January 3, 2020
Turkey and Iran have agreed to strengthen their religious ties in a new deal signed last week in Ankara between the religious authorities of both countries.
The new initiative — led by Abouzar Ebrahimi Torkaman, the head of Iran’s Islamic Culture and Communication Organization, and Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate — includes the translation of theological books, the organization of activities “to strengthen the unity of Ummah,” joint publications to combat Islamophobia in the West, cooperation over services to pilgrims, the exchange of religious texts, and an Islamic teaching exchange program.
Speaking at a joint event, Erbas said, “We mobilize all our resources to combat the agitation that is targeting Muslims, and the measures that are taken by some Muslim countries in the region, which regrettably compromise Muslims’ esteem and pride.”
The deal has come as a surprise to many, since Turkey is a Sunni state and Iran a Shiite theocracy. The two were once fierce adversaries, during the times of the Ottoman and Persian empires. And the new initiative has sparked concern among Muslims in Turkey who are critical of its potential repercussions in the teaching of Islam. The hashtag #WeAreNotShia was trending on social media in Turkey after the deal was announced.
Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, said the new religious deal builds on economic cooperation between the two countries and their mutual interests — along with Russia — in Syria.
“It also comes in the wake of a meeting in Malaysia where both Iran and Turkey expressed interest in a new ‘gold dinar’ currency. There is a growing consensus that Turkey and Iran have much in common in the region and globally,” Frantzman told Arab News.
The new deal, he suggested, shows that the two countries are keen to cooperate in other spheres of interest.
“It illustrates that the concept of the Shia-Sunni divide is partly a myth,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood — which underpins the AKP in Turkey — and Iran’s Ayatollahs have things in common. The Iranian IRGC and the Brotherhood met in 2014 in Turkey to discuss joint strategy.”
The agreement comes just a few months after Ankara and Tehran — guarantors of the Astana process in Syria alongside Russia — found themselves at odds over their regional policies.
Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, opposed Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria against Syrian Kurdish forces as well as its establishment of military posts inside Syria. In return, Turkey accused Iran of betraying the consensus between them.