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Are Turks in Somalia for the Hajj or to Sell Beads?

[This article was inspired by the Julia Harte piece, "Turkey Shocks Africa," in the Winter 2012 Issue. The article was originally published in English on the Al Arabiya News website, and in Arabic in the Dar al-Hayat newspaper]

By Jamal Khashoggi

Next to us, we Saudis, and within our strategic security sphere, lies a country biting the dust for more than two decades.

Its collapse began when its last "effective" government, which was neither successful nor popularly elected, fell.

Even if that government had survived to this day, it surely would have been swept away by the Arab Spring.

Together with our neighbors in the region, we looked after it on one or two occasions, and then moved away.

Even the Americans ran out on it after a solitary attempt to save it in the wake of the war to liberate Kuwait. At the time, George Bush Sr. may have wanted to show his country was also ready to intervene and help a poverty-stricken Muslim country, unlike oil-rich Kuwait. It turned out to be a bitter American experience.

I am referring to Somalia.

Country in need

Who wants to help Somalia? Its people are unruly, plagued by differences and internecine strife, and ruled by warlords. Al-Qaeda infested many of its citizens' minds, adding to miseries and divisions even in single households. 

In the end, Somalia became the hotbed of high sea piracy. The world came to shun both the state and its people. Somalis got to be a source of concern for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners after a rise in their illegal immigration across Yemen through a transnational network of organized crime in the smuggling of migrants.

Everyone lost hope in Somalia and no one believed the failed state would recover anytime soon.

Or so it seemed.

There is now a glimmer of hope looming on the horizon.

International organizations now say Somalia is on the mend. Its markets are beginning to recover, together with trade and construction activities. People who visited Somalia of late say there is money moving around in the impoverished country.

Turkey in Somalia

So, what happened?

The answer is Turkey and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now the most popular leader there, with Somali mothers and fathers eager to name their newborns "Recep," "Tayyip" and "Erdogan."

So what is Turkey doing in Somalia and why? Is it on "a pilgrimage or selling beads" there -- which is a common expression used by Mecca residents well-grounded in combining godliness and moneymaking?

One school of thought worth monitoring is known as "Turkey's moderate Islam," which combines advocacy with spreading the teachings of religion, economic development and trade.

It is capitalized on by dynamic Turkish businesses in carving out new markets.

There is a Turkish scholar, author and educator named Fethullah Gulen, who founded the Gulen movement that is believed to have 1,000 schools around the world and more than 10 million followers in Turkey alone. He currently lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania.

I was in Turkey some 25 years ago, trying to cover the rise of political Islam, when I first heard his name. But I didn't get to meet him as he always shunned publicity and the media.

He had left Turkey for the United States when he was committed for trial in 2000 after the leaking of a video urging his followers to "move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power."

Originally charged with trying to undermine the secularity of the Turkish state, Gulen was acquitted in 2008 but continues to live in seclusion in Pennsylvania.

The Gulen movement is operating in Somalia through aid relief and development agencies, offering young Somali men and women scholarships for religious studies in Turkey. They would eventually replace Somali graduates of hard-line religious schools funded by Gulf charities.

By the time he flew to Somalia in August 2011, Erdogan had arranged for more than 1,200 Somali students to arrive in Turkey on full scholarships to study sciences, engineering, medicine and law at a cost of $70 million.

He then raised from Turkey's private sector more than $365 in donations to Somalia, over and above his government's $49 million contribution.

Today, Turkish traders and aid workers move freely across Somalia without needing to worry about being killed or kidnapped.

In contrast, U.N. and international aid workers remain holed up in their Somali offices or hotel rooms.

Is this happening because Turks, being Muslims, are familiar with the Somali people's character and norms?

"Turkey Shocks Africa"

Julia Harte raises the question in her recent article, "Turkey Shocks Africa," on which I relied to pen this think piece and which I strongly urge you to read.

Or does Turkey have a comprehensive plan—denied by the government—to marry advocacy and trade, thus help Turkish entrepreneurs and businesses gain favor among Somalis?

Or is energy-starved Turkey eyeing opportunities offered by the prospective find of 10 billion barrels of crude oil in Somalia's northeastern Puntland province?

Alternatively, is Turkey mounting a smart charm offensive to increase its overall exports to Africa, which rose to $10.3 billion last year from $2.1 billion in 2003?

Turkey is now challenging China on African markets, but with a more humane face than the alienating method favored by the Chinese.

Regardless of Turkey's motives, hat happened benefited both the Turks and the Somalis.

And what about us?

It's wrong to portray the Turks as competitors. They are friends who did what we should have done. It's therefore good to catch up with them and participate in this benefaction. After all, we spearheaded the concept, "The Hajj … and the sale of beads."



Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel.

[Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo]

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