Since a crackdown on domestic opponents or other parts of the royal family shattered the political landscape in Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s response has been muted. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has neither expressed support nor has taken a position as dozens of princes were detained.
But on Friday, the Turkish president leveled a sharp criticism against kingdom, but for a different reason and an unlikely topic. Mr. Erdogan’s barrage of criticism centered on the semantics of a term, which long divided scholars, seasoned observers, and journalists across the Islamic world.
The Turkish leader assailed Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the term of moderate Islam, which Mr. Erdogan says concocted and cooked in the West to divide the House of Islam.
At an event to empower women’s rights in Istanbul by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Saudi Arabia emerged as the main target of his particular venoms. He directly took swipes at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who pledged to make Saudi Arabia a beacon of moderate Islam at a speech late last month.
“Islam is a religion which frees man through not allowing him to be a servant to any power other than Allah,” Mr. Erdogan said. “They rekindled the subject again. Moderate Islam. The patent of the concept of this moderate Islam belongs to the West.”
“Those who uses moderate Islam could think that the concept would belong to him, but not. There is no moderate or non-moderate Islam. Islam is one thing,” he said, delving into philosophical as well as political themes regarding how to define Islam.
His criticism then took a more vitriolic turn. “The mindset that excludes women from life does not take its reference from Islam but tradition. You talk about moderate Islam but deny women driving cars. Is there any obstacle in Islam to this? No. What is this paradox?” the Turkish leader asked, about the dismal state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Under fire for prohibiting women from driving cars for decades, the kingdom finally announced last month that it would allow women to drive cars by next year, eliminating a key element of criticism.
But fissures over the semantics of a concept, which gained currency in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks in the U.S. to counter the expanding influence of the radical Islam, is not only about the disparity in meaning and interpretation. At the heart of showdown between two understandings of Islam lays a great geopolitical tussle in the region.
In this regard, there is more to Mr. Erdogan’s moderate Islam remarks than meets the eye. Ankara’s embrace of Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliations in Egypt and across the region has put Turkey at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia, which designated the group as a terrorist organization.
Muslim Brotherhood branded itself as the moderate face of Islam to ward off entrenched skepticism against its organization. But even ideological reorientation and transformation did not alleviate the Saudi fears.
Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sees the Brotherhood as its ideological brethren and AKP-led Turkey has never been shied away from openly endorsing them even when they were toppled in Egypt.
After being crushed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a military takeover, Ankara has not ended its backing of Brotherhood and refused to recognize the military intervention against Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood who served as Egyptian president for one year.
The Egyptian drama drove a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over their divergent views of the Brotherhood. Qatar took a similar line along with Turkey. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have imposed a blockade on Qatar from land, sea and air over its hosting of exiled leaders of the Brotherhood.