Islamists’ partisan elevation of Istanbul is not credible

There is nothing “holy” about Istanbul except in the minds of Islamists who think they need to preserve an ultimate place of refuge at any cost.
Sunday 17/06/2018
A file picture shows supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood shouting slogans during a rally in front of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. (Reuters)
Ultimate refuge. A file picture shows supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood shouting slogans during a rally in front of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. (Reuters)

Since their fall from grace in 2014, Islamists, particularly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, have attempted to portray Istanbul as a “holy” city that is a beating heart of Islam.

Recently, a video widely shared on social media featuring an apparent member of the Muslim Brotherhood comparing the distance between Jerusalem and Mecca to the distance between Jerusalem and Istanbul on a map. The two lengths, he concluded, are the same — a sign of divine blessing for the Turkish city.

Absurd as it is, such religious pseudoscience reflects an important development by Islamists in the region: Their desperate attempt to retain power in Turkey at any cost.

Since the announcement of snap parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood has mobilised to support its newly found guru of political Islam, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his ruling Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

With the Turkish lira dropping in value more than 15% against the US dollar this year, the Muslim Brotherhood is at the forefront of the effort to save the Turkish economy. The Brothers and their ideological allies, who know that Turkey’s currency woes could put Erdogan in a tight spot in his re-election bid, have desperately sought to find solutions.

One recent pitch came from Mohamed Habib “Abou Yaareb” Marzouki, a Tunisian politician who was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 2011 as a representative of the Islamist party Ennahda for the district of Tunis.

Marzouki called on Muslims to deposit Zakat al-Fitr, a mandatory charitable contribution, in Turkish banks to help support the weakened lira and stubbornly high inflation in Turkey.

One might wonder why Marzouki or other Islamists from Tunisia or other Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt have not put equal effort into supporting their own flagging economies and currencies.

The Muslim Brothers are not as concerned with their countries’ national problems as with the decline of their organisation. More than seven years after the “Arab spring,” the Muslim Brothers still do not understand that it was their failure to solve real political, social and economic challenges that led to their fall from grace.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, designated as a terrorist organisation by Egypt in 2013 and by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2014, Istanbul serves as a haven and deserves a higher status in the Muslim world. However, that haven could be at risk if Erdogan and the AKP lose in the June 24 elections.

Erdogan’s abrupt decision to call elections more than a year ahead of schedule, hoping to catch the opposition off guard, could backfire. Turkish opposition parties have formed a rare alliance, posing a serious challenge to Erdogan.

Reliable pollsters and analysts in Turkey stated that Erdogan could struggle to get the 50% of the vote he needs to win the presidency outright in the first round. If he falls short, Erdogan would face the top opposition candidate in a second round July 8, something he hopes to avoid.

Also, for the first time in Turkey’s recent history, the opposition is organising an operation to independently count the entire national vote, hoping to forestall any attempt at vote rigging.

If the opposition alliance forces a second round, Erdogan’s main challenger, Muharrem Ince of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, could be a serious contender. This is creating serious pushback against Erdogan and the rise of authoritarian politics.

The Muslim Brothers understand that an Erdogan defeat would constitute a severe blow to political Islam and deprive them of a needed haven in the region. With Erdogan’s grip on power at risk and Doha increasingly isolated following the boycott imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt since June 2017, the Muslim Brothers are on the defensive.

There is nothing “holy” about Istanbul except in the minds of those Islamists who think they need to preserve an ultimate place of refuge at any cost — even if that means twisting history and religion.

The three holy cities of Islam are and will remain: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. There is no adding to that list scheduled anytime soon.

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