The Battle for Leadership of the Muslim World

In 1954, President Nasser attempted to unify the Arab world under his leadership, hoping to eventually include non-Arab Islamic states as well. Since the death of Nasser at the end of the 1960s, a race towards leadership of the Arab and Muslim world began. In the second decade of the 21st century, we can point to three states which are aiming for this coveted position: Iran, Turkey, and Qatar.

Due to an absence of global leadership in our time, the leader of the Islamic world will take a leading a role in global hegemony. The weakness of the United States, the tribulations of Russia, the hesitations of China regarding its future political and economic role, all point to the fact that the leadership of the Islamic world will have a more essential role in the direction of the entire world.

Since the period of the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has coveted the role of leader of the Islamic world. As a nuclear threshold state, Iran has received recognition for its right to enrich uranium and develop advanced missile systems. When negotiating with the P5+1 states, Iran required that the global powers deal with it as an equal, instead of as a state that receives dictates. In its discussions with the global powers, Iran stood up to Europe, Russia, and the United States, and imposed a deal upon them which was to its advantage, and ensured its role in the Muslim world.

Iran has acquired extensive power due to its support of various terrorist organizations and its ability to instigate political conflict in numerous places. From Yemen, to Bahrain, to Iraq, to Kurdistan, to Syria, to Lebanon, to Gaza, to Sudan – the world has accepted Iran’s financial and military support in such places, which often includes “boots on the ground”. Iran’s involvement in various conflicts does not receive any response from the global powers, aside from weak condemnations in various esoteric forums.

In addition, Iran’s relations with global powers such as Russia and China facilitate an umbrella of international defense from attacks from the West in international forums. Furthermore, North Korea has nearly open relations with Iran, including the exchange of information on nuclear and missile projects. Even Venezuela, which is meant to represent the radical left in South America, is under Iranian influence.

These factors turn Iran into an important power, which threatens the Sunni Arab states and the moderate Islamic states. Despite it being a Shiite state, it has been able to overcome this barrier, by creating partnerships with non-Shiite states.

The second state competing for leadership of the Islamic world is Turkey. Erdogan’s Turkey does not hide its desire to lead the Muslim world. Ergodan views himself as a man who led Islam towards Europe. In addition to increasing Turkey’s formal ties with the European Union, Erdogan, in parallel, worked to establish Muslim communities in Europe, altering the nature of such immigration from one based on citizenship and integration to one based on wielding influence and ideology. While in the past, immigrants assimilated into the European culture, now there is no desire to integrate, but instead to impact the demographic and political future of various European cities.

In addition, due to its powerful army, Turkey serves as an important member of NATO. Turkey has manipulated NATO into various conflicts, taking advantage of various “Arab Spring” upheavals in the Middle East to advance its own interests. Despite its former close relations with Qaddafi based on billions of dollars of investment and trade between Turkey and Libya, it was Erdogan who convinced NATO to become involved militarily in Libya in order to overthrow Qaddafi, who, at the time, was undergoing a process of developing closer relations with the West through major compromises. Erdogan brought about a situation in which Qaddafi saw his end in a filmed lynch which was viewed around the world.

Turkey was also involved in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the advancement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Turkey wanted to weaken a rival for leadership of the Muslim world.

Erdogan had previously also enjoyed warm relations with the Assad family; he quickly turned on the Alawite regime, contributing to the chaos that engulfs Syria today.

Such activities by Erdogan resulted in two waves of refugees from Arab states towards Europe – the first, the Libyan refugees who came to Europe via Italy, and the second, the Syrian refugees who arrived via the Balkan states. These two waves of refugees are altering the face of Europe, increasing Turkey’s influence in Europe.

The third state aiming for leadership of the Muslim world is Qatar. Due to its great economic power, its reach extends around the world. It has established various academic institutions around the world and has invested extensively in various markets. Qatar nearly received a contract for examining the sea ports of the United States. Qatar has increased its “soft power” influence by establishing and sponsoring museums, cultural events and major sporting events, such as the World Cup. Thus, it has succeeded in branding itself as an elite cultural player, in order to gain acceptance around the world. Qatar is not only hosting the World Cup, but was able to the move the global event from the summer to winter, to accommodate its weather conditions.

In addition, Qatar has become the most dominant state in the world of media, as Al-Jazeera has transformed from a a local media outlet to a global force of influence around the world. Qatar impacts the global media like no other state, setting an agenda of upheavals and a new global order.

As the Islamic world rises to prominence in the global arena, representing a population of 1.5 billion and significant resources, there three states vie for its leadership. The battle is still undecided, as each power has its own strengths and weaknesses. However, the new leadership of the Muslim world will have a far-reaching impact around the world.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center
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