Turkey’s experience over the past decade under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government – blending democracy and Islamism, close ties with Washington and a neo-Ottoman foreign policy – has been cited as a potential model for transitional states emerging from the “Arab Spring.” But the “Turkish model” is not replicable across the region, says analyst Soner Cagaptay. Ankara should instead ensure that its new constitution embraces the principles of liberal democracy and establish its own assistance foundations - Turkish Stiftungen – to advance democratic institutions and ideas.
In the past decade, Turkey has experienced a dramatic transformation under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has moved the country away from the trend toward Westernization begun in the late eighteenth century under the Ottoman sultans and reinforced by several decades of secularism in the name of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Since coming to power in 2002, the Islamist AKP has reversed statutes mandating the strict separation of religion, government, and education.
Turkey’s Islamization, however, has been moderated by the country’s existing orientation. Even the AKP and its Islamist partners cannot escape Western realities such as the role of women in society and Turkey’s NATO membership, not to mention forces in the global economy pulling Turkey westward.
And recent events have pulled Turkey back toward the West, despite the AKP’s ideological vision. Particularly since the Arab Spring began in early 2011, regional instability has made Turkey’s access to NATO a valuable commodity.
A new constitution would allow Turkey to serve as a model for countries experiencing the Arab Spring, thereby burnishing its status as a regional power. Only by embracing the principles of liberal democracy—for instance, by drafting a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech broadly defined, equal political rights for Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as full gender equality—can Ankara promote itself as a source of inspiration for its Arab and Muslim-majority neighbors, at least in the eyes of the West. If, on the other hand, Ankara mobilizes against any sign of pluralism that could challenge its will, even if the government is democratically elected, it could well make itself attractive to Islamist circles ascending to power in the Arab world. Such a development would likely make Ankara’s Western partners reluctant to support Ankara as a model for countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.
Whether Turkey can be a model for other Muslim-majority countries, particularly those affected by the Arab Spring, is a question of great interest for policymakers. A first response, one almost always overlooked, involves Turkey’s relatively deep, sixty-year experience with democracy. Today’s mix of Islamism with democracy takes place within that context.
This is not the case for Arab societies, which anyway are profoundly different from Turkey. Most Arab countries are either still authoritarian or newly and shakily democratic.
Difficulties aside, the Turkish democratic model as applied to Muslim-majority states has been embraced by many commentators, such as U.S.-based Vali Nasr, a leading scholar on Middle East politics. In his 2009 Forces of Fortune, Nasr delivers a sweeping tour of the rising bourgeois classes across the Muslim world. From the shopping malls of Dubai to the streets of Southeast Asia, Nasr shows how capitalism and Islam are coming together to constitute a new force in global politics. According to Nasr, the implications of these commercial transformations are profound, including a more tolerant, liberal politics spurred by the growth of the middle class.
According to Nasr, the Turks have “championed the most hopeful model in the region for both economic development and the liberalization of politics.” Nasr gives a convincing account of how the Muslim middle classes have the potential to liberate societies from the death grip of autocracy (admittedly, his analysis predated the onset of the Arab Spring), without abandoning them to the tyranny of fundamentalism. But does this mean that Turkey’s model of Muslim democracy is a recipe for liberal success? Not so fast.
AKP leaders are unambiguous that Turkey deserves nothing less than democracy writ large. AKP election pledges tout “advanced democracy” as the finish line for Turkey, a goal that denotes the highest standards in human rights, democratization, and civil society conditions. Yet one would have reason to doubt the AKP’s rhetoric as well as its true commitment to this path.
By many measures, Turkey’s course over the past decade has not represented a straight shot toward liberal democracy—and, on some counts, the ball has been moved backward. To begin with, even as Turkey’s Muslim bourgeoisie have moved up the income ladder and Islam has entered the mainstream, the government’s treatment of the press has not improved. Based on an analysis from Reporters Without Borders, Turkey’s economic boom has seen a corresponding drop in press freedom, with the country’s international ranking falling from 99 in 2002 to 148 in 2011. On the matter of overall political conditions, Freedom House has ranked Turkey as only “partly free” for the better part of the past decade.
On gender equality, Turkey’s economic success has not translated into the advances one might have imagined. Overall, Turkey is still far from a model to be emulated when it comes to women’s empowerment. Not counting agricultural workers, as of 2012, only 22 percent of Turkey’s women participate in the labor force, a rise of only four percentage points from 1988. In 2012, Turkey was ranked sixty-fifth internationally on the Economist’s Women’s Opportunity Economic Index, a composite measure of women’s access to education, workplace opportunity, finance, and legal rights.
In seeking a paradigm for Turkey’s role in the Arab world, we might look to Germany in Portugal following the Carnation Revolution of April 1974, which toppled Portugal’s forty-eight-year dictatorship. The rebellion was led by a group of army officers, joined by the underground communist movement and the masses, and the regime’s fall was surprisingly swift. Portugal—then riddled by poverty, illiteracy, and a legacy of authoritarianism—found itself at a crossroads: military rule or communist takeover. Neither happened. Thanks to the often-unmentioned efforts by Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) government and the Stiftungen (NGOs linked to Germany’s political parties) to build centrist forces in Lisbon, the unexpected occurred: Portugal became a flourishing liberal democracy, later joining the European Union.
In many ways, Portugal in the 1970s parallels today’s Arab societies. The coastal nation lacked deep democratic traditions or a sizable middle class. The communist movement, which can be likened to the Islamists in today’s Arab states, was powerful and seemed poised to commandeer the revolution, while the military—which had taken charge following the revolution—seemed at a loss.
For its part, Germany’s SPD of the 1970s was the first elected social democratic government in Bonn, and therefore had particular credibility in offering social democracy as a legitimate alternative to communism in Lisbon. And it did so quite deliberately. The SPD helped found the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS), a social democratic movement that called for a democratic Portugal and the defeat of the communists’ efforts to take power.
The German Stiftungen, too, performed a valuable function. The SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Stiftungen (FES) alone donated 10 to 15 million German marks to train PS campaign workers and fund travel for its leaders, using discreet Swiss bank accounts to facilitate money transfers. The range of Stiftungen, which had connections to liberal and conservative German parties alike, built counterparts in Portugal as well.
The AKP, echoing the SPD in Germany, is Ankara’s first Islamist-rooted and democratically elected party and is therefore well positioned to propose alternatives to radical Islamism in Arab states. Yet if Ankara wishes to play a role similar to Germany, it cannot be expected to do so alone. Just as Bonn received financial and political assistance from the United States and other democracies in building Portuguese democracy, Turkey would benefit from support from the West as well as other Muslim-majority democracies, such as Indonesia, especially in creating “Turkish Stiftungen,” the missing part of the Germany-Turkey parallel.
Given that Turkey ruled the Arab Middle East until World War I, it must now be mindful of the effect of its messages. Arabs might be drawn to fellow Muslims, but the Turks are also former imperial masters. And as the Arabs themselves press for democracy, intervention by a nation appearing to behave like a new imperial power will backfire. Arab liberals and Islamists alike regularly suggest that Turkey is welcome in the Middle East but should not dominate it.
Then there are the various problems associated with transferring the Turkish model to Arab countries. In September 2011, when Erdogan landed at Cairo’s new airport terminal (built by Turkish companies), he was met by joyous millions, mobilized by the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he soon upset his pious hosts by preaching about the importance of a secular government that provides freedom of religion, using the Turkish word laiklik—derived from the French word for secularism and translating, in Arabic, to “irreligious.” Erdogan’s message may have been partly lost in translation, but the incident illustrates the limits of Turkey’s influence in more socially conservative countries.
What is more, Ankara faces domestic challenges that could hamper its influence in countries affected by the Arab Spring. If Turkey wants to become a true beacon of democracy in the Middle East, for example, the new constitution under discussion must provide broader individual rights for the country’s citizens and lift curbs on freedoms, such as those on the media. Turkey will also need to fulfill Davutoglu’s vision of a “no problems” foreign policy—with the neighbors, in this instance, including Israel. This means moving past the 2010 flotilla episode to rebuild strong ties with the Jewish state and learning to get along with the Greek Cypriots.
Turkey’s relative stability at a time when the region is in upheaval is attracting investment from less stable neighbors like Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Ultimately, political stability and regional clout are Turkey’s hard cash, and its economic growth will depend on both.
Turkey will rise as a regional power as well as play a role in the Arab uprising only if it sets a genuine example as a liberal democracy and uses a deft and strategic hand when sharing its knowledge and experience with Arab countries.
Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.
This extract is taken from a longer report, The New Turkey and U.S. Policy. RTWT