Offset against grey skies and the black uniform of an average Istanbulite bundled against the cold, the bright yellow and turquoise banners of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) bring a hint of the Arab Spring to Taksim Square. Occupying the symbolic heart of a vibrant, modern Turkey, Kurdish demonstrators have gathered to protest a move to ban 12 of their candidates from the Turkish general election – a ripple in an occasionally violent wave of unrest that has spread from the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in the east to the European side of Istanbul. But only blocks away, pedestrians on Istiklal Caddesi, an elegant avenue lined by Parisian-style buildings and an old-time tramway, seem un-phased by the crowds of riot police and demonstrators, following the familiar detours around the square though the crooked streets and alleyways of the Beyoğlu district.
This contrast of the generally well-heeled, Western-oriented Istanbulites and the gradually disenfranchised, working-class Kurds is a potent symbol, representing both Turkey’s past and its present. It is a country that has constantly struggled to define its borders – geographically, ethnically, and religiously – in the context of its own political and social development and in terms of how it is envisaged by the world. But this contrast also reflects the recurring crisis of identity that is seen in the broader Middle East, a region in which Turkey is in many ways an anomaly, but with which it also shares a deeply intertwined history. Turkey is a leader in a region inching toward modern society and democracy, but it also must grapple with the origins of that status and methods used to keep its position intact.
While the steps from Taksim Square down toward the Bosphorus waterfront on the east lead to nightclubs and party spots, the working-class district of Kasimpasa resides to the west – an old and erratic spread of construction along the murky waters of the Golden Horn, today synonymous with its local soccer stadium. The neighborhood is also the childhood home of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the clerically educated, football playing, and generally brash politician who in 1994 jumpstarted his political career by taking the reigns of this sprawling city at the confluence of Eastern and Western culture.
To many forward-thinkers in the Middle East, Erdoğan’s time in both municipal and national government has very much embodied his hometown’s unique self-awareness as the modern, European heart of a far more pious and conservative country. His tenure as mayor of Istanbul, though not free of scandal sourced in his controversial piety, is remembered by many Istanbulites as a rare time of relative transparency and rapid infrastructure improvements. And particularly since 2002, when Erdoğan shrugged off a ban on his participation in politics to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and was catapulted into the prime minister’s office by an eager electorate, few areas of government policy have been untouched by reforms aiming to bring the country in line with European Union membership standards.
Indeed, fears among the country’s secular elite that Erdoğan would foist Islamic governance on the Turkish people have been largely unrealized. In the past decade, Turkey has seen democratic values enshrined in a revised constitution, an oppressive military dismantled, and areas from environmental policy to financial regulation brought in line with EU standards. But religious controversy has not been absent from the AKP era; from the lifting of Turkey’s ban on headscarves to the fallout surrounding Erdoğan’s recently professed desire to “raise a religious youth,” the prime minister has constantly butted heads with the old establishment. And unlike his predecessors, Erdoğan has been remarkably successful in pushing back. In doing so, however, he has often redeployed the sinister tactics of the regimes that once restrained him, even amid persistent efforts to reform and democratize the political landscape.
Erdoğan has indeed turned the tables on the military and other prominent skeptics, an alleged network of individuals and organizations referred to as “the deep state,” or Ergenekon, which his supporters claim has long kept the country true to its secular and rather authoritarian roots. Imprisoned himself by these secular officials for reading an Islamic poem at an official event while mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan has played on fears of Ergenekon’s supposed clandestine activities, forcing the resignation and, in many cases, the arrest of the country’s top military leaders. Ergenekon’s response has been seen by many as a victory, perhaps, for civilian rule in a democracy long oppressed by the military’s overreaching power, but the government’s current hard line has also been to the detriment of journalists and prominent intellectuals.
Erdoğan has come into his own, as well. As an influential leader in a strategically important region and with checks on his power diminished in potency, he has increasingly asserted himself on the international stage. Erdoğan has given himself over, in part, to the widespread sense in Turkey that compliance with EU regulations is not enough, and that despite the country’s past decade of social, legal, and economic reform, it will be forever unable to sidestep Europe’s wariness of welcoming over 70 million Muslims into a close political association. He has declared that Turkey has done all it must to join the union and scoffed at Europe’s current fiscal woes, signaling that future compliance with EU demands may be hard to come by.
And as these once-prized ties with the West continue to wear, Turkey is looking south and east to find allies that are perhaps more accepting of its idiosyncrasies. It is confronting its complex but close past with the Middle East, which has been filled as much with bitterness regarding Turkey’s history with ethnic, political, and cultural domination in the region as it has with admiration.
Until now – a time of diminished interest in Europe and reinvigorated religiosity in the government – forging ties with the Middle East that were both close and amiable was a difficult task for Turkish administrations. When Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Rashid Rida envisioned the rebirth of a pan-Islamic identity at the turn of the century, he scoffed at any inclusion of the rapidly reforming Turkish state, much less as a regional leader. In his eyes, and in prevailing Arab thought at the time, Turkey was not only a shriveled relic of its far grander imperial past, but a nation whose attempts at cultural and political renewal were deepening the severity of its decline. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s newborn secular institutions, seen as imitations of those of its European neighbors, had led it astray – from the path to regaining the glory of the Islamic world, indeed, but from a moral path as well.
And even when Erdoğan came to power in 2002, Turkey found itself still at arm’s length from the people of the Arab world. With its reputation tarnished by a close relationship with the United States and Israel, perceived pandering to the pretensions of the European Union, and the repression of Islamic forces within the country, the Turkish government was given among the lowest marks in regional opinion polls. But much has changed over the past decade, both in Turkey and in the Arab world. The evolution of domestic policy and soft power diplomacy under Erdoğan, along with a renewed need for regional leadership that has been found in Turkey’s free-market democratic structure, has propelled it to become one of the Arab world’s most admired countries.
This phenomenon, dubbed the “Turkish model” by the Western media in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has been embraced by the emerging democracies of the Middle East. Rashid al-Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, the moderate Islamist party that has replaced Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, has called Turkey “a model country for us in terms of democracy,” according to the Hürriyet Daily News. It is a message that has been repeated throughout the Arab world, from Morocco, where King Mohammed VI has begun to bestow his powers on moderate Islamists, to Libya and Egypt as they navigate their democratic transition.
But the Turkish model, idealized as a multi-partisan, liberal, moderately Islamic democracy, is in reality difficult to properly characterize and even more so to replicate. The Turkey of the moment seems a fragile, even fleeting situation, built out of decades of forced secularism, suppression, and only now the peaceful resurgence of subdued Islamism. Beneath the country’s current sheen, there lies buried internal turmoil, repression, and a return to the autocratic methods of the past. But there is more to this dark side of the country’s history, built out of ideas about national and racial exceptionalism. It is a past upon which even the modernizing changes of today’s Turkey continue to be modeled, contributing to its current failure to allow for the development of political and cultural pluralism. Even more disturbingly, it is a path that the countries of the Arab Spring seem at risk to follow.
In searching for its post-Ottoman identity, Turkey held firmly to the idea that “Turkishness” is central to its national spirit. For a somewhat lost and confused nation that was once a seat of empire, this was initially a positive development that propelled the early Turkish state toward modernity. But it also led to many of the atrocities that mar the country’s past, from the massacre of Armenians in World War I to the “Turkification” of the Kurdish people that has contributed to today’s unrest. Even in modern times, the country’s generals took up the mantle of Turkish nationalism, using it in the process of quelling dissident media and Islamists.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the current system under Erdoğan has not ceased to clench onto this often unfortunate melding of national and racial identity. In an ironic turn, an Islamist party, so often placed among Turkey’s numerous marginalized identities, has embraced the ultra-nationalist assertions of earlier times. The party that, in its nascent stages, had to defend itself against being labeled as “Islamist” by foreign newspapers for fear of its political dismantlement has become unyielding on matters regarding the nation’s narrow views of what it means to be Turkish.
The countries of the Arab Spring, many of them experiencing their own rejuvenation of long-oppressed ethnic, religious, and political majorities, are facing a similar risk as they build and rebuild their institutions. As they navigate their democratic transition, these countries must be careful not to resort to the often careless methods of populism, taking advantage of the return to majority rule to implement their own forms of minority repression. Egypt, for example, is a clear case in which the shift to democracy has sparked an intense and often violent debate over the nature of Egyptian nationalism and the promotion of political participation in a new society. The nation’s Coptic population had long been repressed under Mubarak, and is today victimized by radicals that have taken advantage of the present political vacuum. Though by no means representing the majority of Egyptians, these Islamic fundamentalists, the Salafists, have found a home in the new Egypt, and they appear well poised to push the Copts out of consideration as Egypt’s laws and institutions are reformed.
This is, at least, the model that contemporary Turkey would offer. In recent years, Turkey has been quite deliberate in its steps toward cultural hegemony and has demonstrated that a drive for a clean, persistent, and homogenous idea about what it means to be Turkish extends deep into current politics. This remains particularly apparent in the Kurdistan issue, bred out of efforts to assimilate Kurds into the Turkish population – ethnically, culturally, and politically – in the early days of the Turkish Republic. There have been continued efforts to quell the prospect of a distinct community – through political exclusion, as seen in the case of the banned Kurdish politicians that led to protests last April, and an escalation in the violent suppression of separatist efforts in the east, near and sometimes across the Iraqi border. Even Istanbul remains a city where Kurds feel the need to conceal their ethnicity.
There is a deep irony in considering a country with such antagonism toward multiculturalism a model for the diverse tribal nations of North Africa and the Levant. These countries are similar to Turkey in that, as post-Ottoman states, their borders were largely drawn without concern for cultural or political associations. In the same way, struggles over what it means to be a Syrian, an Egyptian, or a Libyan have largely reached an impasse, with national ties giving way to Islamic, Arab, ethnic, and tribal loyalties. It is dangerous for these countries to look to Turkish-style governance as a model in this respect. One could look even to Iraq, despite its sectarian strife, fragile government, and religious violence, for a better handling of the Kurdistan issue. There, a group of people who were oppressed under dictatorship has been allowed to prosper within a newly constructed federal system.
This kind of pluralism was further affronted in Turkey in 2005 when, buried within penal code changes as part of EU negotiations, the AKP pushed forward Article 301, a law that throughout its formation declared it a crime to “insult Turkishness,” before the wording was changed to “insulting the Turkish nation.” Soon after its inception, it was used to prosecute noted author and current Columbia professor Orhan Pamuk in response to his acknowledgment of the killings of Armenians and Kurds in a 2005 interview with a Swiss magazine. The case offered a curious intersection between the AKP’s oppressive nationalist agenda (again imbued in democratizing reforms intended to kill off Turkey’s past of judicial dictatorship) and the nation’s prevailing attitude toward its Ottoman history.
It is revealing, indeed, how little has changed in this regard since Turkey’s decades of strong-armed military rule. Turkey has continued its attempts to erase the world’s memory of the Armenian genocide, a conflict that much of the world has come to acknowledge despite the government’s efforts. Some have pointed to a “Neo-Ottoman” aspect of this phenomenon, as the AKP has returned to subduing its antagonistic neighbors (in this case, Armenia) while reaching out to others in the region. It is a surprising move by the AKP’s Turkey that, in addition to being an unhealthy example of reactionism and political opacity, highlights the difficulty of reconciling Turkish foreign policy goals with the Arab Spring’s underlying currents of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism. The same forces that once helped wrest the Arab provinces away from the Ottoman Empire now encourage the nations of the Arab Spring to look to their former imperial master as a model of democratization.
On this point, it is important to note that though dozens more of Turkey’s intellectuals have been scrutinized under Article 301, the Pamuk case that was handled by the newly established Heavy Penal Court 13 was thrown out when the EU described Turkey’s handling of the case as a “litmus test” for membership. The move highlights a difficulty for the Arab Spring states trying to live the Turkish way: Unlike Turkey, they do not remain firmly tethered to the West, nor do they possess a history of productive discourse between a strong secular establishment and Islamist government. In other words, the checks and balances on populism in these countries are not strongly established, nor will they likely be for some time. And, counterproductively, Turkey provides an example of a nation that is striving to tear down those checks, with its government using the mantle of popular, nationalistic support to legitimize that process.
What the Arab Spring countries do have, however, is a region-wide process to observe and improve upon. The Middle East has long been a region of many poles and differing rates of progress, and because of this, it offers a telling window into the process of democratic transition. Turkey, of course, has an important role to play, offering as many foreboding lessons as it does examples of success. But, as a country with great differences in history, society, and external ties, it cannot be held up as a definitive model for Arab nations to follow, as the “moderate, Islamic-based democracy” that many in the region have for centuries fought for. The task of creating stable and free democracy in the Middle East will be far more difficult than simply copying the Turkish model – it will be a process of failures and successes, of triumphs and tragedies, as the democratizing nations of this diverse region learn from themselves and from each other.