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A Turkish model of governance for the Arabs? Yes and no 7 février 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Daily Star (Lebanon) February 07, 2012, p. 7

By Mustafa Akyol *

Is Turkey indeed a model for the new Arab regimes? Yes and no. Here’s why. The negative first. No, Turkey is not a model for Arab states, for every country has its own history, culture and political structure, which cannot be replicated. Turkey’s political history is quite different from that of the Arabs – with a more definitive Ottoman legacy, continuous independence, a secular republic, NATO membership, and a European Union membership process (which is not very promising, yet still important). All make the modern Turkish experience somewhat “exceptional.”

Furthermore, Turkey’s exceptional history has a very dark side, which should not be a model for anybody. From the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in 1915 to the enforced “Turkification” of Kurds, 20th-century Turkey is full of gruesome episodes. The country also has seen four military coups in which elected politicians were executed or imprisoned. Until very recently, Turkish “security forces” were masters of torture and summary executions.

However, there is a crucial detail here that often goes unnoticed: Turkey’s “dark side” emerged less from the Turks’ traditional religious values and more from the “modern” ones replacing them. The Armenians, for example, had lived side by side with Ottoman Muslims for some six centuries until the rise of modern nationalism. Similarly, no one in the Ottoman Empire ever suggested that Kurds were actually “mountain Turks” whose true identity should be restored via cultural assimilation.

The Ottoman state had its own brutality, too, but its political system was much more pluralistic when compared to the modern Turkish Republic. One-third of the Ottoman parliament, for example, consisted of non-Muslims – Greeks, Armenians or Jews. Throughout the nine decades of the modern Turkish parliament, the total number of non-Muslim deputies has been less than a dozen.

The reason is that this specific Turkish modernity corresponded to what would be called in the West “the dark side of the Enlightenment,” which produced militant forms of nationalism, including fascism, and an illiberal secularism that suppressed traditional religion. The bright side of the Enlightenment – liberal democracy – was the less traveled Turkish road. Therefore, if Turkey can ever become a good “model” for other Muslim nations, it can do so only by synthesizing the bright side of the Enlightenment – liberal democracy – with its traditional religious values.

When we look at Turkish history, we see that this synthesis was party realized not by the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his followers, but by their rivals: the Democrat Party of Adnan Menderes (1950-1960), the Motherland Party of Turgut Ozal (1983-1993), and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (since 2002). All these political movements emphasized economic development, democratic politics, and respect for traditional religion.

The latest party in this chain, the AKP, is also the most interesting, for its founders such as Erdogan and Abdullah Gul came from the Islamist line in Turkish politics, but gradually moved toward the center-right. They embraced democratic rule, individual freedom, free-market capitalism, even the secular state, as long as secularism includes religious freedom. The AKP emerged as the most notable “post-Islamist” party in the Muslim world, and its economic and political success has captured the attention of other Muslims.

Post-Islamism does not imply detachment from Muslim identity, including sensitivity to global “Muslim issues” such as the Palestinian cause. But the AKP has combined its strongly pro-Palestinian stance with peaceful support for a two-state solution and rejection of anti-Semitism. It has also combined its continuing alliance with the West with a growing tone of independence, making the former more respectable in Middle Eastern eyes.

This has made the AKP a “model,” or at least a source of inspiration, for more progressive Arab Islamist parties that have emerged victorious from the Arab Spring, some of which, such as Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, have explicitly acknowledged this fact. Therefore, instead of speaking of a “Turkish model” for the Arabs, it is more accurate to speak of an “AKP model” for progressive Arab Islamists.

The AKP is criticized in Turkey these days for turning increasingly authoritarian. Not all but most of this criticism is relevant. Yet this has little to do with Islamism within the party. As I recently wrote, “AKP is too Turkish – not too Islamic.” In other words, its authoritarian tendencies emerge from the usual problems of Turkish politics, which existed in previous center-right parties as well.

The AKP should come to its senses and curb its temptation to unlimited power if it wants to remain a model for would-be liberal Islamists. Meanwhile, its transformation to post-Islamism remains genuine and meaningful for the Arab Islamists, who are entering an age of power with which they have little experience.

* Mustafa Akyol is a journalist and author of “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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