By Charles J. Mouratides
CHI Executive Director
The more that political Islam advances in the Eastern Mediterranean basin, the more it becomes threatening to the three secular, non-Muslim democracies. Greece, Cyprus and Israel face long term strategic challenges that include prized energy production.
From Europe’s southeastern edge, where Greece meets Turkey, the band of Muslim nations that stretches around Israel all the way to Libya, begins increasingly to look like a radical crescent moon. Each nation’s army is the only effective barrier to its outright Islamization.
The largest Muslim nations –Turkey, Syria, and Egypt – today are again pressured to morph themselves as Islamist states. Eastern Mediterranean basin’s other Muslim countries, Lebanon and Libya, are also simmering cauldrons of Islamist and ethnic conflicts. This picture is completed with the presence of Palestinian territories in Judea, Samaria and Gaza which are seeking U.N. recognition as an independent state.
Since Kaddafi’s demise, Libya has been at the mercy of tribal bands and armed political factions. Lebanon, teetering on the brink of renewed civil war, is at the mercy of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Turkey is the only one of East Med’s Muslim countries where the unresolved political and ethnic conflicts have not drawn army response since the 1990s. At that time, even the threat of action by army generals convinced the Islamists to resign.
Syria seems already cantoned into districts around Aleppo and Damascus, controlled by al-Assad’s army, with scattered pockets of dominance by rebel forces elsewhere. It appears that this standstill will be around for awhile. A foreign military intervention is unlikely. This continuing uncertainty serves the historic aspirations of Syria’s Kurds, an almost 2-million mostly Muslim ethnic minority, concentrated in the northeastern corner of the country.
Uncertainty engulfs Egypt, too. President Morsi was busy engineering an autocratic transition of power from a democratically elected government to an Islamist state when he was ousted by the army. The strict crackdown on Islamist political parties continues, while protests against the army persist.
Morsi, a political novice, made three mistakes: First, he misinterpreted his marginal, 51% election victory for a license to impose political Islam and Sharia law which are opposed by many Egyptians.
Haste is Morsi’s second mistake: in his first year in office, he pushed radical constitutional changes concentrating power in his hands. Equally important, he failed to improve the economy where 50% of Egyptians live below the poverty line. Finally, Morsi’s third error is in international politics. Egypt has been friendly to the U.S. and Israel. Morsi’s journey to Iran sent a different signal and was the first visit to Iran by an Egyptian president in 35 years.
Turkey, too, has been seized by Islamists who gained elective office. As in Egypt, the Turkish army is a guarantor of the country’s secular government. But America demonstrates serious misunderstanding when it considers Turkey’s military officers the way it views those involved in Latin America’s military coups d’ etat and dictators.
The Turkish generals’ modus operandi, demonstrated repeatedly, is to first issue a warning – often in written form; to follow with the takeover; strengthen Kemalist/secularist practices; hold elections, then, go back to the barracks. In essence, the Turkish army is part of the checks and balances of the Turkish democracy. Six military coups were staged in Turkey in the past 100 years.
Apparently to make sure not to excite reaction from the generals, Prime Minister Erdogan has followed a slow path to social change. It is a gradualism he learned in the 1990s from Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, Erbakan.
But, just as Morsi sprouted from the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan is rooted in Erbakan’s tradition and outlawed Welfare Party. They are anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israel. Another major difference from Morsi is that Erdogan with AKP (Justice and Development Party), focused his first decade on the economy. He strengthened Turkey through years of stability, 5% annual growth, and American/Israeli support.
Despite his personal popularity, Erdogan’s eventual passage into Islamist politics did not sit well with many. When he tried to ram through changes, Erdogan met with sustained public resistance. Likewise, attempts to outlaw alcohol and bring back the Ottoman headscarf are also resisted by the public.
For Erdogan and his foreign minister, Davutoglu, Mohammedanism serves a double political purpose. One is justification for international action which feeds ultranationalist fervor of the masses. Such was his grandstanding in connection with the Gaza flotilla incident and Israel. Domestically, religion acts as the mortar to keep the nation and ethnic minorities connected.
In Turkey – where 65-75% of the 80 million population is Sunni, and the rest mostly Alevis – of special concern are the Kurds. This 20-plus-million ethnic group in Turkey is concentrated in the southeastern territories and witnesses the Kurds winning autonomy in adjacent countries. Today, the vision of a new Kurdistan that straddles Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, appears realistic.
If Islamization overtakes the political and social order in major countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, unification among Muslim countries will accelerate.
Pretext for Power
On the other hand, if the current social and political chaos prevails, it will in itself provide an impetus for the five countries and the Palestinians to coalesce.
Either case, one must recognize that Islamization may actually be a justification to rule, a pretext for power. Scholar Tarek Osman comments on Islamization campaigns in the past 13 centuries, and the pattern they follow:
“First, grab power militarily. Then, uphold the notion that the state is ‘Islamic.’ Next, ensure the recognition and obedience—though not necessarily the approval—of the most venerable (and famous) of the Islamic scholars of the age. Afterwards, rule as you please without any serious regard to Islamic jurisprudence, principles, or identity.”
In short, any government form enforced by Islamists – loosely or strictly fundamentalist – has similar impact on the country that adopts it, and on its relationship with other countries.
In the 20th century we witnessed repeated attempts by major Muslim states, such as Libya, Syria and Egypt, to unite into one country or federation. Some payed homage to fundamentalist Islam, others not. In the past 100 years, all five of Eastern Mediterranean Muslim states tried their hand at some form of unity one way or another.
That is why organizing a systematic non-Muslim response to upheavals in Muslim countries is essential for the Greece-Israel Alliance. Let’s take, for instance, the recent discovery of rich natural gas fields in the sea. Turkey has claimed ownership even though most of the Aegean is Greek territory, and the islands belong to Greece. Further south, Syria and Lebanon have part of the East Med shoreline and have raised claims against Israel. Jihadist threat is ever present.
In a crisis, would the EU assist its member, Greece? Nothing in recent history gives any indication to expect intervention and effective support. Likewise, the EU countries failed to assist in forcing Turkey to end its occupation of Cyprus, or to promote unification of the island, or to lessen Turkey’s bellicose attitudes.
The so-called “EU card” in Greece’s power game with Turkey is a mirage. In theory it provides an offer to Turkey to expedite its EU membership application if it cooperates.
But Erdogan, like all Islamists, is not really interested in Turkey’s full EU membership. That would require Turkey to change religious customs, follow non-sectarian rules and denounce Palestinian jihadists. As long as Turkey can have a special trade status with the EU and the U.S., it is against the interests of Islamists to become formal EU members.
Greece is under verbal threats and diplomatic attacks by Turkey. Cyprus is 4o% occupied by Turkish military forces. Israel is under attack by Erdogan and other Muslim leaders throughout the area – not to mention missile attacks from the Palestinians who are supported by Islamists in various Middle East countries.
Defense Against Threat
As the radical crescent moon stretches its arch over the Eastern Mediterranean sky, the discovery of rich natural gas and oil deposits has simply added another level of conflict for Greece/Cyprus with Turkey, and Israel with Lebanon/Syria.
Unless non-Muslim nations organize common international defense and security for gas fields and distribution systems (pipelines, tankers etc.) what would stop widespread terrorist activities in the East Med? Obviously, utilizing common hydrocarbon drilling companies and combined carrier/distribution systems would allow close action by the Israelis and the two Hellene countries.
Turkey, Syria, the Palestinians and Egypt will continue their alternately cold-’n-hot war against Israel. In response, Greece and Cyprus should become methodically a security partner of Israel, and a conduit for Israel into the EU and other friendly countries in the Balkans/Eastern Europe/Eurasia.
Hellenes should actively design and support events and programs that combat the organized efforts of certain Europeans and Middle Easterners to delegitimize the international presence and importance of the Jewish state. Similarly, the Hellenes should become the leaders in European agencies and institutions, and in the EU parliament, against anti-Semitism which eventually spills over into relations with Israel.
For its part, Israel can offer military, scientific and technological support over a wide range of issues and specialties. That would help the Hellenes climb faster out of their present economic swamp.