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A specific amalgam 9 avril 2013

Posted by Acturca in Central Asia / Asie Centrale, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Telegraph (Calcutta, India) Tuesday, April 9, 2013, p. 10

Aloke Sen *

The Turkish model may not be transferable to other countries. In the discourse on the tumultuous socio-political developments in West Asia and North Africa of recent years — popularly labelled as the ‘Arab Spring’ — the term, ‘Turkish model’, was frequently heard. This model had previously been invoked in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union broke up, giving birth to five new states in Central Asia.

What was common between the two cases was that the concerned countries were in a state of flux in need of direction for their future course of action, and that they were all Muslim-majority countries. It was thought that the success story of Turkey — a fellow Muslim country — could be usefully held up as an example to be emulated by others for comparable benefits.

What is the Turkish model? It may be understood as an amalgam of certain desirable attributes of the Turkish state such as democracy, secularism, rule of law and market economics. It is no coincidence that these attributes are generally viewed as ‘Western’ in their origin and inspiration, especially the first two, and the promoters of the Turkish model have predominantly been Western leaders and policy-makers. In their reckoning, advertising Turkey’s positive example (and concomitant gains) to troubled Central Asian or Arab countries was to serve a dual purpose: to calm and defuse prevailing crisis situations in those countries, and, in due course, to draw them into the Western sphere of influence for strategic and commercial advantages. Turkey’s impressive economic success and rising regional leadership profile were thought to be reason enough for other Muslim countries to want to readily embrace the Turkish model.

It did not quite work out that way. The Central Asians accepted Turkey’s infusion of much-needed funds in the early years of their independence without any qualms and provided a large market, but refused to accept a new Big Brother (Turkey) in place of an old one (Russia). Also, in a clear case of ambition outpacing capacity, Turkey could not sustain the tempo of cash flow for long. The Arab Spring countries were a much more complicated lot in terms of their sectarian, ethnic and cultural diversities, and historical experiences. The model did not excite their leaders and intellectuals overmuch; perhaps the spectre of a neo-Ottoman Turkey weighed with them.

I personally doubt a Turkish model — the creation of circumstances specific to that country and decades of experimentation in social and economic re-engineering — could have been transplanted to another Muslim country without a context and expected to yield the same results. Turkey’s national experience was uniquely its own, and to that extent, not replicable at will for others.

For its Western proponents, the Turkish model’s chief merit and demonstration value lay in Turkey’s status of a secular and democratic country. But it was not always so. Ottoman Turkey’s imperial career lasted nearly 600 years, for 400 of which the Turkish Sultan also held the Caliphate, and in that capacity, was the de facto leader and representative of the Islamic world.

Secularism arrived in Turkey as a by-product of its post-independence nation-building process. At the birth of the Turkish Republic, the founding fathers, Kemal Atatürk foremost, while conscious of the positive role Islam could play in maintaining a traditional country’s social cohesion and stability — also saw the religion as a source of conservative influence, and thought people’s pre-occupation with it might lead to backwardness. They were seeking a clean break with the Ottoman past, temporal and spiritual, to forge a new, ‘modern’ Turkey, and were prepared to launch radical changes to achieve that goal. To them, ‘modern’ was synonymous with ‘Westernized’, and secularism — a Western ‘virtue’ — was seen as a necessary quality in their emerging state.

Atatürk and his colleagues embarked on a host of reforms to institute secularism in Turkey. The Caliphate, Islamic religious schools and sharia courts were abolished. A unified system of education under a non-religious ministry was introduced. A directorate of religious affairs was established to monitor and oversee the practice of religion. In 1926, the Swiss civil code was put into effect. Most tellingly, in 1928, the provision referring to Islam as the religion of the Turkish state was removed from the Constitution. Other changes included voting rights for women, the Latin alphabet replacing Arabic, banning of traditional and religious costumes, adoption of the Gregorian calendar and so on.

As was to be expected, there was resistance to the changes, but the opposition was overcome on the sheer strength of Atatürk’s larger-than-life personality and steely determination. It was a special moment in history. Turkey had been on the losing side in World War I and was being punished by the victorious powers in many different ways. Atatürk was fighting foreign predators, jettisoning the moth-eaten empire and saving the core homeland, at the same time re-moulding it beyond recognition. The means that Atatürk and his associates employed to give effect to their reforms were not always democratic.

The second key element of the Turkish model — democracy — appealed to the leaders because this too was a ‘Western’ concept that blended in well with their new Turkey project. But democracy was to have a chequered career in the country, punctuated by military coups, the execution of an ousted prime minister, periodic rise of political parties that would be labelled religious and suppressed by the elite of the Turkish state, mainly the armed forces and the judiciary.

The current ruling Justice and Development Party is a direct descendant of religious parties suppressed in the past. But when it won a decisive mandate in 2002 to form the government, it took care to position itself not as a religious, but more of a conservative, party, contemporary in policy and outlook. The JDP has now completed a decade in power, providing the most stable and purposeful government of recent times. Its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is popularly rated the most towering Turkish political leader, second only to Atatürk, though for critics at home, he remains a brash autocrat and the JDP, a closet Islamist party with a hidden agenda. But in all fairness, Erdogan’s government has not done anything till now that could justify that lurking suspicion. To the contrary, according to a noted Turkish academic, the JDP has behaved like a “liberal, democratic and pro-Western” post- Islamist movement.

Democracy practised by Erdogan’s government has had a strong external dimension. More than its predecessors, the JDP government has been a forceful advocate of Turkey’s membership in the European Union, a dream that remains as elusive as ever, and many of the sweeping reforms that the government has carried out during its decade in office are actually requirements of the EU membership candidature process, reforms that are necessary to make Turkey EU-compliant.

It would be interesting to speculate if the JDP government’s domestic and external conduct would have been any different had EU membership — however remote or unrealistic — not been on the table. Would Erdogan still have taken the calculated risks, putting his political career on the line, to push the bold reforms through? In other words, how important have the external influences been in introducing and then perpetuating democracy in Turkey?

To return to the applicability of the Turkish model elsewhere, I would argue that secularism and democracy were brought into Turkey in answer to specific political needs and in conditions and circumstances peculiar to the country. The wrenching loss of empire, arrival of Atatürk and his colleagues on the scene to steady the Turkish ship, the compelling need in the 1920s to adopt Western values and concepts, or much later, the tantalizing prospect of a seat at the table in the European club that triggered another wave of reforms were time- and country-specific. To that extent, the Turkish manual for nation-building may not be automatically transferable to other countries, nor does it need to be. Countries at a cross-roads today in West Asia or North Africa may find their own unique historical experiences and current needs and compulsions to be better determinants of their future.

* The author is India’s former ambassador to Turkey

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