Does Turkey offer a model that the Mideast can emulate?

Ottoman empire around 1500

By Nora Fisher Onar
The Daily Star, Lebanon

Turkey is often touted as an inspiration for the countries of the rest of the Middle East – a characterization it accepts and pursues. In recent years, Turkish policymakers have worked hard to establish “Turkey Inc.” as the model of a relatively free, stable and increasingly prosperous Muslim-majority country with great economic and foreign policy leverage. But what does the Turkish experience actually represent for the states of the Arab Middle East? How convincing is Turkey, Inc. – and as a model can it really be emulated?

Perhaps the most attention has been paid to the free and fair rise to power of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Syria have heralded as a symbol of Muslim majoritarian democracy – even explicitly referencing it in the names and platforms of their own parties, movements and factions. To both domestic and international observers, this might signal that, like the AKP in Turkey, Islamist parties elsewhere do not seek to dismantle their states’ secular framework – at least for the time being.

But in spite of its appeal to both traditional Islamists and “post-Islamists” – that is, those who fully reconcile their particular politico-religious commitments with globalization – the Turkish formula may not be replicable. Civil-military relations in Turkey have undergone a double-sided transformation over recent decades. As a consequence of the intermittent censure by the army, political Islamists had to moderate their demands and practices; simultaneously, the Turkish army – accustomed to the barracks and aware that interference in government hurt Turkey’s international standing – increasingly relied on civilian allies to pursue its agenda vis-à-vis the AKP.

Eventually, the military relinquished control of crucial institutions (such as the National Security Council), and the final showdown over control of the presidency in 2007 was fought not with bullets and tanks, but with Web declarations, public rallies and court cases. A similar tipping point regarding civilian control of the state is hardly a foregone conclusion in countries still under transition, where national militaries continue to exert a dominant presence in political life.

Other countries in the Middle East also lack the trajectory that Turkey has followed with regard to its economic development. This is particularly true of the export-driven rise of the middle class that has been experienced by religious constituencies across the Anatolian periphery. Such a trend has underpinned the AKP’s moderation, political success and interregional presence. Indeed, Turkey’s recent economic trajectory is a central component of its appeal in the Arab world.

Over the past decade, Turkey has tripled its Gross Domestic Product and – excluding a dip to minus-4 percent real growth in 2009 – has managed to ride out the global economic crisis with relative equanimity. Commentators have argued that Turkey may be part of a second tier of rising economic powers (alongside such countries as South Korea, Mexico and Indonesia) that is hot on the heels of the Big Four (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

This holds two implications: On a symbolic level, the Turkish experience (along with that of Indonesia and Malaysia) has dramatically undermined theories of Islam’s incompatibility with modernization, especially in the arena of economic governance. More tangibly, over the past decade Turkey has actively sought out partners for sustainable trade-driven growth in a region that has been long addled by the heady cocktail of oil wealth and chronic underdevelopment.

Although economic partnerships were in no way guided by Turkish concerns for democratic governance – a reality that was attested to by Turkey’s once cozy ties with authoritarian leaders – they have had unintended consequences with positive implications for political reform. For example, the influx of cheaper, better quality Turkish goods in Syrian markets may have undermined a backbone of President Bashar Assad’s regime: namely the interests of the regime’s business cronies.

To understand the parameters of Turkey’s role in the region, we should also acknowledge the sensitivities that have arisen from the Ottoman legacy. Some believe that Ankara seeks to reclaim its historical leadership of the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans, something that can rub interlocutors the wrong way. Hence, Turkish foreign policymakers’ reluctance to employ Ottomanist frames of reference.

Read more:

(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

1 reply

  1. I am in Turkey this week and growth in GDP is very visible. Istanbul looks beautiful.

    However, as we have seen in the case of Greece and several other European countries, growth in GDP should always be viewed in relation to national debt and the trends of both. The above article is giving us only a part of the story and not telling us about national debt and who the debtors are.

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