Whatever happened to the ‘Turkish model’?


About five years ago, everyone was talking about the “Turkish model.” People in the West and in the Muslim world held up Turkey as a shining example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and is now president, was praised as a reformist who was making his country freer, wealthier and more peaceful, notes Mustafa Akyol, the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” What went wrong? he asks in The New York Times:

After the A.K.P. won major victories in a constitutional referendum in 2010 and in elections in 2011 — and subdued the military — the party’s liberal rhetoric waned and its social conservatism came to the fore. Then it got worse. When the A.K.P. felt its power challenged in 2013, first by popular protests and then by a corruption investigation that many, myself included, believe was politically motivated, the party adopted the very authoritarian habits it used to oppose. Opponents turned into enemies to be crushed. The A.K.P.’s vision of democracy proved to be nothing more than the tyranny of the majority.

Those who tried to stay loyal to the more liberal founding principles, including its founder Abdullah Gul, were pushed aside, adds Akyol.

The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), a conservative coalition with roots in political Islam, came to power in 2002 as cautious and wary outsiders, FT analyst David Gardner notes:

They scarcely had a toehold in a secular state built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire. Initially, they relied on the shadowy Islamist movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, a US-based imam, which over three decades had inserted its cadres into the judiciary, the police and then the intelligence services. 

Over time, and swept forward by Mr Erdogan’s electoral triumphs, the new AKP establishment supplanted the old secular elites. With the help of the Gulenists, and by fair means or foul, it elbowed aside generals and judges who, as late as 2008, were trying to get the AKP banned. All this helps explain why, even now, the AKP often behaves more like an opposition than Turkey’s paramount party.

Turkey’s core problem is not merely the A.K.P.’s latter-day authoritarianism, but the country’s combative, divisive, cynical political culture in which Mr. Erdogan’s party has thrived, Akyol suggests:

To ever become a genuine “model,” let alone to ensure peace in our country, we Turks need to agree on the liberal values that the A.K.P. once promoted: There are no enemies within our nation, just citizens with diverse views. And all of them deserve equal rights and freedoms, under a modest state whose job is not to dictate but to serve.

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