Growing up as a kid, the word Turkey, meant 2 things to me, one was that fat, weird looking bird, that often ended up as a Thanksgiving delicacy, and the other one was a country, whose sobriquet was The Sick Man of Europe. Growing up later my knowledge of Turkey was restricted to Istanbul, the place made famous by some of those 007 movies and Hollywood heist flicks like Topkapi.
It was much later I had a slightly basic idea of Turkey’s history, primarily the Ottoman Empire, its fall, Turkey’s defeat in WW1 and Kemal Attaturk, transforming Turkey into a modern, secular nation. The Sick man of Europe epithet, was believed to have been originated by Tsar Nicolas I in Russia, the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of collapse, Turkey was one of the more poorer nations. While Turkey, did cover itself with glory in the Battle of Gallipolli during WW1, it ended up as an overall loser. And T.E.Lawrence’s campaign, uniting the Arab tribes, against the Turks, accelerated the downfall, as the Arab nations broke away from the Ottoman Empire, emerging as independent nations of their own. For a major part of the 20th Century, Turkey was an economic laggard, one of the poorer nations in Europe. Faced with grinding poverty back home, most of the Turks, choose to migrate, primarily to West Germany, where they settled in large numbers, quite often leading to race conflicts too.
But foremost, I do not subscribe to the view that Islamic culture and democracy cannot be reconciled.
It was in one such poor neighborhood in Istanbul, Kasimpasa, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the present Prime Minister of Turkey was born in 1954. Kasimpasa was primarily used a naval yard during the Ottoman Empire era, and after the fall of the empire, the area also fell into neglect, turning into one of Istanbul’s more poorer areas. Erdogan’s story seems pretty much the kind of inspirational man with a dream movies, that Hollywood quite often keeps churning out.
Coming from a humble background, Erdogan sold lemonade and simit( a Turkish snack), on the streets to make some extra money. It was the rather humble background of his childhood, plus the more conservative outlook of his family, that would in a way, shape Erdogan’s own ideology. Erdogan’s first brush with politics was in 1974, when he wrote the play Maskomya, primarily a strong statement against the 3 ideologies, often considered evil in Turkish society, Freemasonry, Communism and Judaism.
Erdogan started his political career with the Islamist National Salvation Party during the late 70’s, a counterpoint to the more secular culture. In fact when he later was elected as the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, it was a news that concerned more secular citizens, fearing an imposition of Sharia. Erodgan however, proved to be a more pragmatic Mayor, focusing on the more vital issues like traffic and pollution.
The Western man has freedom of belief; in Europe, there is respect for worship, for the headscarf. Why is there not in Turkey?
Two major developments would shape Erdogan’s way of thinking. One was in 1997, when the military ousted the Islamist regime of Necbettin Erbakan, who had come to power in 1996, forming a coalition with the centrist right True Path Party. Erbakan who had been Erdogan’s mentor in politics, was arrested, the party was banned, and Erdogan was one of those caught in the crackdown on the party. Erdogan was arrested for quoting the following line from a Turkish poem “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” and sentenced to 10 months. It was considered to be the end of his political career, with many writing him off.
The coup and the crackdown, would however also influence Erdogan’s way of thinking. He came to believe that Erbakan’s stridently conservative, anti Western line of thought, was not what Turkey needed. That in a way, helped in a major realignment, with Erdogan and his other colleagues like Abdullah Gul, who shared his views, to lead a breakaway movement.
Even as we ought to accept that each country would progress with a different method and speed toward that goal, the standard for the expected end-state should not be lowered
To Erdogan and Gul, the West was not an enemy, rather their vision was using the best of Western thought process into Turkey’s development, while at the same time retaining the essential Turkish identity. Their focus was on integration with EU, and political reforms initiated by the EU. While Erdogan rejected the religious conservative thought, at the same time he was not in favor of the militant secularism that had been a hallmark of Turkey, inspired by European nations. And it was in 2001, that Erdogan and Abdullah Gul established the AKP, or the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, Gul who was Erdogan’s close confidant, would later play a key role as a Foreign Minister, and later become the President too. Erdogan assured voters, that his was not an Islamist party, but more of a mainstream conservative party, that focused on political and economic liberalization.
AKP won the general elections in 2002, hands down, with Erdogan’s slogans of economic reforms, attracting a Turkey, that was crippled by a major economic crisis. In spite of the handsome victory, Erdogan still could not become the Prime Minister due to the ban on his political activities. However due to a change in the constitution, Erdogan finally managed to become the Prime Minister in 2003. As the PM, Erdogan began a series of measures, aimed at political reforms. The European Court of Human Rights was given more primacy, and many restrictions on freedom of speech and press. Notwithstanding the attacks against journalists and media, Turkey, still remains one of the few nations in the Muslim world, that has a better freedom of the press.
I regard the endorsement of both the objective and a method – which can differ from one country to another- of democratization by the parties in the region as a basic requisite of democratization in the Middle East.
It was however his engagement with Turkey’s Kurdish community that was however vital. For long there was no love lost between the Kurdish community and the Turks, and an insurgency sparked by them in 1984, has still been continuing. It was a long and bitter conflict, of which I really can’t go into much detail here , which had casualties and human rights abuses from both sides. Erdogan took a step forward, negotiating a truce with the PKK, the main Kurdish party, and also took steps that included using the Kurdish language in the media, restoring the original Kurdish names of towns that had been replaced with the Turkish sounding names and granting amnesty to convicted members of the PKK. The conflict however not yet died down, and a renewed bout of fresh fighting has again started in 2011, it still remains a major challenge.
When Erdogan took over the Govt, the Turkish economy was in a major crisis, caused by stifling Govt restrictions, and low foreign investment, hard decisions had to be taken. Erdogan, backed Ali Babacan, a Kellog school graduate and technocrat, as the Finance Minister, and wisely kept him away from politics.
If you are wondering where you heard this before, yes Turkey in 2002, was pretty much like India in 1991, and Erdogan-Babacan duo, was the Turkish version of the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh tango. The average GDP growth has been 7.3% from the time Erdogan took over in 2003 to date. The debt amount of 23.5 billion USD which Erdogan had inherited, has been reduced down to 6.1 billion USD, and Turkey expects to clear all its debts by 2013. The public debt as a % of the annual GDP fell from 74% in 2002 to just around 39% in 2009, as shown by the above picture. Unemployment fell to around 9.7%, though during the 2008 global economic crisis in 2008, Turkey was not spared from the fall out. And from around 26.5 billion USD in reserves, it is at a much more healthier 92.2 billion USD in 2011.
Another radical move by Erdogan, was in healtthcare, where he bought Turkey’s 3 social security services into one single body, giving equal health benefits to all. He also came up with the move to provide universal free health care to any one under the age of 18, irrespective of whether they had paid premiums or not. In a way, it was an attempt to do away with the complex set of rules and regulations that had earlier characterized Turkey’s healthcare system.
The Muslim world and its subset the countries of the Middle East have been left behind in the marathon of political, economic and human development. For that, there is a tendency to blame others as the primary cause.
The major architect of Turkey’s foreign policy has been Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic and expert in international relations. His policy, was the keystone for Erdogan’s Govt, that sought to see Turkey as a major role player, having strategic depth, and more importantly as the bridge nation between the Muslim and Western world, the Balkans and the Middle East. The view being that Turkey can play a major role in the entire belt stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea to Central Asia to the Mediterranean.
The realization was that Turkey had been wasting too much time on conflicts with it’s neighbors and engagement was the need of the hour. It was this ideology that was articulated in Vision 2023, one which saw Turkey, being an economic giant,and a conflict resolver, as well as taking the leadership politically of the regions. In 2011, Erdogan made the visit to drought affected Somalia, and right now Turkey has been one of the major aid givers to that nation, as well as building the infrastructure.
Erdogoan has been the first Turkish PM to visit Brazil in 2010, another nation that was seeking to slowly shrug off it’s underperformer tag, and sign a FTA with it. While Turkey had been the first to recognize Armenia in 1991, relations still remain strained, mainly ue to Turkey backing Azerbaijan, during the Nogorno Karabakh conflict, as well as the earlier genocide of Armenians, still a thorny issue.
There exists an unmistakable demand in the Middle East and in the wider Muslim world for democratization.
During the recent Arab Spring events, Erdogan was the first to call Hosni Mubarak to step down, amidst the protests. Erdogan still remains a major influence for the Egyptians, who see in his AKP, a role model for most of the Muslim nations aspiring for democracy. Turkey has made major effort to build fences with Iraq, with Erdogan making a historic first visit to the Kurdistan region, as well as investing heavily in the infrastructure.
The major role though has been with the Iranian nuclear program, where Erdogan, let Iran outsource it’s uranium enrichment program to them, to beat the effect of the sanctions, in tandem with Brazil. In recent times, both Iran and Turkey have been moving closer in all ways, and a massive pipeline connecting both the nations, which could just be bad news for Saudi, already having to deal with Iran. Turkey in fact has been playing a major mediator role in the conflicts plaguing the region, be it the Syria-Israel conflict over the Golan Heights or the Iranian nuclear program. The relations with Israel have been more complicated, while Turkey has been the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel, and the latter has been one of Turkey’s main suppliers, relations have become strained. Turkey had been playing a role in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as well as the Israel-Syrian conflict. However the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010, has strained the relations, when 8 Turkish citizens were among those killed, add to it Turkey’s open support for Iran’s nuclear program, while accusing the West of double standards and aiding Israel’s.
Therefore, the question is not whether such democratization is possible, but instead how to meet the yearning of the masses in the Middle East for democracy; in other words, how to achieve democratization in the Middle East.
Turkey still has it’s own share of challenges, the Kurdish conflict and insurgency still continues inspite of the truce called in 2009. Erdogan faces strong opposition from the judiciary, over what they see as his dictatorial tendencies and interference. There is a huge domestic opposition to Erdogan, with massive protests in 2007, over his re election. And while Turkey, has generally had a better record of press freedom compared to other Muslim nations, journalists still carry the risk of being harassed and intimidated. What is however clear, that Turkey’s Sick Man of Europe days, are past well behind.
For long a perennial under performer on the world stage, Turkey is shaking off that tag, and is slowly emerging as a force to reckon with. What Erdogan has showed, is that it is possible for a Muslim nation to democratize, and still not lose it’s Muslim identity. In a way the Turkish model has emerged as the benchmark for most of these nascent pro democracy movements in the Middle East. Also considering Turkey’s location, it stands perfectly poised to become the bridge between the West and the East, the Muslim and Western world, and a key player in the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Mediterranean as well the Persian Gulf.