The Middle East, as we have known it since the foundation of the Arab nation states, is collapsing. Indeed, since the late sixties of the last century, Arab nationalism started to die as a populist ideology for two major reasons: 1- losing the 1948 and 1967 wars against Israel, and 2- the transformation of Arab nationalism from, supposedly, liberating movements to oppressive, totalitarian, and corrupted regimes headed by the absolute power of dictators.
Furthermore, the Israeli occupation of Palestine has become more than just a wound at the heart of Arab nationalism. It began as a conflict between the will to self-determination and the enterprise of Western colonialism. From there it continued to undermine Arab nationalism and Arab nations to the extent that seldom have two Arab nationalists disagreed on the failure of Arab nationalism to accomplish its goals as a project of revolutionary liberation.
This failure was even more pronounced in terms of the institutional, social, economic, and political relations within the Arab states themselves, especially in the republican regimes, which were supposed to be most progressive among the Arab states. At the same time, Islamist fundamentalism gradually surfaced to replace secular Arab nationalism. Thus, movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and Hamas took over the stage, promising to avenge the broken Arab pride by demonstrating open hostility to American and Israeli interests everywhere, with much less regard for the state borders in the region.
Still, neither of these two ideologies gained enough popularity to give birth to political powers that could realize the ambitions and dreams of the average Arab. However, a third way seemed to be emerging—a way to capture the suppressed Arab and Islamic dream together. This third way actually involves a return to the pre-nationalist era: the Islamic Empire. It seems that the collapse of the nationalist project created some kind of nostalgic sentiment in the psyches of the masses in Arab societies. More than that though, it is a nostalgia mixed with feelings of regret and guilt especially because Arab nationalism’s first militant struggle was against the Ottoman Empire.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish nationalism undertook a century-long project of self-westernisation which centered upon a challenging departure from its Islamic and Oriental past. Geopolitically, Turkey became the iron curtain of the West against the communist wave that was making its way from the East and until a decade ago Turkey’s ultimate dream was to culturally and geographically become a part of Europe. However, with the rise of political Islam to power in 2001, Turkey’s Eastern identity and its old imperial ambitions surfaced again at the expense of the imagined European identity/dream. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Turkey has presented itself as the new rival of Israel by supposedly supporting the Palestinian cause. Although to this day Turkey is Israel’s closest ally in the region, Turkish officials made enough symbolic moves to win the romantic, frustrated, hopeless, desperate, and wounded imagination of the Arab masses who found themselves betrayed by Arab nationalism. Turkey under the Islamists also succeeded in winning the support of the Islamist movements in the Arab world for similar reasons, as well as for shared ideological worldviews. Palestine is the decisive locus of Arab masses. Whoever gives some hope of retaking it for the Arabs, can win massive popular support immediately. In fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried throughout its lifetime, beginning in 1979, to play that role as the Islamic liberator of what is seen, by a lot of Arabs, as Muslim and Arab-occupied land. However, Iran represents the Shiite empire. Consequently, the distrust and enmity between Iran and the majority of Sunni Arabs is a major historical problem no less serious than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Therefore, Turkey under the Sunni Islamist reformists has become the best candidate for reviving the lost pride of the Arab and Islamic identities. Additionally, the deterioration of Arab states from within is opening all doors for the expansion of the Turkish Empire towards its former territories. As with many other imperial projects, this expansion is going to be in the name of saving the peoples of those territories. These days we are witnessing the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the region. With the Islamists becoming more powerful than ever in modern Turkey, the destruction of the Syrian state just south of the Turkish border, the desirable and unique role of Turkey in Libya, and the increasing Turkish influence in Iraq, The Middle East is at the gateway of a new Turkish Empire.
In terms of resulting future conflicts, a major new conflict will surface, this time between the American Empire and its allies (Europe, Israel, and possibly India), on the one side, and the new Turkish Empire, and its allies (some remaining Arab states, and possibly Pakistan). Iran, after the inevitable fall of the Islamic regime and the emergence of an ultra nationalist regime inspired by Western liberalism, is more likely to join the Western front as well. After all, Persian nationalists see themselves more like Europeans than Arabs. Besides, in Iran, the Islamic regime created enough popular contempt for the Islamic identity to make the new Iran inevitably align with the Western front. Ultimately then, though the current moment appears chaotic, inside that chaos new systems and forces are already crystallizing.