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Should the Arab Spring Become a Turkish Summer?

Ever since Muhammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17th, 2010 catalysed the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the question has been, ‘how best shall the new governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt proceed?’ In answer to this, many politicians, commentators, academics and journalists have held up Turkey as an attractive model for the future. To make their case they have variously pointed to Turkey’s functioning democracy, its strong economy, and to the ‘lessons learned’ from the mistakes it has made (and continues to make) in its own maturation process. Turkey may possess all of these attributes, but the reasons why it is being promoted as a possible model are flawed. They rest on political opportunism in a post–9/11 world and on the tired trope that what is true for one Muslim is equally true for another. I argue that the Turkish experience may serve as a valuable source of inspiration and insight for the countries of the Arab Spring, at times counter intuitively, however it makes little sense to suggest Turkey is somehow more appropriate because of its majority religion.

The major cheerleaders for the Turkey model are, not surprisingly, those in the Western ‘anti-terror’ camp and the Turkish government itself. The former are deeply suspicious of political Islam, usually equating it with Islamic extremism and inevitably ‘terrorism’, and they use Turkey as the poster child of a palatable, desirable, Muslim modernity. For these individuals it is a boon that the controlling Justice and Development Party is, as is tirelessly repeated in the press, a party with Islamist roots at the helm of a secular democratic system. Such a description would have sparked outrage within the Turkish establishment 20 years ago (and still does in some quarters). Today, however, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has frequently utilised this description to his advantage by repeatedly pointing out the compatibility of his personal faith with his secular office. In doing so he is capitalising on the West’s desire for a model, he hopes to increase Turkey’s regional clout, and he sees domestic political advantage in championing ‘freedom’ (and free enterprise) in Muslim North Africa. Those that oppose Turkey as a model or find it flawed rightly point to Turkey’s on-going conflict with Kurdish separatists, its imprisonment of journalists, and its politically active military, among others as reasons for caution.

However, there is a more fundamental problem here than issue-specific reasons why Turkey should or should not be seen as a desirable model for the North Africa’s newest governments. Why should Turkey prove a better example for Egypt than, say, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, or any other economy in the G20? Why do cited ‘competing models’ include Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia? There seems to be an erroneous belief that because Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are majority Muslim they must have a Muslim example to follow. Furthermore, it appears many still believe that somehow Muslim societies are more internally consistent than Christian societies, and that Muslims are more liable than Christians to be politically defined by their religious profile.

This is not the case, and diversity in the Arab world is much more nuanced than the usual Sunni Shi’ite split. Individuals within Muslim-majority countries react to ideas and institutions differently depending on the complex mixture of interests and identities that they hold. The relative importance of religion in this mix varies because it interacts with that person’s political beliefs and socio-economic standing, amongst other factors. At a national level, a country’s size, resource distribution, education levels, and age demographics, among other characteristics, are likely to be more crucial to the structural design of a government than its religious demographics. Luxembourg, a small, rich country, for example, could never serve as a model for Russian government, even though both are ‘Christian.’

As I see it, the main reason for new democracies to study countries of the same religion is to glean insights on how to successfully integrate religion and politics in a single system. This is important, because, secular or otherwise, few if any democracies today can honestly claim their prevailing religious cultures do not influence their legal frameworks. The meaning of ‘secular’ is simply a tolerance of religious diversity and no overt recourse to religion in political matters. But we cannot hide from the overall religious cultures of our countries, cultures that subtly permeate every aspect of our lives, any more than we can hide from the air we breathe. We see this all the time in Christian majority countries, from the abortion debates in the United States, to the history of contraception in the Republic of Ireland and the tax levied on all church members in Germany. Religion and politics have always mixed and this trend shows no sign of abating. This is all the more obvious in the Middle East and North Africa, where surveys show “that Muslim publics overwhelmingly welcome Islamic influence over their countries’ politics.” In all likelihood the Turks of the 1920s would have given a similar answer if they had been asked. However, Turkey’s curious beginnings, which involved an authoritarian leader, the state suppression of Islam, and the wholesale importation of elements of European law in the name of massive social engineering projects, make it supremely unsuitable to answer this pressing question.

Turkey is a proof of concept that shows Islam and democracy are able to coexist. The importance of such a proof cannot be understated. However, it does not follow that Turkey’s path is the only or the most appropriate course for other Muslim countries to follow as they transition to democracy. Put differently, Turkey’s existence and its prosperity inspire hope, confidence and action in others but there are many roads to success. To suggest otherwise, would be akin to arguing that if Beckham is a footballing great, then all great footballers must bend it like Beckham. Turkey might be an inspiration, but it is not a blueprint. On that note, I will end with one lesson from the founder of the Republic of Turkey that could serve as a model characteristic for the new governments as they go forward: cast a wide net for sources of inspiration.

The key to Atatürk’s success lay not in the originality of his ideas but in the singularity of the opportunity he seized…To understand and interpret modernity, the main pillar of his vision, he took inspiration from numerous intellectual and political trends of fin-de-siècle and early-twentieth-century Europe and the Ottoman world…The various ideas he collected tended to be tools for the implementation of his grand project, not goals in and of themselves. Consequently, his intellectual reach knew no limits; as a visionary, he took anything that seemed useful from any source in order to further his political program and realise his utopia. (Hanioğlu, 2011)