The Turkish political model is unique and enviable to its troubled regional neighbors. Last month Turkey continued to set itself apart from its Arab neighbors as well as its central and southeast Asian brethren with another open, peaceful, pluralistic election strapped under its belt. The Turkish form of government grows exponentially in strength with each successful election and reduced threat of military intervention. But as a strictly followed playbook, it is a poor fit for the Arab world that has been thrown into turmoil by the Jasmine Revolution.
Turkey is possibly the world’s most politically stable Islamic country that has a pluralist secular democracy. And after decades of military interventions into the political sphere, Turkey appears to be turning a corner, as the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) won a third consecutive election with support from roughly 50 percent of the electorate.
Combined with a growing economy, a stable banking sector, a successful privatization program over the past several years, and increasing prominence in both NATO and the G-20, many have suggested the Turkish governance structure could be a model for Arab nations that are attempting to throw off decades of rule by the few to embrace democratic and liberalized reforms.
On first blush the idea is reasonable. Turkey shares many similar characteristics to Arab nations that are embroiled today in turmoil: it is predominantly Muslim, has a history of militaristic intervention in the political sphere, and has an affinity for strong leaders, such as Mubarak, Nasser, Qaddafi, Assad, and, naturally, Atatürk.
But if you dig further into understanding the Turkish model, it becomes clear that the nation’s unique secularism makes replication for any other country nearly impossible. The brilliance of the Turkish model is its ability to blend political Islam and a democratic government into a cohesive societal structure.
The model finds its roots in the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He ensured the separation of mosque and state by abolishing Islamic law and making secular western-style reforms that paved the way for a secular government to flourish. Today, the ruling AK Party caries Atatürk’s vision of embracing Islam in society as a cultural identity but keeps it at arms length when setting public policy. The AK Party has spent the past 10 years working towards more economic and political freedoms, dramatically lowering Turkey’s inflation rate, giving political rights to the Kurds, selling state enterprises, leading it into the top 15 economies globally, and dramatically improving relations with neighboring countries.
The model is not without its challenges. It requires a constant tension between French-styled secularism, and the need to encourage freedom of religion expression. This is most profoundly played out in the public square through the debate over whether women should be allowed to cover their heads when entering public buildings.
The nature of the headscarf debate, however, is why Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria can’t perfectly replicate the Turkish model. Turkey’s uniqueness lies in its secularized view of Islam.
Ninety-nine percent of the population is Muslim, yet the definition of being a Muslim is different in Turkey than other Middle Eastern countries. The main difference is that the Turkish government separates state and religion. They do not impose Shari’a law or allow political parties that seek to impose Islamic rules on the state. In contrast, Egypt names Islam as the state religion and claims Shari’a as the framework for its laws.
Given Turkey’s primarily Muslim population there has long been a fear that Islamist leaning parties would undermine the state’s secular foundations. The military initiated four coups between 1960 and 1997 to stem what it viewed as rise of political Islam (not to mention the failed e-coup of 2007). The last of the coups was actually conducted through a memorandum that subsequently banned the ruling Welfare Party and dissolved the ruling coalition government. The secular leaning court system has struck down a number of political parties it viewed as outside the vision Atatürk set out for the country, and it ruled that the Welfare Party should be banned “because of its actions against the principles of the secular republic.”
Today’s AK Party is an outgrowth of the vanquished Welfare Party, and has faced judicial challenges of its own due to its leaders’ inclinations towards Islam. However, outspoken Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan has said time and again his party has no desire to implement Shari’a law or introduce political Islam into the government. Instead his party has pushed for more religious freedom, such as their push to end the ban on headscarves, as a part of an individual rights program meant to support Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union.
If Turkey were to end the ban on headscarves it might make their political model a bit more compatible with Arab nations in revolt, as most Middle Eastern countries highly esteem the hijab. For example in 2007 in Iran, the police began cracking down on women who were becoming lax about their dress. The police stopped pedestrians and cars warning them to wear the hijab and arrested them if they argued back. But there remain other differences.
Perhaps Turkey’s most unique identifier is their geographical position. Turkey is at the crossroads between Europe and Asia making them an inherently strategic country. This is seen in Istanbul where the Bosporus strait connects Europe on the western side and Asia on the eastern side. Turkey uses its strategic location to act as a bridge in uniting the Eastern and Western worlds. Turkish President Abdullah Gül says, “At a time that people are talking of a clash of civilizations, Turkey is a natural bridge of civilizations.”
Taking advantage of their prime location, Turkey’s ruling party has adopted a “zero problems with neighbors” approach to foreign policy. The AK party is working to mend relations with neighboring countries, such as Syria, Iran, and Armenia, where diplomatic ties have been strained or nonexistent in the past few decades. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who developed the new policy, says that his goal in the Middle East is “to act as a force for stability in an unstable region.” Turkey has taken action on this goal by increasing trade with the Middle East. In December 2010, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists organized a conference in Istanbul where hundreds of businessmen from Turkey and the Middle East signed business deals to increase trade between the two countries. Most recently, Turkey signed a trade pact with Iran that could potentially be worth $30 billion. Turkey has taken advantage of their strategic location and is able to benefit from both the eastern and western sides of the globe.
Syria and Egypt’s neighbors, including Israel, make this foreign policy goal much more difficult to achieve. The geographic irrelevance of Tunisia gives them a handicap. And though Libya’s oil fields make them internationally significant, their internal political instability will need to be the primary focus before a foreign policy shift. The more radically motivated religious populous of Libya also makes it unlikely they will be able adopt the domestic politics of the Turkish model.
Egypt and other Arab countries certainly can use the Turkish model to the extent that they show Islam and democracy can coexist and be quite compatible. Trying to create an exact replica of the Turkish government, however, would be a mistake. Turkey’s inherently strategic location at the crossroads between the East and West and secularized view of Islam have had such an impact on the government and mentality of the body politic that no other country would be wise to replicate it. Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, and other nations wrestling with reforming the future can take the core values that the Turkish model presents and adopt them al a carte as long as their goal is to create a more stable, politically liberalized, and economically free system of governance.
Amanda L. Patterson is a junior at The King’s College, New York City who recently participated in an international conference on Turkish-U.S. Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Anthony Randazzo is director of economic research at Reason Foundation and coodinator of a new venture between Reason and Turkish think-tank Ankara Opinion and Research Center (ADAM).