This is a presentation I delivered on “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?” in honour of the launch of the Turkish Review at the House of Lords on Friday 11th of Jan, 2013. The event was chaired by Lord John Alderdice and my co-panelists were Dr Gulnur Aybet- Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury and Kerim Balci- Editor of the Turkish Review.
A (poorly) edited short clip of proceedings can be viewed here:
Firstly I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to address this important topic. I should point out that my own research is focused on Morocco and specifically on the social movement from which emerged the main Islamic political party, currently in government, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). The PJD very much looks at the AK party as a ‘role model’, it has certain criticisms, particularly in terms of what it views as laxity in the party’s ‘islamic’ credentials, but it aspires to emulate its rise to power. When I interviewed senior figures, they went so far as to suggest the AK party had in fact drawn inspiration from their logo, a lamp, for the AK’s symbol, the bulb and meetings had occurred between the two groups previously.
Clearly, the PJD is not alone – the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rashid Ghannouchi, said in July 2012, that he saw “Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a model of success for his country to follow” and Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi, when he visited Turkey in September 2012, also acknowledged the inspiration of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Many in the Arab world are reassured by the combination of a democratic process and a commitment to religious identity. A recent poll (by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) over the last three months of 2011) found that Arabs see Turkey as a champion of regional peace and role model for religion and democracy living side by side ( with a 78 percent approval rating for Turkey and its policies.) In fact, 61% view Turkey as a model for their own countries – On what basis? 32% cited its democracy, 25% its thriving economy and 23% its Muslim identity.
It is no surprise that Turkey scored highest in countries where the Arab Spring has ended the rule of dictators and politics is in flux, with a 91% approval rating in Tunisia and 86% in Egypt. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Turkey polls rather more poorly in Syria.
This also tells us a bit about what Arabs tend to value in the models they aspire to – democratic practises, a booming economy, an attachment to identity. Those who don’t consider Turkey a model also tell us about Arab public opinion, notably their view of its “insufficient Muslim identity” and its “ties to the West”.
However, the question here today, is whether Arabs, both those who identify with the Islamic political movements and those who do not, should regard Turkey, which of course, means the Turkish political model, not simply the AK party, as a model.
Firstly, I’m not fan of models in general. They might be useful conceptual tools, especially when teaching, but the idea of blueprint capitalism or blueprint democracy is problematic. All countries have their specific history and its legacy will ultimately shape their development far more than a prescriptive model ever can or perhaps should. Surely we have something to learn from the errors of blueprint capitalism as applied to the former Soviet East. Why assume blueprint democracy could work any better?
More useful I think are universal standards and principles that all countries should be held to. Transparency, accountability, the separation of power, economic growth, etc. When we look at the evolution of countries according to these standards, we can say, for example, that Turkey has significantly improved on the corruption scale (despite a long way to go), or we can note that it has regressed on the scale of free speech and the freedom of the media. It is principles, married to the specific context of different Arab countries, which I think will be more beneficial in helping them achieve popular aspirations.
Secondly, one of the reasons we are talking about Turkey as a model for the Arab world today is because Turkey has an islamically inspired party in power, the AKP and in many Arab countries, islamically inspired political parties (or islamists as some might call them), have taken the lead.
From Morocco, to Egypt, via Tunisia, Islamically referenced political parties have proven to be the people’s choice at the polls.
Because of a longstanding view in certain sections of academia and politics that Islam and democratic politics cannot be reconciled, Turkey is advanced as a model of balance, having successfully integrated an islamically inspired party into a staunchly secular political system, returning the army to the barracks and fostering the type of economic growth we in Britain can only currently dream of. There were no hand-choppings, no bans on alcohol or nightclubs, and ties with the so-called ‘West’ have been strengthened. Which I’ll translate into layman terms as ‘business as usual’ with our Western partners, which is to a large extent, what it comes down to.
However, I share the view of Turkish academic Shebnem Gumushju, who writes:
“there is no “Turkish model” of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-democratic state working within a neoliberal framework.”
Do I think this is a model which is applicable elsewhere and specifically in the Arab world? I can say speaking of Morocco, which is I case that I know particularly well, that would be a resounding no there. Why? In Morocco, the king who is also known as ‘amir al mouninin’, is both the head of state and leader of the believers, a religious leader heading in all other regards a ‘secular state’. Despite a widespread desire for the King to relinquish power to elected bodies, most Moroccans do not want to get rid of the king, or his religious symbolism, altogether.
Turkish style secularism is not widely desired in Morocco, even if it can accommodate an islamically inspired party like the AK party. I wager this is the case in most Arab countries which will have to grapple between the Islamic identity a majority want reflected in the political system and international laws and standards premised on a religiously neutral public sphere.
However, Islamic political parties will benefit from the precedent of a party which has established a strong parliamentary system and which has worked with the opposition in devising the constitution. Egypt take note.
Economically, do I think neo-liberal economic policies are best for Egypt or Yemen or Algeria which don’t have Turkey’s skilled work force, its strong industries and bargaining weight – no I don’t. There are no equivalent ‘Anatolian tigers’ to fuel the construction of new businesses, no money in the coffers to build cities, schools, and infrastructure which could boost the economy as they have in Turkey.
Economically, Turkey’s model of growth is based on premises which are not found in most Arab nations. Tackling youth unemployment, as Turkey has done, and as Arab states must if they are to avoid future instability, is not a ‘Turkish model’, it is common sense. Turkey has made impressive social reforms with universal health insurance now covering almost the entire population and the increase in early childhood education and preschool enrolment. Prioritising health and education are important precedents for Turkey to set, but how Turkey has achieved this, namely how it has financed these, cannot be replicated in the Arab word.
Turkey is the 18th largest economy in the world, compare that with Egypt, which ranks at 43 and Tunisia at 77, according to IMF figures (and given the instability of the past year, this is likely to have dropped over 2012.)
Besides which, I’m not even certain neo-liberal economic policies are best for any of us, let alone developing nations. Turkey’s deficit measured in dollars is second only to America’s . Reliance on debt has become increasingly prevalent and you needn’t look much further than Europe to see where that leads.
So in answer to the question, Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model? – I think at this moment in time, they need inspiration and polls suggest this is what Turkey offers, since a widely held perception is of a country which has built itself on its own terms. A country which appears to have tamed the military, which has a booming civil society, economic growth coupled with a growing regional weight. However, Turkey has its own issues. The resurgence of authoritarianism is of concern, Turkey’s Kurds have been the major source of human rights violations and Turkey is rated as 148th in the Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, below the Democratic Republic of Congo and only slightly above Afghanistan. It has one of the highest incarceration rates for members of the news media in the world.
I have argued against the idea of viewing Turkey as a model not because I don’t believe that it hasn’t been successful on a number of fronts, but because of the prescriptiveness of models.
Among the unresolved tensions of Turkish politics are the public role of religion, minority rights and civil and religious freedoms. Given that both Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing the same tensions to a greater or lesser degree, they can look to Turkey for policies to adopt or avoid.
What the Arab world needs is to be held to the same standards as all nations, but to be given the flexibility to adapt these to their socio-cultural context. Precedents in managing similar conflicts are helpful – Tunisia in particular seems to me have interesting lessons for other Arab states in working with the secular opposition, managing extremist elements and reforming the judiciary.
Turkey, despite its pitfalls, offers the alternative of an islamically inspired party which also successfully manages the country in the public interest. Islamic political movements, most of whom are still very new to the political game, have a precedent in the AK party which should broaden their view of what is ‘permissible’ and desirable. Or not, as the case may be. At the very least, Turkey, rather than model, is an aspirational example for nascent independent Arab nations.