Almost 80 percent of survey respondents in the Middle East had a favorable view of Turkey, and three out of five consider it a model for a modern Islamic state, according to a recent survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), a non-governmental think-tank.
The survey confirms earlier poll findings that Turkey has emerged as the biggest winner – at least in terms of soft power – from the Arab Spring. But a transatlantic spat between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and acclaimed New York-based novelist Paul Auster (left) is drawing renewed attention to Turkey’s credibility as a model of democracy for the Arab world.
Erdogan took exception when Auster highlighted constraints on freedom of expression in Turkey and declined to visit the country so long as so many journalists and writers remain in prison:
“Supposedly Israel is a democratic country, a secular country, a country of limitless freedom of expression, individual freedoms and human rights. What an ignorant man you are … Israel is a real theocracy,” Erdogan said. “Didn’t [Israel] shower Gaza with bombs? Didn’t [Israel] launch phosphorus bombs and use chemical weapons?”
Auster quickly shot back: “Whatever the Prime Minister might think about the state of Israel, the fact is that free speech exists there and no writers or journalists are in jail.”
At least 70 journalists and writers have been jailed under Erdogan, according to rights groups and media watchdogs. Turkey is 148th out of 179 countries on the press freedom index of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders – slightly ahead of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but behind Morocco (138), Jordan (128) and Lebanon (93).
“You are all liars,” celebrated writer Mehmet Ali Birand wrote this week. “I’m talking about you: politicians in power, business circles, military, members of the judiciary.”
“You credit those who protect your interests as ‘good journalists,’ but drag through the mud those who have contrary views. And then you dare to talk about freedom in this country.”
A recent attack by Erdogan on a visiting delegation from a German democracy assistance groups also raised eyebrows.
But the AK party leader’s illiberal side is less of a reflection of his Islamist politics than Turkey’s accommodation with modernity, writes Mustafa Akyol, a journalist and author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.
“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,” he argues.
“The 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.
The ruling AK party is using the notorious Ergenekon conspiracy to launch a broad-brush offensive against its critics, writes Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party.
Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But independent analysts share his anxiety.
“Many in Washington have been debating whether Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) could be a model for the Arab Spring , as our neighbors in the Middle East aspire to get rid of totalitarian regimes and become true democracies,” writes Turkish researcher E. P. Licursi. “But the reality in Turkey makes clear that the AKP model does not hold.”
While some observers were initially prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt over the Ergenekon affair, the arrest of two renowned journalists, Nedim ?ener and Ahmet ??k “confirmed that the AKP was targeting its most serious and effective critics” under cover of the investigation.
“Overseas, we are well aware of these shortcomings in democracy,” says foreign policy expert Sinan Ulgen “but Erdogan’s regime keeps on feeding the imagination because compared to political systems in Iran or Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s is preferable.”
The country remains a model for emulation for having “reconciled two dynamics: economic growth and a democratic system put in place by an Islamist-derived party,” he says.
The neo-Ottomanism forged by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been cited as another source of AKP authoritarianism, as the country distanced itself from Europe and the democratic West. But the Arab Spring has put paid to Davutoglu’s notion of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors and forced a reorientation to the West.
“You can argue that the ‘Arab Spring’ has forced Turkey to reinforce its ties to the West because those are the only stable ones. It’s a question of stability versus instability,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey analyst at Lehigh University in the United States. “One thing you can say about the West: It is what it is. It’s not going to change.”
Turkey’s vibrant civil society also has a role to play in defending and extending democratic space. The Freedom of Expression Association, for instance, seeks to enhance the role of civil society in the legislative process through public platforms for dialogue with parliamentarians, including 41 small provincial assemblies in which citizens discuss relevant issues in monthly town hall meetings.
The AKP’s progress in democratizing Turkey and subjecting the military to civilian control is “indisputable,” Licursi writes in a Freedom House blog post on the Ergenekon case and Turkey’s democratic aspirations, but there is much still to be accomplished:
The articles in the penal code that restrict freedom of expression should be removed, the antiterrorism laws should be narrowed in scope, and the judiciary must be reformed to allow for due process and eliminate improper detention. In short, the AKP should use its popular mandate not to marginalize its opposition and attack dissidents, but to implement positive legal and institutional reforms. Far from fettering its stated agenda or diminishing its public support, this would empower the government’s international ambitions, both in Europe and the Middle East.