The Turkish Model

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, March 24, 2011

Considering the current upheaval in the Arab world, some optimists foresee the possibility of Islamic parties coming to power by democratic means and the consequent emergence of Turkish-style political systems. In Egypt, indeed, a March 19 plebiscite approved amending the constitution in a way that will strengthen the electoral prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood. But how firm is Turkey's own commitment to democratic principles? That may only begin to clarify itself after elections in that country on June 12.

At the moment, polls predict that the ruling Islamic AKP (Justice and Development party) under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will easily achieve its third consecutive victory. Its strongest challenger, the centrist CHP (Republican People's party), which carries the secularist mantle of Kemal Ataturk, is expected to garner no more than 20 percent of the vote. Customarily, the Turkish army served as the (self-interested) guarantor of Ataturk's path, but one of the paradoxes of Turkey's democratization, along with the increasing religious parochialism of the government, has been a delegitimation of the army's traditional role.

Meanwhile, the AKP's go-slow, Islam-friendly, conservative approach has begged the question of the party's ultimate destination. Deftly reworking the ideas of the late Necmettin Erbakan, who trailblazed non-violent Islamist participation in Turkish politics, the AKP has broken with his anti-free-market principles—by, for instance, favoring accession to the EU—and modulated his anti-Western though not his anti-Zionist line. At the same time, Turkey's constitution has been amended to weaken the independence of the secular judiciary; the party's latest platform pledges to amend it again in a move that could further entrench Islamist control.

At a recent conference in Jerusalem, Ümit Cizre of Istanbul University made light of concerns that the AKP has a hidden Islamist agenda or intends to introduce sharia law. Instead, even as she characterized the AKP as having "deliberately" positioned itself "ambiguously" on the political spectrum, Cizre criticized Turkey's secularists for harping on the Islamist threat without presenting a coherent political platform of their own.

Why indeed is the secular camp so weak? For one thing, old-style, hard-line secularism has simply gone out of fashion. For another, secularists have been blamed for mismanaging the state when they were in charge. For yet another, the AKP's moderate tone has made it difficult to mobilize non-Islamists, and the task has not been made easier by the ideological and personal differences that have riven the secularist camp. Last but not least, secularists have been undermined by the so-called Ergenekon affair, involving the alleged exposure by the government of a vast plot by the military and its media allies to overthrow the regime.     

Most importantly, no one disputes that, with the rise of a new class of Islamic business elites, the AKP has helped make Turkey a success story. Unparalleled political stability has contributed to the economic boom; per-capita GDP is up to $10,000 compared to $3,000 at the start of the decade. If Turkey didn't need to import 95 percent of its energy needs, the Turkish economy, now the world's 15th largest, would be stronger still.

In foreign affairs, the new Turkey is acting the part of a regional power with grand aspirations. Although its recent hosting of an alternative "political" Davos in Istanbul was a complete flop (thanks in part to the Arab unrest), Erdoğan's maneuvering on a variety of foreign fronts has hardly abated. On the one hand, his Islamic assertiveness has led him to accuse Germany of pushing its 3.5-million-strong Turkish minority too hard toward acculturating into their adopted country. On the other hand, with the countries on its borders, including Iran, Syria, and Iraq, Ankara has pursued what it professes to call a "zero problems" policy.

Sure enough, there has been a substantial increase in trade and high-level exchange visits with Iran, and the two countries also cooperate against the Kurds. Nevertheless, the geo-strategic rivalry between Iran and Turkey is undeniable. The Turks clearly see a nuclear-armed Iran as destabilizing. While Ankara was once on the brink of war with Damascus, it now helps train the Syrian military in a transparent bid to woo the country away from Tehran. As for Iraq, Turkey is now its number-one trading partner; if Iran wants a weak Iraq, Turkey prefers it to remain unified and stable.

And then there is Israel. Turkey's distancing from the Jewish state is exemplified by Erdoğan's periodically staged outbursts against it and by the sharp deterioration of bilateral relations in all fields except trade. This is now a well-established feature of Ankara's foreign policy. Although Turkey may claim that its warmth toward Hamas and its instigation of the Gaza flotilla crisis is intended to promote peace, such atatements are, to say the least, difficult to reconcile with the kind of anti-Semitic sentiments that have helped propelled such despicable Turkish films as Valley of the Wolves into blockbusters. So far, Ankara has had nothing to say about Hamas's recently intensified bombardment of Israel.

At home, Turkey is still a free country where one can see a television series about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent that jars Islamic sensibilities—but not without a warning from regulators at the Radio and Television Supreme Council. Freedom of the press is mostly unfettered, but secular voices have been increasingly targeted.  Some media figures have been arrested in connection with the Ergenekon affair, and one journalist critical of the regime was murdered in 2007 under suspicious circumstances. Although the AKP has not so much as hinted at imposing sharia law, the authority that oversees religious affairs has come under greater government control and exhibits signs of moving in a more traditionalist direction.

So is the Turkish model a paradigm for democratic rule in Muslim-majority countries? The jury is still out, but the evidence is not encouraging. In advance of Turkey's elections, the one certainty, in the words of the Turkey-sympathetic Economist, is that Erdoğan "is getting bossier and less tolerant by the day."

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.