Can Turkey Help Democratize The Middle East?


Photo: AP

It has been a whirlwind 18 months for Turkey’s international reputation. Just a year ago, as Turkish-Israeli relations cooled and Turkish-Iranian relations warmed, Western media portrayed Turkey as a country shifting on its axis toward the Muslim Middle East. Today, amid Western concerns that the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime in Egypt could usher in Iranian-style Islamism, Turkey’s former Islamist governing party is once again the flavour of the month.Writing in the International Herald Tribune on February 8, the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist group whose influence worries many in Western capitals, insisted that younger members of the movement “are anxious to bring about internal reform and [are] fascinated by the Turkish example.”

“It is only democratic debate and vigorous exchange of ideas that have had an impact on the development of … Islamist theses,” Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, went on. “Turkey’s example should be an inspiration to us.”

On February 5, The New York Times suggested Turkey could offer a “road map” for the creation of an Egypt “that effectively integrates Islam, democracy and vibrant economics.”

It is an argument that goes down very well with leaders of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a February 1 speech asserted that “Turkey is playing roles that will change the course of history, rebuild the region from scratch.”

Yet, while nobody in Turkey doubts that all the talk of a Turkish model offers proof of the country’s rapidly growing diplomatic clout, some wonder whether it might not constitute a Trojan horse as far as Turkey’s own still imperfect democracy is concerned.

During the Cold War, political analyst Soli Ozel observes, the West, led by Washington, tacitly supported three military coups in Turkey, a NATO member since 1952. Military intervention was tolerated in the interest of stability. “As Turkey’s strategic importance grows, the quality and standards of its democracy could be pushed into the background again,” he says. “The quality of Turkey’s democracy risks being overshadowed by the image of a democratic Turkey.”

On February 3, Ozel pointed out, a day after supporters of Hosni Mubarak stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square on camel-back, a crowd peacefully protesting new workplace laws outside Turkey’s parliament in Ankara was tear-gassed and charged baton-charged by riot police.

Other analysts think Western talk of a Turkish model is an implicit acknowledgement both of the West’s ambiguous attitude towards democratization in the Muslim world, and its fading ambitions for Turkey. “In the past, Turkey was on an oscillating scale with Europe on one end and the Middle East on the other,” says Fadi Hakura, a specialist on Turkey at Chatham House, a foreign policy think-tank in London.

With Turkey’s six-year European Union accession bid now “comatose,” in large part because of European foot-dragging, “Europe has dropped off the continuum,” Hakura says.

“Now, you have the ‘liberal’ Islamic model of Turkey on one end and the ‘conservative’ Islamic model of Iran on the other. Turkey has been down-graded.”

Some wonder whether Turkey’s transformation over the past decade from a relatively introverted US satellite to a regional leader projecting a new, confident Muslim identity risks inciting authoritarian tendencies that have always been present in its political system.

The ideal of “forward democracy” that has been Prime Minister Erdogan’s main slogan since a constitutional referendum last September is based on the idea of a strong economy, a strong party and strong government, not liberal ideals, says Nihal Bengisu Karaca, a columnist with the daily Haberturk.

In the past, she adds, Turkey’s former secular elites would cite cliches about “the need for unity and togetherness in difficult times” to justify limiting democracy. “People hated that,” she said. “Today, concessions are justified [by the AKP] with references to a more glorious and powerful Turkey. And I have the feeling that the people find that perfectly acceptable.”

Kursat Bumin, a liberal philosopher who writes columns in the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, compares talk of a Turkish model to 19th colonialist rhetoric about Western standards being too much for the natives. “Democracy is a universal value,” he argues, “not a regional model.”

Others take a more nuanced view. Omer Taspinar, an expert on Turkey with the Brookings Institution in Washington, agrees that Turkey’s rift with Israel, together with its warm relations with Iran and Hamas, have convinced some policymakers in Washington that “Turkey is turning Islamist.”

But he points to the Obama administration’s on-going support for Turkey’s EU accession bid: “they know this is impossible with a ‘bon pour l’orient’ democracy,” he says. “The fact that Turkey is Muslim, secular, democratic is too important not to become part of the American discourse about a Turkish model.”

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