The Fading Turkish Model for the Arab World

Aina.org: My personal experiences in Egypt — a country I have visited countless times over the past three decades and have strong feelings about, due to historic family connections — has shown me that common attitudes toward Turkey in this leading Arab country are often ambivalent, to say the least. I have found from my experiences in other Middle Eastern countries that the general Arab attitude toward Turkey is a strange brew of derision and admiration.

 

From the Islamic perspective, especially of those who are members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most prevalent view is that Turkey lost its Islamic soul after late President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Westernizing reforms. A secular Turkey aiming to be a Western-style democracy — even though its population is predominantly Muslim, and devout at that — was widely considered the antithesis of all that the Brotherhood stands for.

This was also made highly apparent during the heyday of the Arab Spring, when the Brotherhood reacted angrily to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s September 2011 call for Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, underscoring that secularism does not mean atheism and is a system of governance that stands equidistant to all faiths.

Erdogan’s exhortation, however, was generally welcomed by non-Brotherhood Egyptians with secular leanings, whether Muslim or Christian. Erdogan’s words were also welcomed in Europe and America, where the feeling at the time was that Turkey, as a predominantly Muslim country that nevertheless operates as a Western-style democracy, would also provide an important example for the countries of the Arab Spring.

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  1. Fading Turkish Political Model and the Civil Islam for the Arab and the Muslim World:
    Turkey’s political image over the last decade had been built on promised servant political leadership, AKP being a clean political party backed by transforming hizmet civil society movement since 1960s.
    The comparison of Erdogan’s own leadership and his party’s first two terms with the present third term are made by focusing on his rising as a star of democratic reforms made by him and his being a role model in the MENA and the Muslim world, which had combined hizmet inspired civic Islam and democracy with successful economy. Closure also of previous Islamist parties and ban of Islamist politicians from political life in Turkey had played a major role in redirecting their movements and framed their agendas in terms of democracy, pluralism, civic Islam and human rights. Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had rejected defining the AKP in religious terms and called the party agenda “conservative democracy”. A shift from “political Islam” to “conservative democracy” in the AKP had seemingly been realized as a result of this evolution of Turkey’s economy, which created an entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie in Anatolia (Anatolian Tigers), beginning under the leadership of Turgut Özal since the 1980s.
    Over the last year political regression in Turkey began. It has faced the biggest “corruption scandal” of the Republican history on December 17, 2013. The investigation on corruption has begun to deeply damage the image of the AKP and Erdogan not only in Turkey but also in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA), CAC (Central Asia and Caucasus region) and the rest of Muslim World where Turkey was beginning to be seen as a source of inspiration. Furthermore, the acts of Prime Minister are giving the impression that he is backtracking on each and every reform step achieved by him and his party now is just trying to cover up a corruption scandal.
    Erdogan’s third term has indeed been sadly increasingly authoritarian, with radical Islamist tendencies, multiple anti-governmental civil protests and ongoing present chaos in Turkey. Finally, the power struggle between and the respect worthy Hizmet civil society movement is unfortunate as being presented to evaluate possible negative repercussions of these developments not only on Turkish domestic and regional policies but also on the image of Turkey as a “Role Model” in the MENA, Muslim world and developing nations around the world.
    Turkey as a democratic country was certainly helping to reconcile Civic Muslims with confidence, autonomy, pluralism and success. Every one praised Turkey as a role model, which would have been followed by Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and other Arab and even Non Arab Muslim countries in the post-Arab Spring era. Yet, Turkey’s “role model” in the MENA, CAC and other Muslim nations is now questionable to many owing to the emerging environment. Deterioration of Turkey’s relations with some countries of the MENA and disappearance of mediator role that was being played, the corruption scandal, mismanagement of the process which is now harming previous democratization efforts, destabilizing effects of these political developments on its own economy is now lessening the attractiveness of Turkey as a role model for the countries of the Muslim world which have already suffered from deprivation of human rights, bad governance and instability. The Positive individual and collective transforming contributions of Hizmet movement are bound to continue in the civic arena in Turkey and the Muslim world in general and beyond.

    It is obvious to say that economic stability cannot be secured without democracy and good governance. Challenging days thus are waiting for Turkey still. If the AKP fails to follow its original promise of democratization and Civil Societal path as a result of these events, it will fail temporarily what it has achieved not only on the way of democratization, economic success and its good image and reputation as a role model for the Muslim world but also its advantage that can be used on the way of its EU membership. After the new elections in Turkey, however with strong civil society backing the new political leadership will again resume the democratization process and good governance to best serve the interests of Turkish civil society.
    Over the last many decades, the Nurco and Hizmet movements have had a major influence on the ongoing transformation of Turkish and regional Muslim civil societies and civic Islamic life. The spread of Civil Islam has helped not only to usher in the post-Kemalist era, but it has also stimulated changes inside Turkish Islamism and Islamism in general. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab societies, even the Turkish Islamist movement in the 1970s was hostile toward modernity, and it conflated religious belief with the need to struggle against the secular order and Western influences. The spread of Islamist ideology, therefore, has only sharpened the distinction between religious faith and loyalty to the modern Turkish state and its radical founding secularist ideology. But Civil Islam offers Muslims an alternative model, one that shows that it is possible to live as a pious Muslim while embracing soft secular democratic pluralism. Through this, religious faith and citizenship have become increasingly reconciled for already sizeable segments of the Turkish civil society electorate. The spread of Civil Islam has opened new possibilities for engagement with civil democratic institutions, just as it has counteracted Islamist efforts to politicize religion and fostered a new post-Islamist and civic orientation.
    Civil Islam had also been a major factor behind the political rise of the AKP early in 2002 and 2003. Of course, these developments cannot be understood in isolation from the larger sociological changes that have taken place across the country, most notably, the new economic and political vitality of Anatolia, where the AKP’s core political base existed. In many ways, the new Anatolian middle class embodies the Hizmet teachings: they are religiously conservative, but democratically and civically engaged professionals and business people. Civil Islam is deeply influential in Anatolia through Hizmet-affiliated educational and media institutions. In fact, many Anatolian businesspeople as well as AKP politicians have sent their children to Hizmet schools. Moreover, the Hizmet-run daily newspapers and news media has the largest circulation by far in Anatolian towns, and the majority of the AKP’s supporters are its regular readers. The entrepreneurial and pro-business outlook of this population has been fostered by civil associations, including the Hizmet-affiliated organization known as TUSKON (Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists), which includes many business federations in multiple regions of Turkey, with a total of 176 business associations. As a whole, this has weakened the appeal of radical Islamism on the wider socially conservative masses of Anatolia, who have become increasingly open to international engagements.
    For these reasons, Hizmet movement has had considerable influence in shaping the AKP’s agenda during its first two terms as the ruling party, from 2002-2011. As the political scientist Ahmet Kuru and others have pointed out, the interactions between the Islamist elements within the AKP and the Hizmet movement played an important role in the formation of the party’s early perspectives on soft secularism, business and civil society. Civil Islam in particular helped to weaken Islamism’s adversarial, anti-Western and authoritarian dimensions as it provided Muslims with a new way to connect to civic democratic institutions. Today, participants of the Hizmet movement are actively seeking to influence the AKP by stressing the importance of cooperation with non-Muslims and soft secularist Muslims, and also democracy and human rights. Moreover, the movement has also been a clear advocate for the EU membership process, and at home it has been an advocate for egalitarian democracy and free-market reforms.
    Civil Islam as it has evolved in Turkish civil society has the potential to influence other Muslim societies around the world. Major developments in Turkey have already been followed by considerable interest by the media, thinkers and activists in many Muslim societies, and for its part, the Hizmet movement has increased its activities throughout the Muslim and the rest of the world. The Hizmet movement has responded to criticism that it was not paying sufficient attention to the Muslim world in comparison with its focus on dialogue with non-Muslims by launching a new initiative of the Abant Platform, which is a part of Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul. The platform had invited Arab, Jewish and Turkish intellectuals from Middle Eastern countries to discuss the future of the whole region. Later on, the platform co-organized a meeting in Egypt with the prominent Al-Ahram Institute to discuss Turkish and Egyptian experiences with democracy, modernization and soft secularism. A more recent 2011 meeting directly suggested that Turkish Civil Islam would become an inspirational model for the Arab countries, CAC and all Muslim nations to emulate eventually. Moreover, the Hizmet movement, being aware of the need to situate itself in the Middle East and demonstrate the relevance of Civil Islam to Arab countries, has published an Arabic-language magazine, Hira, since 2005. Hira has been bringing together Turkey and the Arab world for eight years by now. 37,000 copies of the journal are distributed to intellectuals in the Arab world via subscriptions. The magazine and its social platform have organized more than 27 symposia and conferences in a number of countries (including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Sudan and Turkey) that have attracted more than 2,500 Arab scholars and intellectuals. Hira’s media and social activities as well as educational initiatives draw attention to Civil Islam in Turkey, and the free exchange of ideas about Civil Islam has already helped establish some new educational initiatives in Arab and other Muslim societies.
    Taken together, the spread of Civil Islamic teachings has helped to change the cognitive and normative political frameworks of observant Muslims in broader Turkish world, caucuses, South Asia, Far East Asia and beyond. It has shown that Islam and civil democratic modernity can go hand in hand. This has helped to ameliorate the societal tensions generated by the ideas propagated by Islamists, creating a new post-Islamist tendency and trends. At the same time, it has created some new tensions also. After all, the Hizmet movement’s understanding of Islam is stateless and cosmopolitan, and thus different from the perspectives of post-Islamists who still seek to use the state and democratic politics to promote Islamist practices against soft secular democratic ones. As Gülen puts it, Islam does not need a state to survive; in the modern age, civil society can independently maintain Islam even where Muslims are not the majority.
    The current struggle between Civil Islam and Islamists within the AKP will be the defining one for Turkey’s political future. Indeed, now that the AKP has entered its third term in power many have begun to question—and with good reason—whether the party is reverting back to Islamism. Some AKP politicians have engaged in heavy-handed rhetoric that is in tune with modern Islamism, as described earlier. Prime Minister Erdogan’s renunciation of the Gezi Park protestors in Istanbul in the summer of 2013 is seen by many as a sign that he and some others in the AKP are becoming intolerant of soft secularist voices. Not everyone in the AKP supports this, however. Indeed, during the Gezi Park incidents, leading AKP political figures, including the popular President Abdullah Gül and the Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, openly disagreed with Erdogan. Since then, Erdogan’s criticisms of co-ed student housing at universities and his insistence on closing down prep schools and tutorial centers (opened to prepare students for achievement tests and university entrance exams) which belong to the private sector have raised new fears of the state being used to promote an Islamist agenda.
    Erdogan’s Islamist authorities can damage his party. It has already deepened the fissures inside the political coalition that makes up the AKP. The proponents of Civil Islam within the AKP have largely resisted Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, and they have sided with the country’s honest democrats. The Civil Islam of Hizmet once more verifies the movement’s anti-Islamist stance. The politicization of Islam is a dangerous path, one that could lead to totalitarian control of the state by giving ambitious men the religious license they seek to undermine the civil society and the separation of government powers that constrains them. If Turkey is to pull back from its current drift toward Islamist autocracy, then its citizens, soft secular and pious alike, will need to resist the instrumentalization of religion for worldly power and demonstrate the compatibility of Islam with civil democratic modernity.

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