December 19, 2010

The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Arab Street

By Harold Rhode

Iran and today’s Turkish government are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street. Iran represents the Shiites and Turkey represents the Sunnis. The Arab world is largely Sunni, with the exception of many of the Persian Gulf Arab countries and Iraq.

Iran and the Turkish government are also working together against the non-Muslim world – most specifically against the U.S. and Israel.

Both the Saudi government and private Saudi individuals are funding Islamist extremism throughout the Muslim world, most importantly in Turkey. They have a willing partner in the current Turkish government.

It appears that the Saudis and the present Turkish government are interested in reestablishing the Caliphate – at first culturally, but later possibly even politically – most likely in Istanbul, the seat of the last Sunni Caliph until the early 1920s.

Iran is Shiite and is appealing to the Arab Sunni street by trying to co-opt the agenda of the Sunni masses - the existence of Israel and the sanctity of Jerusalem – neither of which are traditional Shiite issues.

In doing so, Iran seeks to undermine the existing autocratic and dictatorial Arab Sunni regimes by going over the heads of their leaders and appealing directly to the Arab street. That is the major reason why almost all of the regimes in the region hate the Iranian regime more than they hate Israel.

Which Side Is Winning?

So how have Turkey and Iran fared in their battle to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street? The press in every Arab country besides Iraq is government-controlled, so we cannot get a true reading of what the masses think from the press. Nevertheless, a foreign polling company recently asked Arabs what they thought about foreign leaders. No one could get in trouble if they mentioned Turkey positively, but had they mentioned Iran favorably, they might have suffered consequences at the hands of their authoritarian and totalitarian rulers. We must keep this in mind when trying to analyze who is winning this battle

The pollsters asked, “Which is the foreign country friendliest to the Arabs?” France came in first, Turkey was second, and Iran did not even make the top ten. In essence, public opinion in the Arab world is by and large fickle. What is important is who can destroy Israel, and the Iranians have been working at it since 1979 and seem to be doing a much better job than their own Arab rulers. Yet even though Iran has gone to great lengths to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs, they come up short because the Turkish government is Sunni, as are most Arabs.

In the end, Iran will always remain at a tremendous disadvantage. The Turkish government has only been engaged in efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street since 2002, when Erdogan’s party came to power, while the Iranians have been at this for 31 years. Only if Sunni Muslims converted en masse to Shiism would Iran really be able to gain the upper hand. This does not seem to be in the cards for the foreseeable future

What would happen if Turkey and Iran switched places? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Turkey abandoned any pretense of secularism and re-established the (Sunni) Caliphate in Istanbul, while Iran returned to secular non-clerical rule. While we can only speculate, it is likely that, with the exception of Shiite-dominated Iraq and the Arab Shiites of the Persian Gulf and parts of Lebanon, the Sunni Arabs would look to Turkey and abandon any pro-Iranian feeling because they would no longer see Iran as the center of the battle to defeat the non-Muslim world. In that case, Turkey would clearly be the winner in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world.

Dr. Harold Rhode joined the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1982 as an advisor on Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. From 1994 until his recent retirement, he served in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment.