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Does Turkey offer a model that the Mideast can emulate? 13 avril 2012

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The Daily Star (Lebanon) April 13, 2012, p. 7                                     Türkçe

By Nora Fisher Onar *

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.

However, at the domestic social level in Turkey, there remains a growing receptiveness to self-depiction as the benign heir to the Ottoman Empire. This is evident in the proliferation of cultural commodities that employ Ottoman referents. That is the case of the recent record-grossing film “Conquest 1453,” about what Western historiography calls the “fall” of Constantinople. In the film, Mehmet the Conqueror – played by an actor who bears a remarkable resemblance to a young Recep Tayyip Erdogan – is shown to be a forceful and compassionate protector of Muslims and Christians alike (though there is no mention in the film of Jews). The image of Turkey as a “big brother” to downtrodden Muslims in such places as Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina – characterizes an emerging “neo-Ottomanist” national image that seems to drive Turkish aspirations of regional leadership within the country and amplify Erdogan’s profile abroad. Whether this is a matter of hubris or of genuine capacity remains to be seen.

A final component that is crucial for evaluating Turkey’s example is that the country has yet to develop a framework for meaningful multiethnic, multisectarian co-habitation. Mounting violence on the part of militant Kurds and the Turkish state’s heavy-handed response has fueled hostility between ordinary citizens.

For instance, recent court rulings suggest that vigilante terror toward prominent members of the Armenian and Alevi communities is permissible and will go unpunished. Disturbing numbers of journalists, scholars, and students who have expressed critical views on these fronts have been jailed. There is also deep concern in constituencies that embrace secular lifestyles that recent reforms in fields such as education will yield an ever more restricted Turkish society.

Given the need to put its own house in order and the fact that inter-communal tensions across the Middle East are likely to become worse before becoming better, Turkey’s AKP government must take very seriously its mandate to write a new and inclusive Constitution. In the longer tem, Turkey must confront the standing challenge of the region – learning to live together despite differences – a challenge which also happens to be Turkey’s own.

At the end of the day, the export of Turkey, Inc. needs stable and predictable conditions in which trade and investment can thrive; hence, the commitment to the “zero problems” policy that Turkey employed with neighbors in its economic and foreign agendas over the past decade. Due to last year’s upheavals in the Arab world, however, this policy is unsustainable. Once well-placed to broker a dialogue between Iran and Israel, Turkey is now more alienated from both countries than before as the two nemeses lock horns in what Graham Allison has called the “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.”

Should Israeli-Iranian antagonism spill over into war, the delicate balance in Iraq may unravel into protracted sectarian and ethnic conflict, just as Syria’s brewing civil war may spill over into neighboring Lebanon. But even without an Israeli-Iranian showdown and an intensified conflagration in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s Kurdish question is, quite literally, kindling awaiting a flame, as attested to by recent clashes during Nevruz, or Nowruz, celebrations. All of this suggests that Turkey’s aspirations to regional leadership are tactically dependent on forestalling an Iranian-Israeli showdown – an end to which it should leverage all its diminished diplomatic capital in the two countries and in partnership with the United States.

Before the AKP came to power and the Arab Awakening broke out, the received wisdom was that when it came to Islam, democracy and secularism, one could have any two but never all three. Similarly, doubts have long been expressed about whether political and economic liberalism can thrive simultaneously in a Muslim-majority setting. Taken together, it seems that if the purveyors of Turkey, Inc. can show that liberal economics goes hand-in-hand with liberal democracy in a country that is governed by pious Muslims, then the Turkish model-in-progress may achieve fruition and offer a timely example for the Middle East.

* Nora Fisher Onar is an assistant professor of international relations at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. She is also a Ronald D. Asmus Policy Entrepreneur Fellow with the German Marshall Fund and is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International Studies (CIS) at the University of Oxford. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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