Friday, 25 November 2011

18 November 2011

ISTANBUL -- Do you think Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, having deposed their autocratic leaders, are about to join Iran as Islamist republics?

Do you think that after elections are held (the first have already taken place in Tunisia), Islamist parties will take power and install theocratic systems of government in which Western liberal ideas of freedom and tolerance have no place?

Well, I’ve been here in Turkey for the past few days to ask if Islam, democracy and prosperity are compatible. Next week, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, will be in London for a State visit – the first by a Turkish head of state for more than 20 years – and you can be sure that his answer (and, come to that, the answer of his hijab-wearing wife) will be a very definite Yes.

Consider: since 1992, Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known here as the AKP. Its roots, and those of its leaders, are in the Islamist tradition – a far cry from the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who enshrined secularism in the country’s constitution.

Consider also that over the past decade, the Turkish economy has trebled in size. Average incomes have doubled. When I spoke to workers at Istanbul’s main bus station a couple of days ago and asked them if it’s easy to find work here, they answered Yes. There aren’t many countries these days where that happens.

So is Turkey a success story, a good democratic model for post-autocratic Arab states to follow? It depends whom you ask.

No, says former star TV presenter Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban at her TV station on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. She says there’s growing pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship. Not a good democratic model.

No, says former general Haldun Solmazturk, who argues that the army, which has traditionally claimed to be a guarantor of Turkish secularism, has now been marginalised to such an extent that the AKP no longer has any institutional check on its power. (But perhaps it’s relevant that the army has been responsible for the overthrow of four civilian governments in little more than 50 years.)

Yes, says novelist and cultural commentator Kaya Genc, who argues that the army should play no political role in a modern democracy, and that the AKP represents the views of the majority of Turks far more accurately than did its secular predecessors in government.

But when I met the leading Egyptian actor, film-maker and activist, Khaled Abol Naga, who has come to Istanbul for an Arab activists’ conference this weekend, he dismissed the idea that Arabs need to look to Turkey for a model. The 2011 Arab uprisings are home-grown revolutions, he said, and they need to look to no one for inspiration.

As for the army, which currently rules post-Mubarak Egypt and which is angrily condemned by pro-democracy activists for seeming in no hurry to move to a genuinely democratic form of government, he fears the military – unlike Egypt’s democracy activists – are indeed looking to Turkey as a model.

After all, if the Turkish military could, for many decades, pull the strings both behind the scenes and up on the front of the stage, why shouldn’t the military in Egypt try something similar?

And there’s one, further complicating ingredient to add to this combustible mix. As I write these words, I am looking out of the window towards the elegant splendour of the Blue Mosque and the 6th century Ayia Sofia, once the greatest church in all of Christendom, two powerful reminders of the central place Turkey (and especially this city, in its previous guise as Constantinople) used to occupy in world affairs.

For hundreds of years, the Ottoman empire dominated much of Asia, Europe and north Africa. No one is suggesting that the rulers of modern Turkey harbour similar imperial ambitions – but few doubt that the charismatic, and populist, prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enjoys his newly-won status as a global statesman.

So as the Queen welcomes President Gül to Buckingham Palace next week, she will know that he represents a nation that has earned its place as a global player. When I asked a leading AKP official if Turkey’s hour has come, he laughed and said: “I hope so.”

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