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Culture wars bubble under Arab surfaces

James M. Dorsey




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Religious conservatives and nationalists in the Muslim world and beyond have the wind in their sails. So do Arab autocrats, even if they increasingly cloak themselves in nationalism rather than religious conservatism.


Last week’s first election round in Turkey saw conservatives and ultra-nationalists win control of parliament. At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears set to win a third presidential term in this Sunday’s run-off against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.


Supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AKP party wait for the election results at the movement's headquarters in Ankara on May 14, 2023. Photo: ADEM ALTAN / AFP


Irrespective of whether he is reelected, Mr. Erdogan’s conservative religious and nationalist coalition will enjoy a 322-seat majority in the 600-member Turkish parliament.


To even stand a chance of defeating Mr. Erdogan in the May 28 presidential run-off, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has hardened his anti-migrant and anti-Kurdish rhetoric since the May 14 first round in which he trailed the president by five percent.


Turkey is home to the world’s largest Syrian refugee community, estimated at 3.7 million, followed by Lebanon and Jordan.


As a result, Syrian refugees, like other minorities and disadvantaged groups, will be among the losers no matter who emerges as Turkey’s next president.


The Syrian plight is compounded by the welcoming of President Bashar al-Assad’s return earlier this month to the Arab fold when he attended an Arab League summit in Jeddah.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, centre, arrives in Jeddah on Thursday ahead of the Arab League summit Photo: Reuters


Instead of establishing criteria for handling the millions of people displaced by Mr. Al-Assad's brutal conduct during a decade-long civil war, Arab leaders catered to the Syrian leader’s insistence that refugees return to his war-ravaged country.


The lack of criteria has opened the door to forced deportations, even if authorities in host countries deny the involuntary removal of refugees and Arab officials insist that their return must be voluntary.


Religious support for Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) fits a global mould in which conservative Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Hindus, and others find common ground in popularly supported traditional family values that constitute the norm in conservative societies.


Embrace of those values allows civilisationalist leaders such as Mr. Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the prime ministers of India and Hungary, Narendra Modi and Victor Orban, to position themselves as bulwarks against Western promotion of gender fluidity and LGBTQ rights.


Even so, Turkey is one of two Middle Eastern countries most immediately prone to a culture war given Mr. Erdogan’s use of identity politics, culture warring, and anti-migrant rhetoric in his election campaign.


If Turkey is one step removed from a full-fledged culture war, Israel, governed by the most ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist coalition in its history, is already at war with itself.


Government policies have sparked sustained mass protests and strained relations with the United States and significant segments of the Jewish Diaspora. They have also escalated tensions with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.


At the other end of the Muslim world, reformers in Indonesia are concerned that Anies Baswedan, a former Jakarta governor with close ties to religious conservatives, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Islamic militants, is one of three top candidates for the presidency in February 2024.


Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. Photo: Twitter/@aniesbaswedan


“These links raise concerns among Indonesia’s religious minorities, which make up 13 percent of the population, as well as many moderate Muslims,” said journalist Joseph Rahman.


To be sure, Iran is the Middle East's true outlier. Forty-four years after the creation of an Islamic republic, culture was at the core of months of anti-government protests that sought to reduce, not increase, religion’s role in politics.


The protests were sparked by the death in custody last September of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman detained by morality police in Tehran in September for allegedly wearing her hijab "improperly."


Interestingly, renewed popularity of religious conservatism has not sparked culture wars in the Arab Middle East like the battles fought in polarised societies such as Israel, the United States, and India or Christian faith communities like the Anglican church.


In various Arab countries, rulers pushing social and economic rather than political change subjugate religious elites potentially opposed to their liberalizing reforms. In addition, the repression of freedom of expression makes non-violent culture wars virtually impossible. So does the criminalisation of apostasy and blasphemy and, in Saudi Arabia, defining atheism calls as an act of terrorism.



The campaign rolled back the achievements of the revolts that toppled Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen’s leaders. A 2013 United Arab Emirates and Saudi-backed military coup overthrew Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt's first and only democratically elected president. In addition, wars were waged to counter Islamists and jihadists in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi protest outside a mosque in Cairo on July 2013 Photo: EPA



“In most countries surveyed, young and old citizens demonstrate a clear preference for giving religion a greater role in politics,” said Michael Robbins, director and co-principal investigator of Arab Barometer. The group regularly surveys public opinion in the Middle East.


“In 2021-2022, roughly half or more in five of ten countries surveyed agreed that religious clerics should influence decisions of government,” Mr. Robbins added.


To be sure the comeback, may remain restricted to support in anonymous polling. There is little, if any, space for political Islam to express itself in countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. In exile, Islamist’s space is narrowing. For now, that gives autocrats and authoritarians the upper hand.



Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


Support me on Patreon at www.patreon.com/mideastsoccer.Please join me for my next podcast in the coming days. Thank you, take care and best wishes.


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