Monday, 14 February 2011

Can Turkey Become a Model for the Would-be Democracies in the Middle East?

Doç. Dr. Tarık Oğuzlu, Bilkent Üniversitesi U.İ.B.

The shortest answer to this question is “yes, but”. ‘Yes’, because Turkey seems to possess all the advantages to show how a predominantly muslim society can successfully experience a functioning democracy, despite all the shortcomings. ‘But’, because each country in the Middle East has its own peculiar dynamics and pointing to other countries as role models would be against the dignity of indigenous societies. The people of the Middle East are particularly known for their predisposition to challenge external intrusion in their internal affairs. Stated somewhat differently, Turkey can be seen as a role-model as far as theoretical and aspirational dimensions of this question are concerned. Turkey is a prime example of how a predominantly Muslim society can merge Islamic religion and conservative values with secular state identity and liberal socio-economic order. Besides, given Turkey’s centuries-old functional and cooperative relations with the leading actors of the western international community, both multilaterally and bilaterally, others might look at Turkey as an example of how to develop friendly relations with the so-called imperialist and power-driven western countries. Looking through such glasses, Turkey will always be mentioned by those who wish geographies of Islam experience liberal-representative democracy as well as develop pragmatic/cooperative relations with western actors. However, the ones who continuously underline the value of following Turkey’s way would have to assess the applicability of the Turkish model against the internal dynamics in the region. The factors that appear to have paved the way for liberal democracy in Turkey, both internally and externally, might not be found in those Middle countries.


Theoretically speaking six characteristics of Turkey add up to Turkey’s role potential in this context. First, Turkish military has never in the past instigated coups with a particular view to coming to power and remaining there forever. Whenever the ‘pashas’ perceived that Turkey’s secular democracy was under serious risk and the country was on the precipice of anarchy, they intervened in politics. However, normalcy set in the country once elected civilians made a return to power with a consciousness of not repeating the same mistakes again. Besides, despite the fact that the majority of Turkish people have traditionally viewed the Military as the most respected institution and the guardian of the Republic, they have never tolerated long-term military rule. Turkish people do not want to see powerful pashas in power but competent and responsible civilians.

Second, the so-called Turkish ‘Islamists’ have gone through a radical and irreversible transformation process under the tutelage/supervision of secular security establishment. The lessons drawn from the past, particularly the post-modern coup in 1997, accelerated the transformation of these circles in the image of liberal democratic norms. Even though some ‘political Islamists’ in Turkey might have longed for an Islamic state from above, they have always remained in minority. The majority has tended to define Islam either as a religion or a culture, but not a political ideology. The idea that socially conservative pious Muslims could/might /should come to power and rule within the constraints of liberal-democracy seems to have been well internalized by the so-called Turkish political Islamists. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia constituted a role model for Turkish Islamists to emulate. Besides, Turkish Islamists have always proved to be as much nationalistic as, if not less than, the secular state elites who think they are entitled to protect the regime from all possible dangers. Nationalism has served to be a common platform on which both the secular elites and the so-called Islamists tried to justify their political existence. Needless to say, the kind of nationalism claimed by both has not only been defensive, suspicious of others, reactive and populist but also helped them secure legitimacy in the eyes of the Turkish people.

Third, Turkey has succeeded in developing cooperative relations with western countries and become member of almost all international organizations that represent the western international community. Turkey’s membership in NATO and the long way that she has gone so far on the way to EU membership are of particular value in this context. That Turkey has developed cooperative relations with liberal-democratic western countries matters because many countries in the Middle East came into existence following the political struggle between the Ottoman Empire and western powers. The West had not only played a vital role in the politics of the region during the age of empires but also shaped the counters of geopolitical realities of the region in the postwar era. The West has always had vital interest in the region, ranging from the preservation of Israel’s sovereignty and territorial existence to the protection of oil fields and routes, etc. That this region has become more and more important for the West in the post-9/11 era makes it undoubtedly clear that the countries in the Middle need to develop cooperative relations with the West if they wanted to survive and become legitimate parts of the global political system. Turkey’s practices with the West can be seen as example of how to do it. Turkey can speak to the West as someone from within.

Fourth, the global/regional geopolitical environment that has transpired in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 further underlines the significance of the so-called Turkish model. As more and more people in the West have begun to believe that Islam and liberal democracy are inherently incompatible with each other and the followers of Islam are somehow potential sources of existential threats to the western way of life, the pressure on the people of the Middle East to demonstrate that Islam preaches peace and tolerance and does not hinder economic development and political liberalization has increased. Turkey can show the way how predominantly Muslim societies can successfully integrate with the existing global political-economic system while remaining true to their traditional societal values alongside this process.

Fifth, Turkey holds a distinctive advantage, for she has never adopted a ‘civilizing and patronizing’ rhetoric in the past. Neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Turkish Republic had put any claim to represent the highest stage of the human development and tried to impose a particular role-model onto others. Civilizing others has never become a constitutive part of Turkish national identity as well as a driving force of Turkish foreign policy. If growing number of people today argue that Turkey’s soft power in the Middle East has radically increased in recent years, this is mainly because of Turkey’s success in strengthening the quality of its democracy and economic development at home as well as adoption of civilian instruments in diplomacy abroad. Though Turkish decision makers have been frequently saying that the current regimes in the Middle East should work harder to meet the demands of their people, Ankara has also been one of those capitals that vehemently criticize the particular attempts at bringing democracy to the region from outside or at the point of a gun. That said, it would not be inappropriate to claim that Turkey’s soft power emanates from the fact that she leads by example.

Sixth, Turkey is also valuable for another reason. Even though the growing democratization and civilianization in the country has seriously undermined the patron-client type of relationship between Turkey and the West, this has not contributed to the erosion of Turkey’s value in the West. The more skeptical and critical Turkey has become of the West, most notably concerning some western policies in Turkey’s neighborhood, alongside its further democratization at home, the more valuable the West has begun find Turkey. The idea that Turkey’s cooperation needs to be earned, rather than should be taken for granted, has strengthened in parallel to Turkey’s liberal-democratic transformation. Despite the fact that democratization in the region might initially empower anti-western stances and the West in return view democratization of the region through alarming eyes, Turkey’s unique experiences suggest that such an outcome does not need to occur at all.


All the positive factors mentioned above in relation to the acceptability of the so-called Turkish model notwithstanding, there are some particular factors that appear to limit Turkey’s power of attraction in this context. The first point to mention is the apparent contradiction between the need on the part of the ruling Turkish government to pursue a pragmatic relationship with the rulers of incumbent autocratic regimes in the region and the growing desire of the people on the street to topple their rulers through human agency. The question that needs to be answered by Turkish decision makers as urgently as possible is how to strike a balance between a pragmatic realpolitik orientation on the hand and an idea-politik orientation that aims at strengthening people power against oppressive rulers on the other. The longer Turkey appears to suffer from this dilemma, the less likely Turkey would appear to be a role model to emulate. The risk here is that a pragmatic foreign policy mentality that is mainly based on the idea of improving economic interdependency and Turkey’s growing salience in the settlement of regional political problems will not suffice for winning the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners in a smart manner.

Second, Turkey should make its preferences with respect to the region much clearer than as they appear to be perceived today. Even though observers of Turkish foreign policy seem to share in the view that whereas Turkey is very clear on what she does not want to see in its neighborhood, there lingers a high degree of confusion/ambiguity as to what Turkey wants.

Third, the declining prospects of Turkey’s membership in the European Union will certainly militate against the acceptability of the so-called Turkish model vis-à-vis other alternatives. Not only the majorities in the region would like to see Turkey become a member of the EU but also Turkey has so far benefited from the continuation of the EU accession process in the context of its increasing soft and hard power capabilities. Strong institutional links to the West is what makes Turkey a truly exceptional country in the Middle East, particularly in comparison to Iran.

Finally, for Turkey to become a role model for others to emulate, the internal transformation process within the country should culminate in liberal democracy, not illiberal democracy. The main responsibility in this regard falls on the shoulders of the ruling Turkish government. The way how the current government deals with opposition, state bureaucracy, ethnic groups, media, and neighbors will prove to be a litmus test of Turkey’s potential to serve as a role model.

February 14 2011

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