Letter from Cyprus: Turkey not anti-west

My experience dealing with Indonesia and Turkey over the past few years has taught me one thing; don’t take on face value the analysis of Westerners when it comes to the Muslim world.

My experience dealing with Indonesia and Turkey over the past few years has taught me one thing; don’t take on face value the analysis of Westerners when it comes to the Muslim world. Built into the European psyche is a fear of Islam. It goes back a long time, to the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries, the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the conquest of Spain by what were known as the Moors and its subsequent liberation and to the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683. These events may not mean much to the average Australian. But they do to Europeans. Europe may have defended itself successfully from Islam but it did not do so easily. And the Crusades ultimately failed. So back to Turkey. Many Westerners see the Turkish government as being Islamic and somewhat anti-Western. This is because the AK Party, the governing party of President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogen, has moved away from the secularist tradition of Kemil Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk re-moulded Turkey as a modern, secular, European state. It was only in 2002 that the AK Party won its first election and it has governed ever since. The AK Party makes no secret of its adherence to Islam and its toleration of Islamic traditions such as the wearing of headscarves. Those traditions were rejected by the previous, secular governments. The current government also makes no secret of its distaste for a high profile role for the Turkish military in Turkish governing circles. Yet that, too, had been the tradition of previous Turkish governments. It’s the AK Party’s move away from the Kemalist secular tradition in Turkey which has caused concern to a number of Western commentators. That has also played into a popular narrative that the Muslim world is becoming increasingly Islamic. But there’s more to the AK Party than its commitment to moderate Islam. It is in reality a liberal Islamist party which has presided in government over significant market-based economic reforms. These have been spectacularly successful. In the last decade, Turkey’s economy has grown at between five and seven percent a year. A customs union with the European Union and a reformed and stable banking sector mean that Turkey has started to emerge as a popular destination for European investors. What is more, the Turkish government has been angling to become a full member of the European Union. So a more accurate way of describing the modern Turkish government is by comparison with the German centre right Christian Democrat party and the government led by Angela Merkel. Certainly, they have their religious beliefs but they are moderate and tempered by the party’s commitment to liberal market economics. Turkey has not turned radical. Yet still there are Western commentators who like to think it has. This is important if we are to understand what is happening in the neighbouring Arab world. And remember, the Ottomans ruled most of the Arab world from Istanbul right up until the end of the First World War. Some of the early returns are in from the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, which was the first of the Arab countries to rise up against traditional Arab authoritarian government, the winners of the parliamentary elections were the moderate Islamists. In Morocco, which hasn’t endured a revolution, Islamists have just won a parliamentary election. But neither of these countries matters as much as Egypt, the largest of all Arab nations. The first round of its recent parliamentary elections suggests the Islamists have won a plurality of votes. But like Turkey, Islamist doesn’t necessarily mean hard line, fundamentalist Muslims who want to abandon modernism and rational economic growth. In Egypt, as elsewhere, the Islamists are divided between the Salafists and Wahabbiists who represent the extremes of Islam, and Islamic modernists. Commentators have expressed alarm at these election results but they may not have to worry. For many of the emerging, democratically elected Islamists, their role model is the Turkish AK Party and the government of Turkey. We shouldn’t automatically assume that such politicians are anti-Western. Typically they are not. They admire the Western economic model. But equally, we would be mistaken if we assumed they would automatically embrace all of the Western norms of human behaviour and even human rights. In the end, power in the Arab world is diffuse and so are outside influences. The Egyptians won’t want to become the puppets of the West they were up until 1951/2. But they need the West; they need its investment and expertise and they need the reassurance that the West will not allow the Arab world to be dominated by Iran. That’s where Turkey fits in. It is aligned with the West as a member of NATO and a partner through a customs union of the European Union. It is seen by many in the West as a bulwark against spreading Iranian influence. It is a model of economic success in the Muslim world which is desperately looking for a new economic paradigm. The moral of all this is, beware of Westerners who generalise about Islam. The Muslim world is as diverse as Christendom.  

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