The Turkish model and democratization in the Middle East.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorAltunisik, Meliha Benli
Date22 December 2005

RECENTLY THE RELEVANCY OF THE Turkish experience in democratization to the process of political reform in the Arab world has become a focus of debate within the context of a renewed interest in the subject in general. While Turkey is promoted as a model for Islamic countries by some, others have argued that Turkey's experience is irrelevant to the issues of democratization in the Middle East. This article probes the question of whether Turkey has the assets, the will and the credibility to emerge as a soft power in the Middle East.


The push for political and economic reform in the Middle East has intensified in recent years. The change in the political strategy of the United States--at least at the discursive level--was largely responsible in pushing the issues of reform to the forefront. The adoption of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative in the G-8 Summit in June 2004 revealed a degree of consensus among the major extra-regional actors in achieving this objective. (1)

Within this context the United States began to point to Turkey as a "model" for the project of democratization in the Islamic world. The Turkey-as-a-model argument had in fact emerged after the end of the Cold War. Anthony Blinkmen, President Clinton's Special Assistant and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council stated that "Turkey sits at the crossroads--or, if you prefer, atop the fault lines--of the world. Because of its place ... its history ... its size ... and strength, and most important, because of what it is--a nation of mainly Islamic faith that is secular, democratic, and modernizing--Turkey must be a leader and can be a role model for a large swath of the world." (2)

The notion of Turkey being a model for Islamic countries reemerged more forcefully after September 11. President George W. Bush, attending the Istanbul NATO Summit in June 2004, said "I appreciate very much the example that your country has set on how to be a Muslim country which embraces democracy, rule of law and freedom." He praised Turkey's record of development and recommended the country as a "model" for the rest of the Muslim world. (3)

Despite the references made to Turkey as a model for political reform in the Middle East, this argument has never been clearly elaborated on beyond stating that Turkey was an example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. This ambiguity, in fact, led to a debate in Turkey as to what all this meant for the country and whether the US was imposing a role on Turkey. In Particular, secular forces, including the secular establishment, remained skeptical of the model argument. Pointing to what they saw as less emphasis on secularism, which, from their perspective, is the most important element of the Turkish model, they expressed concerns as to whether this aimed at strengthening the role of Islam in Turkish politics. Therefore, US Secretary of State Colin Powell's reference to Turkey as an "Islamic Republic" in April 2004 reiterated this perception and provoked widespread criticism in Turkey. (4) Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer reacted to this characterization by stating that "Turkey is neither an Islamic republic, nor an example of moderate Islam." (5) There were also concerns as to what this model argument meant in terms of Turkey's regional identity. Some thought that such a role would situate Turkey in the Middle East, as opposed to Europe which Turkey has been trying to become a part of. (6)

Contrary to the above notion, several arguments have been developed in and outside of Turkey as to why the country could not be a model for political reform for the Islamic countries. These arguments are as follows: First, Turkey's experience in reform is unique and cannot be repeated elsewhere. The uniqueness of the Turkish case was largely explained by Turkey's secularism. However, other factors, such as the role of Ataturk, an imperial state tradition, and the absence of a colonial legacy, were also mentioned in contributing to Turkey's unique characteristics. (7) Second, problems in Turkey's democratization were cited in explaining why Turkey could not be a model. The difficulties Turkey has been facing in consolidating its democracy as well as the lack of domestic legitimacy, reflected in challenges in the 1990s by political Islamists and Kurdish nationalists. (8) Third, Turkey's traditional problems with the Middle East, particularly the Arab world, were perceived as an obstacle for Turkey's role as a model. It is claimed that the largely negative legacy of Ottoman rule, Turkey's secularism, its alliance with the West and relations with Israel have largely been criticized in the Middle East and thus vastly limit the acceptance of Turkey as a model. (9) Fourth, Turkey's historical ties with the West, particularly its institutional links were thought to make Turkey a unique case. (10) Thus, it is argued that Turkey's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Council of Europe, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of European Economic Cooperation (OEEC, later OECD), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) make Turkey unique in the Middle East. In addition, although the EU has historical ties with some of the countries in the region and has signed association agreements with several of them, it is not the same as having official status for membership in December 1999. That fact clearly makes Turkey a special case and, as many rightly pointed out, that stares has been important in the transformation of the country. (11) In short, critics of Turkey-as-a-model claim that the Turkish experience is sui generis and cannot be transplanted.


The most important aspects of the Turkish experience that are relevant to the debate on political reform in the Middle East are secularism, democratization, and the importance of international factors in facilitating reform.

Secularism is in tact the most debated aspect of the so-called Turkish model. At the time of the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the elite that founded the country made secularism an essential part of their modernity project. In fact, it is true that Turkey went farthest among the Islamic countries in adopting strict secularism. However, the way Turkish secularization is understood in the Arab world is somewhat skewed. Turkish secularism is generally viewed as an imposition by a small elite on a population that continues to remain Islamic. Some in the Arab world also considered Turkish secularism as anti-religion. Both of these premises are limited in understanding the process of secularization in Turkey.

The roots of secularism in Turkey can be traced back to the articulation of the relationship between the state (dawla) and religion (din) during the Ottoman Empire. In the Sunni Ottoman tradition the religious establishment was controlled and dominated by the state. (12) Furthermore, the Ottomans increasingly used non-religious law (orf) as opposed to the religious one (the Shari' a) and thus further contributed to de facto secularization of the political sphere. The process of secularization intensified through nineteenth century reforms, particularly as a result of the adoption of new civil codes structured like European ones and the reformation of the education system. After the war of independence the republican elite had the opportunity to implement more radical secularization policies. However, this time, except during a brief period of state consolidation in the 1930s, these radical secularization policies had to be adapted to the social and political realities. In fact, the rest of the republican history has become a history of this reconciliation, which, interestingly enough led to the indigenization of secularism in Turkey.

With the introduction of multi-party politics in 1946, the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi-CHP), the founder of the republic and the modernization project, did not refrain from using Islamic symbols and references in party discourse. The Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti-DP) that came to power in 1950 as a result of the first competitive elections also used Islamic discourse. Supported by largely conservative groups during its decade-long rule, it began to implement some policies that could be perceived as challenging secularism. After the 1980 coup, the military regime introduced the ideology of "Turkish-Islamic synthesis" into Turkish politics, which aimed to use religion as "the essence of culture and social control and should thus be fostered in the education system but not be politicized." (13) Thus, the military regime initiated compulsory religious courses in secondary education and the leaders of the coup increasingly made use of Islamic discourse. In sum the ideology of the 1980 coup was once again aimed at reinterpreting the relationship between the state and religion, which could in fact be characterized according to Birtek and Toprak as "neo-republicanism." (14) The instrumentalist use of Islam in secular Turkey demonstrated the pragmatist and flexible nature of the regime.

From 1970 onwards religiously oriented parties became part of the political system and participated in elections. The first such party, the National Order (Milli Nizam Partisi-MNP), was formed by Necmettin Erbakan in January 1970. The MNP explicitly criticized the secular nature of the republic and presented an alternative ideology to the secular conception of the modernity project. Since then, the ideology of political Islam has been represented in the Turkish political scene through successive parties under the leadership of Erbakan and his associates. When the MNP was banned, together with the socialist Turkish Workers Party, after the 1971 military intervention, another party, the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet...

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