The latest move by Turkey towards the Muslim Brotherhood came as a big surprise for many. It can be said that this is the most distinctive shift in the Turkish attitude toward political Islam in recent history. This shift may have been unexpected, but it wasn't impossible. It is important to note that the forthcoming Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement is merely the first step. However, it seems almost impossible to convince the large multitudes of ignorant Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and followers that regardless of Erdogan’s personal ideology, his political interests would always take precedence.
It is safe to say that the Brotherhood’s blind dependence on Turkish support and protection, made them a pawn in Erdogan’s hands, and a trump card he could use in negotiations whenever it serves him. This new stance does not mean that there is a major transformation in Turkish policy towards political Islam. In this context, I would like to refer to an article written by Mr. Abdulrahman al-Rashed entitled “Did Erdogan surrender?”, where he emphasized that “the most important aspect for us, in fact, is not that he stopped the Brotherhood and Turkish media loyal to them, or that he will expel a few hundreds of them later, and some of them will be extradited, and we will see a return to relations. Most importantly, we want to know whether we are facing a new Erdogan? Is it a real change in policy? We should not get too excited, as it is likely that it continues as we have known it in the past 10 years, and it will resume waging political battles, perhaps through different paths.”
Indeed, we will not see a major shift in Erdogan's policy towards political Islam, and his ambitions in the region will not diminish. However, we might see him put certain plans on hold, yet his involvement in regional conflicts will not abate. He will risk Turkey’s interests before risking the interests of his allies. It would appear that Erdogan has realized that taking this step is the most effective way to prove Turkish goodwill towards the Egyptians. He is fully aware that the matter of political Islam, and especially the foreign Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood, has become an effective bargaining chip that can be used for negotiation, manipulation, intervention, and even extortion.
This step highlights the effectiveness of political Islam in the region, and it invalidates the theory claiming that their political or conceptual goals are driven by “religion”. As the British author Alison Pargeter puts in her book “Return to the Shadows: The Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda since the Arab Spring”: “While politics has always played a key role, political Islam’s strength has always been rooted in the fact that it is also a social and religious force, making it impossible to dislodge with the same ease with which a president can be overthrown… The underlying conditions in the region that gave birth to political Islam in the first place have not fundamentally altered, leaving ample space for political Islam to operate and evolve. But if political Islam is not dead, it is nonetheless in crisis, and the Brotherhood brand has been dealt a heavy blow. There are many factors that contributed to the Brotherhood’s cataclysmic fall, and these have been discussed at length by numerous scholars. Indeed, there is a broad consensus that the Brotherhood’s failures are rooted more in the political than the religious domain and are largely the result of its woeful lack of experience and understanding.”
The use of the foreign Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood as a bargaining chip for Erdogan means that the Brotherhood and political Islam will continue to be used as leverage.Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Furthermore, making this distinction between the Brotherhood’s focus on their political goals and their recent neglect of religious and social values is not necessary. Whether this weakness is in the political or religious domain, it is still considered a major weakness, and both areas should go in tandem. Alison Pargeter claims that the Brotherhood is not a revolutionary movement and goes on to cite a number of statements issued by Brotherhood members claiming that they are not revolutionaries, but rather a movement characterized by “gradualism”, believing that reforming society began with reforming the individual. Her analysis is certainly flawed because she chose to rely on texts released by the Brotherhood, which showcase the “identity crisis” the Brotherhood suffers from in its dealings with governments and in terms of the concept of the state in particular.
Despite their claims to the contrary, events throughout history have proven that the Brotherhood is a revolutionary movement, but only when they choose to be. This was made clear through the role they played in the establishment of terrorist organizations in Egypt, most notably, “Sayyid Qutb's organization”, as well as in their logistical support of al-Qaeda, a known radical, revolutionary, and deadly organization. Moreover, the Saudi Brotherhood has, in the form of the Surrurites, protected al-Qaeda and attempted to give them political legitimacy through what is known as the ‘preachers’ initiative which aimed to operate as a mediator between al-Qaeda and the Saudi government. Examples on this topic are far too many.
I say this to make one thing very clear; political Islam has the ability to endure and adapt. Yes, today we are witnessing a change in the balance of power due to the striking government measures taken by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There is no doubt that these countries have major influence in the region and can flip the balance power in intellectual and political conflicts when they want to confront the Brotherhood movement. However, this is definitely not the end of the Brotherhood, but merely a drawback. The Brotherhood seems keen on drawing their legitimacy from the ideologies adopted during the Makkah era before Prophet Muhammad’s migration to Madinah to justify spreading their teachings and ideologies. The Brotherhood may also resort to reviving their underground educational platforms, far from the reach of the security agencies of different countries.
The use of the foreign Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood as a bargaining chip for Erdogan means that the Brotherhood and political Islam will continue to be used as leverage. Several small and large regional countries are still using the Brotherhood to gain leverage. Erdogan's actions are not entirely surprising, but his timing was. Even if Erdogan does not follow through on his promise towards Egypt, it seems that his actions have struck fear and uncertainty among Foreign Brotherhood members moving to Turkey. Many of the Brotherhood’s own members have used the Brotherhood as a bargaining chip starting with Hassan Al-Turabi all the way to Erdogan. To sum up, the Brotherhood realizes how naïve these members can be when they believe that countries would agree to shelter them, out of charity rather than for purely political purposes. Yes, Erdogan gave them a swift blow, but they will soon return to kiss the same hand that dealt that blow.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.