The recent unrest in Turkey highlights the need for greater political sagacity in a changing world
Turkey in the spotlight
An advert in ‘The Times’ of London on 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. There were excesses by the Turkish police and no doubt the government could have handled the situation in a far more mature way, but by comparing the ruling AKP party’s public gathering with Hitler’s ‘Nuremburg rally’ the group have undermined their sense of proportion with apparent political naivety.
Turkey is a Muslim majority country with a 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 would probably impose strict religious laws and curb people’s rights, as some Muslim rulers had done in recent times. 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 enthusiasm. The economy has been doing far better than many neighbouring European countries. Turkey’s political and religious freedom has been improving; meanwhile the military influence on politics has been curtailed and democracy has taken root. In just a decade Turkey has taken its place in the international community. Istanbul, once a dilapidated world city, has been transformed ever since Erdogan became its Mayor in the 1990s.
Erdogan has sought to strengthen Turkey’s relationship with and increase its influence on its Arab neighbours based on a strategic depth doctrine. Turkey is seen by some in the European capitals as a newly emerging regional power. Erdogan’s populist approach is considered a menace in the palaces of Arab autocracies, its economic progress is envied by others and its robust criticism of Israel is hailed in the streets of Muslim capitals. On the other hand, his advocacy of secular democracy drew heavy criticism from Egypt’s Muslim 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 the AKP’s ‘Muslim democracy’ is being watched with interest, the western media tends to remind us of the party’s ‘Islamic’ roots: we rarely hear about the ‘Christian’ roots of any western leaders.
Compare this Turkish achievement with the ‘Arab Spring’ that brought Islamic political parties to the fore in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. The situation in Egypt is now ready to explode after just over a year of the first open election in its history, thanks to the naivety of Brotherhood and a secular backlash. In Tunisia the agent provocateurs appear to be hell-bent on bringing down the coalition government of two moderate parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In Syria, a popular uprising against the brutal family dictatorship of President Bashar al Assad has turned into a fully-fledged civil war with immeasurable death, destruction and primitive cruelty. With new proxy wars being waged the Middle East seems to be revisiting its past dark era; a desert Simoom is on the verge of crippling the region once again.
A new challenge that needs political wisdom
In recent years, there have been complaints about the 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 using disproportionate force it enraged many.
Added to this is the continuing five-year long Ergenekon trial against some 275 alleged coup-plotters among the army and the verdicts that were handed down on 5 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. 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 it can avoid falling into similar holes that have been dug in nearby Arab lands.
A right course in a divided world
Modern democracy has to deal with peoples’ 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 interconnected world with instant communication no country is protected from domestic nihilism and adverse influences from without. Turkish democracy has so far dealt with all the internal and external challenges successfully and the AKP government has so far managed 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 sagacity 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. As an important developing country it is a bridge between historic Muslim and Christian worlds. 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.
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