Erdogan’s Turkey: Hope for the politics of Muslim World?

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Moeed Pirzada | Pique Magazine |

Few people in Pakistan have been able to fathom why the public protests in Turkey, that erupted in June, spreading from the epicenters of Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Istanbul to more than seventy Turkish cities especially Ankara and Izmir – with men and women, young and old battling with police – commanded such furious global attention. What after all is the importance of few hundred environmentalists resisting a development plan at a park? What is happening in Turkey today is fundamental to the future of countries like Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Bangladesh and perhaps even Saudi Arabia. Many Pakistanis like most supporters of AKP, the Turkish ruling political party, in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or Mevlana Rum’s Konya were quick with their usual conspiratorial conjectures that these protests represented an American or western or still worse an Israeli plan to derail the Turkish economic miracle. This only demonstrates that despite endlessly repeating the mantras of “Muslim Ummah” we are woefully ignorant when it comes to the real dynamics of other Muslim societies – even if it as important as Turkey.

I am an over-active blogger on Face book; an obsession that is fast turning me into an undeclared professor, quite distinct from the role of a television anchor which defines my bread and butter. As I posted article after article from the New York Times and Economist and from Turkish papers like Hurriyet and Zaman, many were startled and jittery and accused me of being paid by the US embassy or State department for casting aspersions on great Turkish leadership or for working against Islam. But many also asked: what’s wrong with you? Why on earth are you so obsessed with Turkey? So let’s start by asking the questions: Why is Erdogan’s Turkey so important? What is different about Turkey that distinguishes it from all other Muslim countries and nations? What is the future of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey? Why US and Europe cannot afford to destabilize Turkey?

In the summer of 1993, Professor Samuel Huntington penned down what turned out to the be the most controversial, most read, debated, cherished, and reviled policy paper of the second half of 20th century. “Clash of Civilization”,first published by Foreign Affairs, was later turned into a book that was endlessly condemned by Muslim scholars. True to our ingrained habits, few bothered to read it carefully for they would have found a section dedicated to the Muslim world’s dilemma of not having a model state that could lead or inspire the rest of the Muslim world with its experience, its history and its institutions.

Huntington discussed one by one: nuclear but impoverished, unstable Pakistan; oil rich but Shia Iran; fabulously wealthy but politically primitive Saudi Arabia; moderate Indonesia disjointed from Muslim narrative and historically rich but troubled Egypt. After an academic catwalk of Muslim societies, he zeroed in on Turkey. He argued that Atatruk’s modern Sunni secular state, with glorious history of the Ottomon Emprie and Caliphate behind it, a bridge between East and the West, with its linguistic and cultural influence across Central Asia, is definitely that potential leader of the Muslim world.

But he observed: unfortunately modern Turkey is holding a begging bowl at the doorsteps of Europe, being humiliated and rebuffed for almost 40 years. Huntington argued that may be one day Turkey will realize that a far more majestic future lies ahead if it decides to claim its leadership of the past. We don’t know if Recep Tayyib Erdogan, Turkey’s charismatic Prime Minister, ever read or believed in what Huntington wrote; but with his eleven years of leadership of the ruling AKP and his life long struggle behind it, he has gradually brought Turkey to the pedestal from where it can begin to claim the leadership of the past. Turkish economy has continuously grown for the past decade at an average rate of 5-6%, which has baffled the economic wizards of Europe.

Erdogan has won plaudits at home and across the world for his handling of the Kurdish militancy, taming of the assertive military, reform of the judiciary, improvement of human rights and a more robust approach towards Europe. In his best seller ‘The Next Hundred Years’, George Friedman, founder of intelligence forecasting company, Stratfor, predicts Turkey to be a bigger and more important political power than India with its potential to collaborate with China and challenge the west. Futuristic speculations may have started to show; such is the growing importance of Turkey that in his latest book, ‘Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat’, Professor Vali Nasr mentions that in his years as President, Barrack Obama has spent more time talking with Erdogan of Turkey than any other leader. But Vali Nasr also describes the alarm bells that rung from Washington to Brussels to Moscow when in 2010 Erdogan joined hands along with Lula Da Silva of Brazil in persuading Iran to a meaningful dialogue; panicked American and Russians both shot down the possibility mostly for the fear of losing leadership the new emerging powers.

This is the background, the context, which makes the recent jolts that emanated from Taksim Square so important. Erdogan is the most important Turkish leader after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who fashioned the republic after the end of Caliphate. But there is also the opposite face of the enigmatic Turkish coin: Ataturk founded a fiercely secular state that often went berserk in suppressing Islam’s role in politics and society. Erodgan, a victim of that secular state, captured power with promises of providing individual freedoms similar to the British model but has raised fears of creeping Islamization in which seculars and minorities can become second class fringe elements.

Nothing like that has happened; not so far. But the gradual actions of AKP in outmaneuvering the secular military, changing the complexion of judiciary, alleged control of media ownerships and the recent actions of regulating the sale and advertisements of alcohol have all provided the milieu in which diverse interests ranging from environmentalists, secular elite, pro-European media, feminists and other shades of minority opinion have started to rally around fears engendered by what they describe as growing “authoritarianism” of Erdogan. Economist of London in one its June editions echoed the feelings of Gezi Park when it wrote that, “Turks won’t let a middle class democrat become an Ottoman Sultan”. Is Erdogan really on his way to become the “Ottoman Sultan” his opponents fear? His statements, his choice of words to describe the protestors as “looters”, his snubbing of his party leaders like President Abdullah Gul and senior politician Bulent Arinc and his final decision to clear the Gezi Park by police action have all given oxygen to the fire of growing allegations.

Today Ankara and Izmir are far more European cities than Orhan Pamuk’s enigmatic Istanbul and here you find the most vocal critics of Erdogan who loathe him as a dictator. But this should not misguide any casual observer to the width and depth of popularity Erdogan and AKP enjoy amongst the more conservative sections of Turkish society. Like Nawaz Sharif and PMLN in Pakistan, Erdogan derives his support from the business communities of all kinds, sizes and forms across Turkey. For shopkeepers and traders in Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and markets of Konya and NevSehir and for service providers in Gorem, Erodgan is undoubtedly the great savior who has given them abundant bread, lots of butter and amazing doses of self-respect and confidence. A successful hotelier made me sit till early hours in the morning to describe in detail how his business life and career changed under the low interest rates Erdogan has managed. Others start crying with emotions while expressing their love for Erdogan. No one in our living imagination since the days of ZA Bhutto – the original Bhutto – has inspired such belief and passions.

This level of trust and love for Erdogan in itself is seen as a threat by the likes of those who had assembled at Taksim Square. But this is not all; most of these AKP supporters unabashedly use four letter words to give vehemence to their feelings about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the founder of the republic. But then there are countless others who worship Ataturk, adorning his beautiful portraits, often multiple, in the same office or study. Turkey is certainly a very polarized society. But a top official, who has the eyes and often ears of Erdogan, confided to me that deep inside Erdogan himself realizes that today’s achievements would not have been possible without the path to modernization which Ataturk set into motion. Several months ago, Erdogan offended many die hard Islamists of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in Egypt by openly telling them that Eygpt needs to adopt a secular path.

Will Huntington’s prophecy of Turkey providing leadership to the Muslim world come true? This all depends upon how this most promising and the most charismatic of the leaders of the Muslim world manages to take along the diverse and opposing emotions he has unleashed. Muslim world’s tragedy lies in not finding a political model that can combine modernity with popular democracy.

Elitist models of modernity were tried in countries as diverse as Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan. In the end, they all failed, replaced by either military or party dictatorships or unstable majoritarian democracies like in Pakistan or Bangladesh that are unable to connect with the modern world for they often fail to realize that brute populism is only one aspect of democracy; liberal constitutionalism is another.

Kemalist Turkey laid the foundations of a modern state but it suppressed the religious and ethnic freedoms. Erdogan’s new Turkey – despite its bumps on the road – still holds the placard of hope for all of us.

The writer is a known columnist, media critic and Tv anchor. Director@media-policy.com & facebook.com/MoeedPirzada

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