THE BLOG

Turkish Democracy in a Dishevelled Muslim World

13/08/2013 17:18 BST | Updated 12/10/2013 10:12 BST

An advert in 'The Times' in London on last 24 July by a group of writers, film makers and actors 'vigorously condemning the heavy-handed clampdown' of Istanbul's Gezi Park protesters brought a furious reaction from the Turkish government; it also created a debate, in Turkey and beyond, about the limits of protesters' rights in public areas and government responses in a democracy. No doubt there were excesses by the Turkish police and no doubt the government could have handled the situation differently, but by comparing the AKP party's public gathering with Hitler's 'Nuremburg rally', the group according to many, undermined the sense of proportion with apparent political naivety.

Turkey is a Muslim majority country with secular democracy. The military, like national 'saviours' in developing countries, thwarted Turkey's democratic process three times after modern Turkey emerged from the ashes of a long Ottoman rule. The AKP government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won three consecutive elections since 2002 with an increased majority each time. Many in the Muslim world and in the West had suspected that Erdogan, with his conservative religious roots -by Turkish standards- would probably take steps similar to those taken by some Muslim rulers in recent times, i.e. imposing strict religious laws and curbing people's rights. But, to the amazement of liberals and horror of many Islamic political parties in the region and beyond, he chose an unconventional route and put his emphasis primarily on improving Turkey's economic standard with political pragmatism.

The Turkish political experiment under AKP is something the Muslim world has been watching with much enthusiasm. The economy has been doing far better than many neighbouring European countries; Turkey's political and religious freedom was getting better, the military influence on its politics has been curtailed and democracy has taken root. In just a decade Turkey has taken its dignified place in the international community. Istanbul, once a dilapidated world city, has been transformed ever since Erdogan became its Mayor in the 1990's.

AKP rule sought to strengthen its relationship with and increase its influence on its Arab neighbours based on its strategic depth doctrine; Turkey is thus seen by some in the European capitals as a newly emerging regional power. Erdogan's populist approach is, however, considered a menace in the palaces of Arab autocracies; its economic progress is envied by others and its robust criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people is hailed in the streets of Muslim capitals. On the other hand, his advocacy of secular democracy drew heavy criticism from Egypt's Brotherhood when he called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution in his visit to Cairo after the fall of Mubarak.

In the West, while AKP's 'Muslim democracy' is being watched by many with interest, much of the western media always like to remind us of AKP's 'Islamic' root. Whether or not this is part of a general Islamophobic trend post 9/11 is another matter, but we never hear about the 'Christian' roots of any western leaders.

The Turkish experience is different from the neighbouring Arab world, an oasis in the large desert, where the so-called 'Arab Spring' brought Islamic political parties to the fore in some countries through a popular mandate. But a desert Simoom is on the verge of crippling the region once again. Egypt is now in a dangerous political deadlock in the aftermath of the ouster of President Morsi, the first democratically elected President in its history, by the military coup on 3rd July; in Tunisia the coalition government, formed between two moderate parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum, is struggling to survive. In Syria, a popular uprising against the brutal family dictatorship of President Bashar al Assad has turned into a fully fledged civil war (raging for over two years now) with immeasurable death, destruction and primitive cruelty. The overall regional situation is dire; with new proxy wars being waged the Middle East seems to be revisiting its past 'dark era'.

However, in Turkey, complaints were being raised in recent years on AKP's alleged authoritarianism and treatment of journalists. This took a sharp turn with a protest that started in Istanbul on 28 May 2013, initially to contest the urban development plan for Taksim Gezi Park. When the protesters were evicted by Istanbul police through a disproportionate use of force it enraged many people; this gave rise to the recent spat between the government and the opponents in Turkey and beyond.

Add to this: the continuing five-year long Ergenekon trial against some 275 alleged coup-plotters among the army and the verdicts that were handed down on 5th August. Some Turkey watchers are suggesting this may be reversing Turkey's democratic progress.

Has the AKP government run out of steam? Is it using its popular mandate to undermine political opposition or people's expression? It is too early to come to a conclusion on the matter. However, the AKP needs to be wary of the fracture that has been created on these issues. If Turkey's political class and civil society learn from its own mistakes they can avoid falling into similar pot-holes that have been dug in nearby Arab lands.

Modern democracy has to deal with people's expression, criticism and demands with patience, good judgement and political astuteness. It needs contrasting qualities from political leadership; decisiveness and flexibility; pragmatism and humility; competence and innovative skills. In an inter-connected world with instant communication at the click of a button, no country is protected from domestic nihilism and adverse influences from outside. Turkish democracy has so far dealt with all the internal and external challenges successfully and the AKP government has managed well with its diverse population - the ultra-nationalists, communists, anarchists, neo-liberals and Islamic groups. However, after a decade in power, people may not be as generous as they were before. The AKP now needs far more political prudence and patience to address the new political and social realities, in a more divided world.

Turkey is at the juncture of continental Asia and Europe; an important developing country that is a bridge between historic Muslim and Christian worlds; a bridge between east and west. Its strategic significance in regional and global politics is undeniable. One can only hope that the ruling AKP and its political opposition learn from its recent Gezi Park experience and once again reassures the rest of the world that it is on the right course. This is not only for the interest of Turkey but for a better world.