Turkey a model for Islamic world insofar as it changes
28 February 2011, Monday / TALİP KÜÇÜKCAN*,
The Sept. 12, 2010 referendum was part of the ongoing struggle between those who support the status quo and those who support change in Turkey.
Public demands for structural change in North Africa and the Middle East has brought Turkey to the global stage within a new context. The course of developments in Muslim countries and the direction the Middle East in particular will pursue is the most important item on the international agenda.
Politicians and academics who discuss the topic in local and foreign media frequently mention Turkey as well. Questions like whether Turkey can serve as a model and be a source of inspiration for political and social change are asked. What experience does Turkey have? Which fields does it have the potential to impact? Can it contribute to change and transformation? How do the West and the Muslim world feel about Turkey’s role in the region? These are enlightening questions that Turkey should answer.
The Muslim world is not homogenous
The Muslim world encompasses a wide region. There are 57 Muslim countries that are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Islam is a religion that has spread to almost every part of the world and has more than 1 billion followers.
“Muslim society” is a broadly pluralistic one, but from the outside Muslims are perceived as homogenous. In light of historical experience and current facts, we can say there are different Islamic countries and different Islamic experiences spread across a broad region, from the Balkans to the Far East, from the Caucasus to Africa. When making an assessment about the Muslim world’s demand and quest for change, it is vital to keep this diversity in mind to avoid the mistake of undermining the demands, and to not produce a new Orientalist discourse.
The Muslim world can be divided into two general sections: countries that have experienced colonization and still suffer from its effects and countries that have not experienced colonization and can build their own futures. Islamic countries that suffered from colonialism faced big challenges during the establishment of their nation-state and when they declared their independence many failed to overcome crises in establishing an administration based on public support and the national will.
It would be better to evaluate the events in Tunisia and Egypt in light of these historical experiences. Meanwhile, Turkey, which has not gone through such an experience, has managed to become a pivotal country in terms of consolidating civilian power, abolishing military tutelage, expanding religious freedoms, improving the economy and adopting a successful foreign policy despite a grueling journey towards democracy.
Several states were founded in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. When declaring their independence from colonialists and setting up their nation-states, they applied different models. Different models ranging from socialism to an Islamic state model, which aroused controversy, were tested, but the legitimacy problem lingered. Turkey stands out at this point because of its experience in institutionalizing political participation by adopting a multi-party system and in representing the public will in the legislative and executive branches, in other words in giving sovereignty to the people.
Turkey is a country that is able to understand the developments in the world better than most countries in the Muslim world. Other countries lagged behind in taking the initiatives that were taken in Turkey during the period of late Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and late President Turgut Özal, and accelerated during the term of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (Such initiatives include improvements in education and freedom of thought and expression, diversity of the media, the downsizing of government, the rise of new economic classes, the construction of a social state and the establishment of a balance between democracy and security.)
These experiences in Turkey encouraged and empowered those demanding change in the Middle East, albeit implicitly. With the end of taking control of their futures, people have started demanding civilian administrations that rely on public will instead of one-man rules that last for many years. The very existence of Turkey played an empowering role in the change process underway in the region.
New Turkey breaking stereotypes of Orientalism
The Western perception of the Islamic world has always been problematic. It has been dominated by a very homogeneous essentialist approach and Orientalism has conceptualized and reinforced this point of view. The West started to reproduce biases and rigid views about Islam particularly after the 9/11 attacks.
By constantly mentioning Islam and security issues together, the perception of Islam as a threat was created. The relationship that was established between Islam and radicalism made Islam seem like a threat and ultimately resulted in the occupation of some Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It was due to these security concerns that the demands of the Islamic world for change were ignored.
Their demands for political participation and wealth were suppressed on the grounds that they would bring radicals to the power. It is for this reason that concerns about radical and extremist groups coming to power in place of the current authoritarian regimes were highlighted during the developments in Tunisia and Egypt.
Of course it is important to keep the masses separate from government administrations when speaking about Muslim countries. The people that are responsible for the negative views and stereotypes about the Muslim world today are not necessarily the general public in these Muslim countries but rather the political administration and movements that claim to be representing them.
For example, in countries where there are human rights violations, religion, in other words Islam, is instantly blamed for them. In this respect, Turkey’s experience breaks these stereotypes; it affirms that a conservative party and its political cadre, which came to power in 2002, believes in democracy, and it shows the efforts of a predominantly Muslim country to integrate with the world and especially the EU. In other words, it shows that the basis of the political structure is not shaped according to religious beliefs and values but rather according to concepts like democracy, human rights, expansion of civilian control, transparency, and accountability. It is natural for this success story to serve as inspiration for the Muslim world. However, Turkey needs to accelerate efforts to make further progress -- in other words to improve the rule of law and democracy. It will be a new Turkey that will serve as inspiration for the Muslim world and set an example.
An example-setting New Turkey
Turkey has not been able to fully resolve its problems and confront its history. For example it has yet to resolve problems that disrupt the status quo such as religious freedom and the Kurdish issue. But with the transition to multi-party system, a process of normalization began. This process was occasionally stopped due to military interventions. Important steps were taken to address these problems.
The political institution sometimes undertook serious endeavors to address them and other times turned a blind eye. We can say that it is relatively easier for Turkey, compared to other Muslim countries, to confront its problems. That is because in Turkey social demands are represented in politics. In countries where public participation in political affairs is limited and where the public will is not sufficiently represented in parliament, it becomes more painstaking and quite difficult to face and settle problems regarding issues like religion and democracy, religion and secularism and religious freedoms.
In Turkey, there is still a struggle going on between those who support the status quo and those who support change. On the one hand, there is a political attitude that is inclined to rely on military interventions, and even criticizes the army for not intervening in politics, and on the other hand a political mentality that, in contrast to the single-party period’s aim of creating a static political system, wants to establish a pluralistic legal and democratic system that is void of tutelage. The experience that holds meaning for both the Muslim world and the West is not the single-party period and the period in which coups and tutelage were defended, but the New Turkey experience that began during Özal’s administration and became more pronounced after 2002.
It isn’t a state-centric Turkey that is interested in maintaining the single-party era ideology that influences the Muslim world; rather, it is the New Turkey, which can bravely confront its problems, tackle long-standing problems, listen to the public will, respect beliefs and values and does not see demands for democracy as a threat.
*Talip Küçükcan is the director of Marmara University Middle East Research Institute.