A Turkish Renovatio?

06/08/2010 10:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Vlahos Professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and adviser to the Kiernan Group

"This is language that we have not heard since the time of Gamal Abdul Nasser." Thus wrote the influential chief editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, referring to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's fiery response to the Israeli assault on the Gaza flotilla -- adding that such "manly" positions and rhetoric had "disappeared from the dictionaries of our Arab leaders (since the demise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser)." He lamented, "Arab regimes now represent the only friends left to Israel." (From the CSM, here)

What is Renovatio? Simply, it is a national revival that takes the form of a restoration: Where things once right and true triumphantly return. Renovatio represents identity reborn.

This is how Romans and Byzantines spoke of restoration. But for them it was not simply the nation restored (lower case) -- Renovatio had an imperial and universal meaning: The world restored, the whole of Romanitas brought back to its full glory.

The world of Islam was the last great creation of Greco-Roman antiquity, and Muslims today still hold to a sacred narrative of identity rooted in Renovatio.

What does this mean, and why is it important? It means that Muslim history for 1,500 years has been a narrative of falling down followed by Renovatio, just as for 1,500 years it was so for Romano-Byzantines. After all Islam itself emerged during the 7th century falling down of the great Renovatio of Justinian.

So in the 19th century we see Muhammad Ali and the Sudanese Mahdi. So in the 20th century we see the emergence of Pan-Arabism and the Brotherhood. Nasser was thus the Muslim World's best-effort 20th century Renovatio.

In our new century we can see a slew of Muslim competitors eagerly invested in the waiting Renovatio. Al Qaeda represents the most romantic within Muslim imagination, seeking to reawaken the mythic calling of original Ghazi and the emotional claim of Al Ansar, the Brothers of Muhammad, sweeping out of the Wilderness like a wind from the desert.

But their framing was primitive and savage: Their fantasy resonates only with emotionally susceptible Arab men. The Muslim Brotherhood has been far more effective in evoking historical memory and sacred narrative among real communities. This is what resonates with most Sunni Muslims: Emphasizing social welfare and community virtue and shared piety. Brotherhood proselytizing is remarkably effective.

Then there is the premiere Sunni state: Saudi Arabia. Not only is it the richest of the rich but also the guardian of the sacred sites. It has aggressively pushed its Wahhabist mission throughout Islam and beyond. Moreover those it cannot convert it believes it can always buy.

Finally there is the Shi'a vision of Renovatio: Steeped since 1979 in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its claim as agent of restoration is vested in part in its provenance as original core of the exalted Abbasid Khilafat itself, but even more in its calls to purity and sacrifice in pursuit of Muslim transcendence. Here Hizbull'ah is the authentic representation of everything that a Shi'a Renovatio stands for, implicitly indicting corrupt Sunni state establishments (like Saudi Arabia and Egypt) that are no more than false beacons to Muslim restoration.

These have been the competition. But remember, all of these contemporary enterprises have either failed or settled into empty unrealized national establishments (like Saudi Arabia or Iran).

So this takes us back. We ask: What was the last great Muslim Renovatio?

We called it the Ottoman Empire. Paradoxically the first triumphant Ottomans saw themselves as leading not a Muslim restoration, but a true Romano-Byzantine Renovatio. Mehmet II conquered Constantinople as the new Basileus Autocrator, restoring an empire divided since the 7th century. Hence he gave equal weight to both "east and west." He was a ruler at least half-Greek, and he carefully co-opted the Byzantine aristocracy and Patriarchies into his vision of Romanitas reunited. A couple generations later Suleiman the Magnificent actually imagined himself as Justinian, reading Prokopios by his bedside in original Greek. He sought to recreate the whole of the old Roman Empire. His vision failed at Lepanto and before Vienna.

But historical memory should remind us that the last successful gambit for a universal Muslim Renovatio was the Ottoman achievement. Remember the Ottomans were as much a European as a Muslim power -- for 400 years -- and their civilization was a blend of Byzantine and Levantine Islam. The closest Islam ever got to a complete and lasting Khilafat with universal promise was with the Ottoman Sultanate.

Which brings us to today's Turkish Renovatio.

It has been sparked into a flare by the Mari Marmara incident. Suddenly Turkey has become a competitor in the stakes for a Muslim Renovatio. How could this be? What exactly are the stakes, and what is the practical framework through which a real Renovatio might be achieved?

The framework for restoration has been established, for better or worse, by the Israeli state. Israel has unwittingly shaped a framework for both Ummah narrative struggle and narrative fulfillment, by establishing a lighting rod for the unfolding of Muslim sacred story. Consider: the original lighting rods in Muslim memory are the twin despoiling invasions and occupations of the Dar al-Islam by Latin Crusaders and the Mongol Khanate. Together they nearly destroyed the Ummah.

But more important the ways in which Islam responded became the core of mythic story, and the foundation for the next great Renovatio. Indeed Muslim identity was forged in these struggles. Egypt and Syria only became majority Muslim societies during this period. In contemporary Muslim memory this was a time of heroes. It was the making of modern Islam. The Ottomans emerged at the end of this epoch, defeating the last surge of Latin-Hungarian crusading, and surviving the last Mongol surge of Timur.

So without reference to our historical vision, it was inevitable that Muslims would interpret the Israeli enterprise -- especially since 1967 -- as transcendental identity calling.

Hence championing the Palestinians becomes the vehicle for symbolic leadership in the Ummah -- and thus is also at the heart of the current competition among aspiring leaders of a new Renovatio.

It is moreover a relatively "safe" arena for such symbolic competition -- Again, thanks to Israel. The Israeli state has become the regional military superpower, by both conventional and nuclear yardsticks. Therefore it is unnecessary and impossible to mount a direct and dangerously classical military challenge.

This is strategically liberating. Israel has in effect created a secure umbrella in which competitors for Renovatio-leadership can contest and prove their worthiness without real material harm to their societies. Instead Israel itself assigns the true signs of heroic worthiness to lead.

The new dynamic is about provoking the "Crusader" (where Israel is the Crusader and the US the Mongol superpower) to do evil. Sacrificing to stand up to evil -- to willingly martyr oneself -- thus becomes the essence of leadership worthiness.

Hence Hamas -- in the story it spins -- provokes Israel in the most ritualized fashion, drawing down Cast Lead to show its worthiness in contrast to the pusillanimous, comprador Fatah, puppets of the "Zionist Entity."

Hence Hizbull'ah -- in the story it spins -- provokes Israel in the most ritualized fashion, drawing their invasion (Operation Grapes of Wrath) and in heroic, even ancestor-mythic resistance, proving Shi'a worthiness to lead.

But the contrast is equally damning for those who play nice with the US and Israel. While Hamas fighters died, so the narrative goes, Egyptian and Saudi rulers looked the other way. It is said that the Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, supports the Israeli blockade of Gaza as a way to buy US buy-off on deep dynastic hopes for his son, Gamal. So they say, if he does Israel's bidding, Israel will put in a good word with Washington, and Gamal will get his Pschent double-crown.

Saudi Arabia is no less complicit, if a bit less visible a comprador. What have Saudi princes done for the Palestinians lately, especially for the open-air blockaded prison that is Gaza? Nothing. They talk a big line but they look increasingly like client princes too. The two big Sunni Arab states seem to have abdicated their place in the competition. Quite a contrast to bold Saudi intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s -- then Wahhabism was on the frontlines, on an Islamist roll.

So bring on the Mavi Marmara. Now there is another state actor to compete with two non-state actors -- Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood -- and Shi'a Iran.

Turkey potentially upends the competition, and here is why:

  • Al Qaeda failed its essential Ghazi test. It failed to assert leadership among civilized communities -- see Al Anbar -- and it has marginalized itself, a process expertly encouraged by targeted US killing. The Al Qaeda franchise has plummeted since 9-11.
  • Iran has used its stalking horse, Hizbull'ah, effectively, but Iran itself is fatally undermined by its own geriatric revolution. Its vision of an Islamic Republic is failing. Arguably its ability to posit a universal Renovatio is almost nil.
  • The Egyptian and Saudi states have betrayed the heroic narrative framework established by Israel even as they have embraced "cooperation" with Israel: They have denied its key dynamic: That the supreme test for restoration leadership must be through martyrdom in championing the Palestinians. This denial will come to haunt them.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful factor for change within Islam, but it has chosen a subversive non-violent path much like 3rd century Christians. Their trajectory must thus be long-term. They may yet make it, but they are in no position to fully lead Islam today.

So what about Turkey? Turkey today is the inheritor of its own Ottoman tradition. Moreover a more Islamist Turkey pulls the nation away from the now-fading insular nationalism of Ataturk. A contemporary Turkey that is robustly part Western and also part Islamist in fact represents the most valuable model for the future Ummah -- and especially for its Arab-Urdu core.

Enough time has passed now that old Arab-Turkish scores should have receded, just as they have recently among Turks and Greeks. The Mavi Marmara incident -- if followed up strongly and unrelentingly -- can assert a neo-Ottoman claim to symbolic leadership of an emerging Muslim Renovatio.

Such a restoration would unfold in ritual terms. But is that not the point -- the point that the US and Israel stubbornly refuse to see? The whole design of the fabled Khilafat was in reality always that of a Muslim Commonwealth, not of a unitary state (save for Al Qaeda fantasists). Renovatio means a restoration of collective identity and purpose. But it also requires a leader: A Champion who will right wrongs and bring Islam back to the glory of the "Rightly Guided." Not as political order but as renewed collective consciousness.

It is supreme irony that (after a decade!) we cannot see what lies before our very eyes, or that those who hate Islam most will be the agent of their next deliverance.