What future for the “Turkish Model” after fall of Morsi?

July 20, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

By Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoganMiddle East and North Africa, July 18, 2013: Turkey has long been touted as a successful model of an Islamist democracy. Ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi had described it as a “source of inspiration”. But after his fall and large-scale protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian rule and programme of state Islamisation, what is the future for political Islam?

Erdogan has been the leading voice condemning the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi, with whom he had formed a strong alliance. The two Islamist leaders shared a common ideology and also strategic interests in the region.

Morsi had looked to Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a political role model, and the latter had invested heavily inEgypt; Turkey provided substantial financial support to help the country’s floundering economy and also sent leading officials and experts to help reform Egypt’s largely secular institutions.

Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party has also expressed admiration for the “Turkish model”.

The fall of Morsi is thus a major blow for Turkey’s aspirations of becoming a regional model for post-Arab Spring Islamic regimes.

It also heightens the threat to Erdogan and the AKP’s domestic position, which has faced unprecedented challenge over recent weeks.

Taksim Square has been the focal point for anti-government protests

Taksim Square has been the focal point for anti-government protests

Turkey was rocked by wide-scale pro-secular protests in June; the unrest was sparked by the government’s redevelopment plans for Gezi Park, a section of Taksim Square in Istanbul, which include the construction of a 1,500-seater mosque. The move was viewed as emblematic of the government’s Islamic takeover of Turkey’s highly prized secular state.

That state has traditionally exercised close control over the practice of religion, and civil servants have run the country’s mosques, religious education, theology faculties and other such institutions. But Erdogan’s Islamic government has gone a large step further, pressing this state apparatus into service for the vigorous promotion of Islam.

Thus the government has quadrupled spending on Islamic affairs to $2.3 billion, more than one per cent of the national budget. The state is planning to build 600 new mosques this year, one of which, in Istanbul, will feature the world’s tallest minarets. Forty per cent of all newly created civil service posts have been in the religious bureaucracy.

In his efforts increasingly to Islamise the Turkish state, it seems that Erdogan has failed to learn from both his own and the country’s political history. He has previously tried to push the Taksim Square mosque project ahead and failed.

In 1997, he was mayor of Istanbul when Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, was overthrown by the military in a similar manoeuvre to that which removed Morsi in Egypt.

Erdogan was at that time overseeing a local commission in charge of the Taksim mosque plans. A local newspaper wrote that secular Turks objected to the mosque because it would “symbolise the power of the Islamists over Taksim as well as the whole country”.

In this and other ways, the Islamist government overstepped the mark, and they paid the price, the military stepping in to preserve the state’s secular character. Following their ouster, however, the Islamists reformed, becoming more moderate, and, under the new AKP banner, were once again able to attract the support of the electorate in a popular vote. Erdogan’s AKP won a landslide victory in 2002 and has won two subsequent elections.

Integral to its success was its commitment to power-sharing, pro-market economic policies, support for the country’s bid to join the European Union and willingness to reach out to a wider cross-section of Turkish society.

But Erdogan has become increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian, his response to the Taksim protests symptomatic of his attitude:

A mosque will be built in Taksim. I do not need permission from the main opposition and a few looters. We have been granted authority by those who voted for us at the ballot box.

He, like Morsi, has abused his position, thinking that he can do anything he wants because he has won an election. But that is not democracy, and the people of Egypt have demonstrated what can happen when the will of the masses is ignored.

Erdogan does not yet seem to have grasped this. Protests in Gezi Park are ongoing, and the authorities are continuing to use heavy-handed tactics against the demonstrators. Five people have been killed since the protests started.

Though it seems unlikely that Erdogan will share Morsi’s fate – his government is much more established than his Egyptian counterpart’s was – he does need to learn from past events, both recent and distant, in his own country and allied nations.

The overthrow of Erbakan in 1997 and Morsi on 3 July highlight that there is a limit to the role that Islam can play in politics in countries where strong secular traditions have been established. Although the Turkish and Egyptian people have elected Islamist leaders in free and fair elections, many of them do not want the state to become a vehicle for the propagation of the regime’s interpretation of Islam. They do not want to see their countries become like Iran or Saudi Arabia, where there is virtually no separation between religion and the state, and therefore extremely limited rights and freedoms.

Islamism, which aims to see Islam dominate every aspect of society and the state, is an extreme ideology, and hence its proponents tend to be unwilling to compromise and include those with differing views.

But the power of the people cannot be ignored by Islamist politicians who have risen to greater prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring. They must remember that it was the secularists who launched that movement and secularists who forced Morsi’s ouster.

There is much at stake for the region’s vulnerable Christian community, whose plight has worsened as Islamists have been emboldened by political success. It is heartening for the Christian minorities in Turkey and Egypt that many of their Muslim neighbours are opposed to the state imposition of Islam, and are taking to the streets in defence of secular democracy, which offers all citizens at least the hope of an equal place in society.

– dr. patrick sookhdeo

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