The Turkish model
Matteo Tacconi 21 April 2011

Will the “Turkish model” inspire Arab countries that are preparing for an intense season filled with social, institutional and political novelties? Many observers believe it will, thanks to the fact that Turkey is a Muslim nation, with a solid history of coexistence between religion and the state. It can boast solid relations with Europe and the western world, is a bridge between different cultures and has a history of economic success. Thus, there are all the ingredients for this model to be used as a compass.

Those who support this thesis include the famous author Elif Shafak. From the pages of the New York Times, Shafak has supported the thesis that Turkey has found the right balance between the past and the future, between tradition and modernity, between the west and the east, between Islam and democracy. This balance is expressed in a healthy social fabric, marked by a plurality of ethnic groups, languages and cultures, which, in spite of occasional divisions and political tension, all coexist under the same republican umbrella, in compliance with the principles established by the constitution. “Egypt, Tunisia and the Arab world are wondering how to reconcile Islamic and oriental elements with a democratic, modern and secular form of government. Turkey has already provided many answers,” argued Shafak.

Dimitar Bechev, head of the Sofia bureau of the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes that Ankara can become an example. “Societies in Arab countries are demanding freedom, exercising pressure and calling for greater openness. This same dynamic is also reported in Iran. In these contexts people look to Turkey,” Bechev told Resetdoc, “because it is an attractive model, especially from an economic point of view, a field in which Ankara boasts significant achievements thanks to a long history of integration with western systems. At a political level instead, one will have to see which model is being debated.”

This is the point. Are we talking of following the Turkish path, taking into account the entire process undertaken by Ankara since the country was established in 1923 until today? Or are we reasoning on the basis of the characteristics of the current Turkish government, which is represented by the AKP, a party inspired by Islam and led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan? One is under the impression that it is this second option that is most emphasized, precisely because the AKP would bring to Arab countries the classic pillars of Turkey’s experience – liberalism, bonds with the West and projection in the Middle Eastern theatre – adding to all this the capability to reconcile the role played by religion in the public sphere with respect for republican rules. Should secular forces instead come to power, the heirs of the tradition of the father of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish path would probably be less attractive. The Kemalists would in fact stem religion’s influence over politics and the layout of Islamic democracy, embodied by the AKP, would be, to a certain extent, devoid of its meaning.

There are, however, some who generally doubt the effectiveness of the Turkish model, regardless of how one presents it. Interviewed by Resetdoc, Fadi Hakura, an analyst who works for the prestigious Chatham House in London, expressed the opinion that “the Turkish experience developed in particular circumstances and has unique historical roots. I am not certain it can be imported.” As far as the AKP’s “Islamic democracy” is concerned, “there is too much concentration on only the issue of balancing religious issues and republican institutions, forgetting that as far as democratic parameters are concerned, as shown by studies undertaken by some organizations and research centres, there are a number of imperfections.” Like Hakura, Bechev also believes that there are a few off-key notes in the AKP’s score. “The AKP is increasing the importance of Islam within the political-social system and this, among other things, does not help the integration of non-Muslim minorities,” observed the representative of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The fact remains that, leaving aside the above reservations, the AKP model exercised indisputable power, to a great extent thanks also to the current government’s choices in foreign policy. In recent years, Turkey has added to the benchmarks that, at the end of the Second World War, formed its international policies – Atlanticism, westernisation, a European perspective and relations with Israel (Ankara is one of the few Islamic capitals that has recognised the Jewish state) – great dynamism in the Middle East, North African and the Balkans; the so-called “Ottoman sphere.” This has increased Turkey’s international prestige, strengthened its capacity to act as a cohesive force between west and east, raised the level of respect the country enjoys in the Arab world and its role as a negotiator.

Some analysts have even stated that Ankara’s barycentre has moved to far to the east and that its western vocation, one of the Turkish model’s cornerstones, would therefore be disappearing. There is allegedly a rift, emphasized by the slackening of Euro-Atlantic bonds and the simultaneous mending of relations with countries considered untrustworthy such as Syria and Iran (recently considered Turkey’s enemies), as well as diplomatic clashes with Israel over the issue of humanitarian aid for Gaza.

However, according to Ambassador Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, NATO’s former deputy secretary general (from 2001 to 2007) and a great expert on Turkey, this is not exactly true. “There is nothing new in the strategic projection on the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East as well as post-Soviet central Asia, such as in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What has changed, if indeed anything has changed,” said Rizzo, “it is that Ankara has partly regained possession of its neighbourhood, but without inventing anything new. Turkey simply intensified the dialogue within a perimeter that is its classical one. This depends on the fact that in recent years there has been little positive feedback from America and the European Union. In the West, in fact, history continues to give rise to a degree of perplexity as far as Turkey is concerned.”

“The problem is that all too often Turkey is observed through the lenses of the past,” agrees Christophe Solioz, secretary general of the Geneva-based think-tank called the Centre for European Integration Strategies. “One must instead look to the future, envisage that Turkey will be a member of the E.U. The important economic and political role that Ankara plays in the Balkans, in the Middle East and in North Africa can only serve Europe’s best interests. Turkey’s presence would encourage stabilization in these regions. By cooperating, Europe and Turkey can strengthen the framework, on condition that Ankara is not perceived by European Union countries as a rival.”

On condition, says Rizzo, that Ankara does not overdo it. “I do not know,” said the ambassador, “whether Turkey has the resources to become a regional power. By forcing matters there is the risk of tarnishing relations with the Americans, with whom there have been many disagreements in recent years. With Europe things are different and relations are less cerebral. The Turks should however avoid an excessive desire to be at the centre of the stage.”

Can the Turkish model work? Perhaps it can. However, to do so Turkey needs support. It needs Europe, but on condition Europe sets aside its prejudices and reservations. “Brussels,” says Solioz, “must send clear messages and signals to Turkey, because Europe cannot manage without Turkey.” The tense one must use is the future tense and not the past historic tense.

Translated by Francesca Simmons