Turkey discredits some orientalist myths

Why the glaring contrast between how the US-EU democracies engage with triumphant Islamist democrats in Turkey, and how these same US-EU democracies sanction and lay siege to triumphant Islamists in the Arab world, especially Hamas in Palestine?

Turkey discredits some orientalist myths
The sweeping victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey's parliamentary election Sunday is historic for Turkey, but it also holds important lessons for others, such as the United States, European Union and other Western governments, and Islamist political parties throughout the Arab world. The lessons revolve around three related issues: the participation of Islamist parties in democratic transformations in the Middle East; the relationship between secularist nationalism enforced by the armed forces and electoral Islamism supported by much of the citizenry; and, how Western democracies should most effectively deal with situations in which democracy and Islamist parties rear their heads simultaneously in the developing Middle East. As always, Turkey has much to teach us all.

Many in the Arab world, and honest men and women in the West and Israel, should now compare and contrast the experience of political Islamists in Turkey and Arab countries, and ask: Why the glaring contrast between how the US-EU democracies engage with triumphant Islamist democrats in Turkey, and how these same US-EU democracies sanction and lay siege to triumphant Islamists in the Arab world, especially Hamas in Palestine?

The trajectory of previous Islamist parties in Turkey, that were twice banned and ejected by the armed forces in the 1990s, ultimately gave way to the pragmatism and realism of the AKP. This has led them not only to victorious incumbency, but also to this week's strong popular reaffirmation by the most important force in a real democracy -- the thinking, voting citizenry.

This week's victory is especially significant because it is also a slap in the face to the strong-armed tactics of the armed forces, who made it clear in early May that they would intervene to safeguard Turkey's secular system in the face of any real or imagined Islamist threat. The populace and the AKP both reaffirmed their commitment to Turkish secularism, democracy, rule of law, economic reform, and the desired entry into the European Union. The election, in one fell swoop, telescoped centuries of Orientalist distortions about Middle Eastern governance and political values into a single, clear affirmation of contemporary Turkey's most important lesson for us all: It is, in fact, easy to reconcile democracy, nationalism, secularism, republicanism, constitutionalism, stability, prosperity and Islam in a single process. That process is inclusive, honest democracy, in which all legitimate players take part and the winner is allowed to govern.

The US-EU wisely engaged Turkey's political system over the past two decades and gently prodded it towards a combination of liberal human rights norms and economic reforms that have served the country well. The armed forces accepted the need to give way to legitimate elected governments. The AKP and its precursor Islamist parties learned that to be taken seriously they must adhere to reasonable rules defined by the majority of Turks, not by the armed forces or the West alone. Their repeated success reflects their ability to identify and respond to the will of the Turkish majority, which wants to affirm its Islamic values while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of a democratic electoral system, a secular public space, a growing economy, and national Turkish pride. Consequently, the constitutional issues being contested in Turkey are playing out impressively in the arenas of elections, peaceful rallies, court hearings, the media, and the court of public opinion.

Why has this process not happened in any Arab country? One key element is there: the willingness of mainstream Islamists to engage in democratic and electoral politics, as we have witnessed in Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt since the late 1980s.

Other key elements, however, are not in place in the Arab world. The armed forces and security systems that rule many Arab countries do not feel the need to meet the Islamists and their citizens halfway. The United States and European Union have not engaged Arab Islamists fairly, as they have the Turks. The Western-Israeli boycott of victoriously elected Hamas has been devastating for the credibility of democratic transformations in Arab lands -- though it does not seem to have hurt Hamas' legitimacy very much. Arab ruling elites are not very inclined to engage Islamist parties honestly, or afford them the opportunity to govern should they win a free and fair election.

The issue of Israel also looms large, because Arab Islamist sentiments are fostered in part as a form of resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression. Islamists who fight Israel in legitimate resistance or self-defense find themselves nullified and rejected as democratic actors in domestic politics -- a nullification fervently supported by the United States, with the Europeans dragged behind unimpressively.

Turkey's lesson is that absolutist governance formulae do not work, and relative political compromises and balances are better options that enjoy widespread popular support. Islamists (as well as nationalists, leftists and others driven by firm ideologies) who are accepted in democratic politics and win elections usually become more pragmatic when they are subjected to the accountability of their entire citizenries. Thank you, Turkey, for reminding us of this.


Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 30 Temmuz 2007, 01:04
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