IS TURKEY A MODEL FOR ISLAMIC COUNTRIES?
Brussels, 7 November 2003
Turkey is a secular country with predominantly Muslim population and shares many values with the Islamic world. For centuries, many Islamic countries were part of the same State as Turkey, namely the Ottomon State. The Ottoman State was the seat of the caliphate, that is to say the post of the successor of the Prophet Mohammed. In other words, the capital of the Ottoman State, Istanbul, was something comparable to what Vatican stands for the Christian world. Ottoman Sultans served as the highest religious authority in the entire Islamic world for more than four centuries between 1517 and 1924.
Turkey’s name came up when the US started to ponder on a model for the future regime in Iraq. Later on, the emphasis shifted from Iraq to countries of the entire broader Middle East, because the region was regarded by certain American policy makers as the major source of international terrorism. And Turkey’s name started to be mentioned within this new framework of the BroaderMiddle East and North Africa Initiative.
The initiators of the Initiative drew up a detailed list of actions to be taken at various levels. This framework was discussed in a G-8 summit held on 9 June 2004 in the US resort town Sea Island, Georgia. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt were also invited but did not attend. The declared reason for their absence was that no reference was made to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the plan defining the Initiative. On the contrary, it was mentioned in the earlier version of the plan that this Initiative should not be held hostage until Arab-Israeli conflict is solved.
In an effort to gain the support of the Arap countries, the modified version of the plan talks of “promoting reform while working towards a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict”. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan thought that the absence of a reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict should not be used as an excuse not to attend the summit. On the contrary, the countries of the Middle East should consider this as an additional reason to attend the meeting, because the inconsistancy of the absence of the reference could be brought better to the attention of the G-8 leaders by attending the summit and raising the question there. In fact, Mr. Erdogan pointed out in a press conference just before his departure for Sea Island summit that no progress can be expected in the region without a fair solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The refusal of prominent Arab leaders to attend the Sea Island summit is already a telling indication that the Initiative is not received with enthousiasm in the countries that have the means of influencing the region.
Turkey participated in the Sea Island summit as a co-sponsor of certain Broader Middle East efforts. Other non-G-8 participating countries included Afhanistan, Algeria, Bahrein, Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen and the new President of Iraq.
The Sea Island summit produced a paper that may be called a Chairman’s Conclusions. This document invited the participating countries to hold another meeting in autumn this year. There is a loose engagement to commit funds for the future projects. Turkey’s name is mentioned in this document, together with Italy and Yemen, as the co-sponsors of the meeting on the Democracy Assistance Dialogue to be held sometimes later this year.
The role of Turkey is not yet properly defined in this exercise. What type of contribution is Turkey expected to make?
Can Turkey serve as a model for Islamic countries? A short answer to this question is: No, Turkey cannot serve as a model for Islamic countries. There are several reasons for it.
First, the countries of the region have a strong feeling against exogenous initiatives. Several countries of the region have already expressed their opposition to any initiative that will not originate from the region itself. Similar initiatives in the past had backfired.
Second, Turkey neither volunteered nor displayed an interest to play such a role. I don’t see how Turkey could assume such a responsibility upon the initiative of a third country. Such a scenario has little chance of success.
Third, Turkey’s role was perceived on more than one occasion in the past as an agent of the US and Israel or of the West as a whole. This is how Turkey’s role in the establishment of Baghdad Pact was described in the Arab world. They also were willingly convinced by the Soviet Union that NATO was a threat to their security and Turkey was the front-line State for them in their confrontation with NATO. It is true that these assumptions do not correspond any longer to the existing realities. However, their lukewarm attitude towards Turkey did not fade away entirely.
Fourth, the secular regime of Turkey does not appeal very much to many countries in the region. Some countries may even see it as a potential threat to their stability. In the past harsh criticisms were directed to Turkey because of its secularity. Conservative circles in certain countries of the Broader Middle East, may oppose to any reform in their country when it comes from a secular country, if not for any other reason.
Fifth, the evolution of democracy and social fabrics is different in the Arab countries from that of Turkey.
And finally, Ottoman legacy has a negative connotation in many countries of the Middle East, because the western countries that substituted the Ottoman rule in the region projected a distorted image of the Ottoman period in order to justify their presence. David Promkin’s book “A Peace to End All Peace” tells us that peace and stability could not be established in the Middle-East after the withdrawal of the Ottoman rule from this region. Arab-Israeli conflict, internal turmoil in Lebanon and the present situation in Iraq do confirm Promkin’s theory.
Furthermore Turkey does not seem to be happy to be referred to as a country of moderate Islam. Turkey is a secular and democratic country with a predominantly Muslim population and it prefers to be referred to as such.
Having said this, Turkey is governed with a parliamentary democracy since several decades. This democracy is far from being perfect, but it functions more or less satisfactorily and probably much more smoothly than in many countries in the region. Turkey’s experience in democracy is there for any country to use it in case it deems it appropriate. This has to happen without an outside intervention. Turkey will be more than happy to share its experience with countries from Islamic countries as well as with countries outside this region if and when the directly interested countries volunteer to be inspired from this experience.