A Model for the Arab World?
What Turkey Is Doing Differently
A great deal has been said and written lately about whether Turkey can be a model for the democratisation of the states in the Middle East. There have been two fundamental changes in Turkey that make this question a legitimate one. Firstly, since 2002 Turkey has been governed by a party that regards itself as conservative Muslim and has its roots in the political Islam of the last century, with a conspicuous proximity to the genesis of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the AKP – the Justice and Development Party – can also demonstrate a successful track record that is unique in the Muslim world. Within ten years it has succeeded in transforming an ailing economy into a flourishing one, with tangible consequences for the average person’s standard of living. The country is in the grip of a wave of modernisation that is affecting every area of life. On cultural issues, however, the AKP’s Muslim roots are still apparent. It caters to the conservative values of society with moderate measures embedded in democratic decision-making mechanisms. Thus, for example, the drinking of alcohol has not been banned, but it has been curtailed through high taxes and serving restrictions.
Suspicion of Islamification
Ever since it came to power, the AKP has been suspected of pursuing the Islamification of Turkish society. At the same time, however, it has managed to gather the liberal forces in the country behind it, those forces that envisage above all the democratisation of the country, the disempowerment of the military apparatus, and entry into the European Union. A coalition between liberal democrats and democratic Muslims is the key to the success of the AKP. Is it possible to imagine something similar happening in Arab societies?
Far too often a democracy is judged on the aspect of regular free and secret elections. But democracy is not only manifested at the ballot box. It needs a framework, established through laws, legal security, and the rule of law. This framework has a philosophical foundation that goes back to the values of the Enlightenment. Without the Enlightenment, which guarantees human rights and ensures freedom of expression and freedom of religion, there can be no democracy according the Western, and thus also according to the Turkish model.
For Muslims in Turkey, who have been organized in political parties since the end of the 1960s and who have been searching for many years to try and find an Islamic democratic tradition, have now abandoned this in favour of a Western-style democratic model. They have not done so because they have lost their faith, or because they no longer wish to aspire to an Islamic society. They have done it because they have gone through a process, of both thought and experience, in which it has become clear to them that without a secular foundation, i.e. the separation of matters of religion and matters of politics and public life, it is not possible to establish a democratic society.
This was a bitter pill to swallow, because every Muslim believes in the Koran as the guiding principle when it comes to how to live their life. But the Koran is no longer the guiding principle when laws are passed or abolished in Turkey. This initially sounds like a contradiction. Yet what happens when Muslims allow themselves to be guided by the Koran in their actions and behaviour, but do not speak publicly about this personal guidance, do not turn it into a matter of policy, but rather into a canon of values that determines their policy? This is precisely what many AKP politicians are doing, in particular their chairman, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, by no means all members of the AKP draw their inspiration from Koranic principles. For these principles – Turkish society has long since agreed on this – are only valid when they do not infringe on universal human rights, on human dignity, on the equality of men and women, on the freedom of religion, in short on that canon of values that was born of the Enlightenment and constitutes the foundation of all Western democracies.
This is the Turkish way, and it has been anything but easy. Although the country has formally had a multi-party system for sixty years and holds free elections, until just a few years ago Turkey was only a semi-democracy. This was ensured by a rigid justice system that had ideologically committed itself to laicisim and secured Turkey’s position as an outpost of NATO. What emerged was thus not a constitutional state but a state that perverted justice, whose main aim was to suppress unwelcome opinions. It was not Islam that swept this system away, but Turkey’s closer ties with the European Union, i.e. with a justice system that today unites all democratic societies. However, it is the Muslims in Turkey who must be thanked for paving the way – a path that does not lead back to the Golden Age of the Prophet but to the United Nations Charter of Fundamental Rights, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the salons of the Enlightenment and to freely-elected democratic parliaments.
Turkey’s success story undoubtedly put pressure on the neighbouring Arab regimes. In addition there was also a fundamental about-turn in Turkish foreign policy, which now no longer looked only to the West. Corrupt regimes that cannot even ensure the livelihood of their subjects are nothing more than slaveholders. And no people will allow itself to be enslaved in perpetuity.
Half a century ago, Egypt and Turkey were at about the same level of development. Their per capita incomes were almost identical, as was the size of their populations. Today, however, the comparison, for Egypt, is devastating. According to IMF figures, in 2010 Turkey’s per capita income was US $9890, while in Egypt it was US $2771. These days the two countries are worlds apart; the only area where they are still on the same level is size of population. Yet this distinct disparity has for the most part come about in the last ten years. This can only cause resentment in Egypt and throw up many questions for the authorities. But is the discontent that led to the Arab rebellions sufficient to set in motion a philosophical discussion that will shake the self-image of Muslim societies to its very foundations? Can the Turkish process of reform simply be adopted? Is this actually desirable? What forces and people involved in the democracy movement use Turkey as a point of reference?
The magic words: ‘good governance’
When, in Cairo recently, the Turkish prime minister praised as a blessing the separation of state and faith, the path to a secular society, the response was for the most part a mixture of astonishment and rejection of his remarks. But with Erdoğan you don’t just get the brave campaigner for political justice, the spokesman against Israeli policy, the man in the region who defies the West. The popular politician Erdoğan is only available as a total package. That means bidding farewell to the slogans of Islamism, to simple answers like ‘the Koran is the solution to every problem’. It means orientating oneself much more towards a complex world with many challenges that are waiting for rational and practical solutions. This requires the ideological cloak of religion to be cast aside. And yet Turkish politicians are not travelling around the world enlightening people. Their priority is to open up new trade routes and win new trading partners. That too is the result of the secular democratisation of a society. A politician is not judged by how often he prays but by how he manages the economy. ‘Good governance’ is the magic word, which is equally capable of assimilating Islamic principles such as fair and transparent rule and the maxims of a free but also social market economy.
At the same time, civil society with a Muslim character is considerably more conservative than that of contemporary Western societies. Families in Turkey, for example, are still organised differently to those in the majority of European countries. Almost 93% of the population live in a family environment. In the majority of cases, there is close contact across three generations. But this conservative stance in daily life is simply a proposition with regard to an individual’s way of life, not one that is decreed for the entire society, and certainly not one that is forced on people by laws and binding rules. Tradition as a voluntary agreement can be incorporated in modern daily life like a piece of a jigsaw. Bu tradition as a sacred inheritance, if elevated above the everyday, usually shatters on the realities of the modern, globalised world. It leaves behind split personalities who plunge into a hopeless cultural struggle.
It is scarcely possible to implement liberalisation and democratisation in Islamic countries without intensive intellectual accompaniment. From today’s point of view, Arab states, with the possible exception of Tunisia, seem to be very far from going down the same path of mediation followed by Turkey. In Tunisia the Islamic Ennahda Party has openly committed itself to the same path as the AKP in Turkey. In the first free elections it came out on top and looked for allies in the secular camp. Elsewhere, however, far too many people still have their heads full of the sharia, which they understand to be the transposition of Koranic legal principles into the world of today, with no exceptions. This is a strange distortion of history that can hardly be expected to be successful. Previously, numerous reforms were implemented in the Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth century and secular laws passed, which is why Sultan Suleiman (1494-1566) is known not only as ‘The Magnificent’ but also as ‘Kanuni’, the Lawgiver. Egypt too, in its recent history in the second half of the nineteenth century, has had numerous experiences of reform and has also produced important religious reformers such as Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Already at that time the focus was on re-examining the Muslim sources and interpreting them afresh for the present day. It was about overcoming the systematic imitation of archaic theological positions that had led to a paralysis of thought in the Islamic world. But all these past experiences today lie buried beneath the rubble of years of despotism and corrupt rule, which have made no philosophical efforts whatsoever to explain the world anew. Any such efforts were nipped in the bud. Despotism thrives on intellectual paralysis.
So the question of whether Turkey can today serve as a model in the construction of Arab democracies depends above all on how the reasons for the success of the Turkish way are comprehended, in all their diversity and complexity. The outward appearance of the Turkish success, its economic success, could prove deceptive if the Muslim identity of those in government in Turkey is seen as the sole reason for this success. But the internal attitude, along the lines of ‘we are all Muslims and that unites us’, is essentially a distraction from the real challenge, namely: how a Muslim society can get to grips with the present in a globalised world by adopting a democratic system.In this the youth in the Arab countries will play a key role. During my visit to Egypt as a guest at the 2006 Cairo Book Fair one could already observe a productive unrest among the young people. At all the events the hunger for debate was perceptible – and so was the desire for a change in the political conditions. The questions came thick and fast. Back then they were already curious about the situation in Turkey, especially about the changes that had taken place in so short a time. Perhaps these young people’s desire for reform can sweep away the outmoded prescriptions and clear the way for free, open societies in which the people are better able to develop, feed and educate themselves. For young people are in the majority both in the Arab countries and in Turkey. And they are the masters of modern methods of communication, which are very difficult to control. They are capable of whipping up a dynamic energy that we on the old continent of Europe cannot even begin to imagine.
is a Turkish-German writer. He lives in Berlin. His most recent publication is the book Deutschsein. Eine Aufklärungsschrift [Being German: An Information Pamphlet] (Edition Körber Stiftung, Hamburg, 2011).
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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