Ramzy Baraoud* Gulf News
Success of its democracy is clearly institutionalised, not merely inspired by one charismatic individual.
The third consecutive victory of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the country’s parliamentary election on June 12 was noted by many for its timing, and its relevance to the political turmoil currently under way across the Middle East.
Commentators in the Arab world have long been fascinated with Turkey’s success at achieving a stable democracy, a thoroughly functioning and growing economy, a vigorous civil society, and a largely free media, while simultaneously maintaining an Islamic political identity. With the exception of Turkey, political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa has been trapped between different ideas as to whether Islam and democracy are compatible.
Islamic politics as a whole has seemed less than encouraging. The Taliban’s ‘Islamic emirate’ experience in Afghanistan represented an example of political Islam gone wrong. The Algerian army’s violent crackdown on Islamists following their 1991 election victory — and the civil war that followed — left behind hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded.
More recently, when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, the Islamic movement in Palestine began to explore various models for combining Islamic ideals with a pluralistic political system.
Some Hamas officials continue to speak of the need to emulate the example of modern Turkey.
Evidently, ‘modern Turkey’ cannot be reduced to the political successes of the AKP. It goes back to earlier generations, starting with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey. A larger-than-life figure in the eyes of several generations of Turks, Ataturk was able to win Turkey’s independence — no easy feat at the time. However, he was unable to resolve the question of Turkey’s cultural and political identity, as a majority Muslim country that defined modernity based on western ideals.
Ataturk reformed his country’s political infrastructure and laid the foundation for a civil society. But ‘Kemalism’ was hardly enough to transform Turkish society. It was the resentment of some European governments towards Turkey’s full incorporation into the European Union that strengthened a political current in the country, one which sought to reach out to Turkey’s long deserted Arab and Muslim neighbours.
In fact, such an approach defined the foreign policy of late Turkish prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, who served a short term between 1996 and 1997 before resigning amid intense pressure from the military. The powerful Turkish military had staged three coups since 1960, and appointed itself as the protector of Turkish secular nationalism.
Erbakan, who passed away recently at the age of 85, is largely credited with laying the roots of political Islam in Turkey. He was also one of the first modern Turkish leaders to seek serious economic integration with neighbouring Muslim countries.
Even though he was eventually pushed out of politics, Erbakan’s legacy continues. His students have become the leaders of a Turkey that is arguably at peace with itself.
Despite Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ’s immense popularity, the success of the Turkish model is clearly institutionalised, and not merely inspired by one charismatic individual. This sets Turkey apart from most countries in the Middle East.
And while the interface of the military in Turkish politics is progressively becoming a historical footnote, the AKP is looking beyond maintaining the balancing act of yesteryear. It is more focused on revamping the constitution, cementing civil liberties and continuing with the process of reforms.
This peaceful democratic transition must be juxtaposed with another alleged attempt at democratisation.
In 2005, former US president George W. Bush outlined his policies regarding the democratisation of the Middle East. He presented Iraqi and Afghani elections as his models. Foreign-occupied, politically fragmented, and economically devastated, the two Muslim countries were the least inspiring democratic models by any definition.
Turkey, largely governed by its own political diktats — and with a self-assured ‘zero problem with the neighbours’ policy (as expressed by its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu) — is distancing itself from the aggressive foreign policies of the US, and has rendered the Iraqi ‘model’ simply abhorrent.
“Few Egyptians or Tunisians appear to have much appetite for European or American sermons about the right way to build a democracy or market economy,” wrote Katinka Barysch, Deputy Director of the Centre for European Reform in YaleGlobal Online.
She argued that although “Turkey’s democracy is far from flawless” and “the political scene is deeply split,” it is “these very imperfections that might add to its appeal in the Muslim world.”
In fact, the growing appeal of the Turkish model owes some of its success to the failure of US foreign policies in the Middle East. Considering its waning influence in the region, the US is finding itself in the precarious position of having to accept the ascendency of a regional power, and to contend with the implications.
“Turkey’s rise signifies the emergence of modernist Islam, which seeks to balance the religion with the modern world,” wrote Frankie Martin for CNN, shortly after the ousting of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. He once more underlined the fact that “many Arabs are increasingly looking to their northern neighbor, Turkey…as a model of a modern, democratic and Islamic nation nurturing pluralist ideals.”
It will take Arab countries more than enthrallment with Turkey’s success to engender their own successful democracies. However, looking at Turkey for possible answers to current political crises will certainly prove much more rewarding than seeking answers from those who tailor democracy to serve their specific political agendas and military ambitions.
*Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.