Turkey back in the Muslim world

The Turks have shown the Muslim world that they can trust a political party that does not profess to be secular.

Shahid Javed Burki June 26, 2011

There is no doubt that the year 2011 brought about irreversible changes in the way the Muslim world is organised politically and the way it is likely to shape its relations with the West and in the West, in particular with the US. As the year 2010 gave way to 2011, even the most well-informed Muslim world watchers could not have seen what the next six months would bring. A fruit vendor in a small Tunisian town set himself on fire, not able to live with the insult heaped on him by a police-woman. This act of self-immolation had far-reaching and hard-to-imagine consequences.

Some of the more obvious results have already entered as important markers for the unfolding history of the Muslim world. The exploding streets in Tunisia and Egypt forced out of office long-serving presidents. While Tunisia’s Zine elAbidine Ben Ali has found a sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was unable to leave the country. He is now facing the courts that he had once packed to serve his regime. He is defending a number of charges, some of which carry the death penalty. A third long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, after having been seriously injured in the bombing of the mosque in the presidential compound, is in Saudi Arabia being treated for the burns on his body. It is unlikely that he will be allowed to return.

Two other regimes — those in Libya and Syria — are under attack by large numbers of dissidents who have drawn courage from the actions of those who were successful in getting rid of the rulers in three other countries. The regimes have managed to survive by using the tactics that kept them in power for so long. The governments headed by Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar al Assad in Syria have used terror to stay in power. They may have bought some time but it seems unlikely that they will continue to hold on to power when so much change is occurring all around them.

One of these changes is in Turkey, a Muslim country that had once ruled the Arab world as part of the Ottoman Empire. When it was dispossessed of its imperial domain, it tried hard to turn the other way. Kamal Ataturk, the father of modern day Turkey, worked hard to de-Islamise his nation and to associate his country with Europe. But Turkey’s attempt to Europeanise itself was not reciprocated by Europe, especially after Islamophobia became a potent rallying cry in the continent. It was in this state of uncertainty that a new Turkish leader stepped in with a new political, economic and social philosophy. His impact on the Muslim world may also be of as much consequence as that of the explosion in the Arab street. In the elections held on June 12, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) took 50 per cent of the vote and comfortably retained its majority in the unicameral legislature. The party, whose roots are in Turkey’s Islamic movement, fell shy of the 330 seats needed in the legislature to send for a referendum to make the changes in the constitution written by the military. In fact, the prime minister had hoped for a super majority of 367 seats that would have made it possible to pass the constitutional changes by the parliament acting alone. Mr Erdogan wanted a French style republic with a strong presidency and himself as president. But the verdict from the electorate was clear: It liked the prime minister but wished to give him constrained powers. The re-elected prime minister seemed to have received the message. “We’ll go to the opposition and we’ll seek consultation and consensus,” he said, responding to the results. “We will bring democracy to an advanced level, widening rights and freedoms. The responsibility has risen, so has our humility.” While the exercise of people’s will was open and in full public view, there is a consensus amongst Turkey watchers that the country still had some distance to go before it could become a truly democratic state.

Turkey has important lessons for those busy designing new political systems in Muslim countries where the street won over the establishment. There are also lessons for Pakistan, another Muslim country that is trying hard to find its political feet. The Turks have shown that they can trust a political party that does not profess to be secular; one that has deep roots in the conservative elements within the society. It is of some comfort for the moderates in Turkey that Erdogan’s party has not made any attempt to impose its views on the society at large. It is happy to go as far as the electoral process will let it proceed. Prime Minister Erdogan has handled his relations with the powerful military with great restraint but also with firmness. He was not afraid to push the generals back if they attempted to assert their right to protect what they regard as the legacy of Kamal Ataturk. If ‘Kamalism’ is not what the majority of the people desire, then it would not be forced on them.

What the world is watching with breathless anxiety is the political and social transformation of the Muslim world. Change is occurring all over. The process has begun and cannot be resisted for too long by those who favour the status quo. America under President Barack Obama appears to recognise this and instead of resisting political modernisation in the Muslim world, as it did on several occasions in the past — in Iran, for instance, when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh tried to assert its constitutional authority — it is prepared to go along with it.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2011.