Turkey may have reclaimed leadership of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia - op-ed

Turkey appears to have reclaimed the once-Ottoman role of leading Sunni Islam, a position currently held by its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, Middle East analyst Omar Ahmed wrote in an op-ed published by London-based news website Middle East Monitor on Thursday.

Ahmed said the momentum was “edging back in Turkey’s favour”, especially after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened Istanbul’s disputed Hagia Sophia monument to Muslim worship on July 24, a development the analyst called “the latest projection of Ankara’s soft power”.

Over the years, Erdoğan had repeatedly pressed turning the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque again, finally following through this month to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists, despite international condemnation.

“It was as if last Friday’s sermon announced Turkey as a serious leadership contender, as fractured as Sunni Islam may be,” he said.

While Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war has “tarnished its image among Muslims”, Turkey’s military campaigns in Syria and Libya appear to have done the opposite, obtaining support from non-Turkish Muslims, according to Ahmed.

“Ironically, while Turkey is re-establishing ties with its Ottoman past, Saudi Arabia has already eradicated most of its heritage, including that from the Ottoman era, and is finding it increasingly difficult to justify its own self-appointed role to be a convincing leader of the world’s majority Sunni population in religious and political matters,” he said.

The “neo-Ottoman rhetoric” used in foreign media is exaggerated and a form of propaganda against Turkey, the analyst said, citing the example in which Saudi-owned Arab News published a series of articles recently accusing Turkey of trying to gain the support of Muslims of different nationalities as it seeks to restore its power and authority and about “repeating” Ottoman crimes against Arabs.

While a majority of Turkish citizens who responded to a Washington Post survey last year were in favour of the abolition of the Ottoman Empire and against its re-establishment, some of the biggest supporters of reviving the Ottoman caliphate live in Asian countries with large Muslim populations, Ahmed said.