) or behavior to promote their regimes as role models. Turkey should refrain from participating in strategic alliances these regimes form against each other. Ankara's decision to take part in the so-called “Muslim alliance against terrorism” led by Riyadh, which excludes all Shia-majority countries, and the conclusion of a strategic alliance agreement with Riyadh are both against Turkey's national interests.

Turkey's government must adopt a clear stance against religious fundamentalism. It has instead engaged in a witch hunt against the faith-based social movement Hizmet, inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who preaches an understanding of Islam which rejects violence and fanaticism; supports democracy, human rights and secularism as freedom of religion for all; and emphasizes not the legal but spiritual and social teachings of Islam. Gülen's teachings are undoubtedly a most valuable asset of Turkey. That he has been declared the “leader of an armed terrorist group” by the government without any legal basis whatsoever is perhaps the most remarkable indication of the state of madness Turkey finds itself in under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 10 January 2015, Sunday