The Turkish elections garnered a large amount of media attention in the Arab world. The masses’ interest in them largely outweighed the interest they had in their own local Arab elections. This is due largely to the intense polarisation plaguing the Arab public, one that is characterised by Islamists and their supporters on the one hand and nationalists and secularists on the other.
How can Arabs interpret the Turkish political scene? What are the lessons that can be learned from the Turkish example by Islamist and secular forces alike?
An arbitrary reading
The Arab interpretation of the Turkish political scene has been subject to many intentionally arbitrary readings from many different parties. Islamist parties in Arab countries considered the victory of their Turkish “brothers” a victory for religious political parties in the region, while secular and nationalist parties considered the victory as proof that Arab Islamist groups had failed to create a model that is as successful as the Turkish example.
Moreover, anti-Islamist political movements, pro-Assad parties and the military establishment in Egypt all went as far as to create a dogmatic political rhetoric for the media that has no ideological or scientific value whatsoever and should not necessarily be debated.
It seems as though Islamic factions have taken advantage of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) victory in Turkey by considering it an “Islamic victory” despite the fact that the Turkish party has stated numerous times that it functions within a secular context and that it incorporates many individuals and sub-groups that do not have an Islamic base.
On the other hand, there are also many Islamic groups that do not consider Erdogan or his party as part of the political Islam movement at all. During the Turkish prime minister’s visit to Cairo in September 2011, when he encouraged Egyptians to consider the importance of having a secular state, many Islamic organisations accused him of “interfering in internal Egyptian affairs”. This was the reaction to Erdogan’s advice to the Egyptians, in which he urged them to not fear secularism “because it does not mean atheism”. Erdogan went on to emphasise that he is “a Muslim prime minister of a secular state”.
My intention here is not to lessen or undermine Islamic political groups’ right to celebrate Erdogan or the AKP’s victory. In fact, if we were to look at this situation pragmatically then one could see that Islamists should celebrate this victory. Erdogan’s party has many ideologies that are closer to these groups than most, especially when considering the polarisation in two key countries, Syria and Egypt. Erdogan’s ideology is undoubtedly closer to Arab Islamist groups than his own leftist, nationalist and ultra-conservative rivals in the diaspora and this is due to the Justice and Development Party’s “Islamic” political roots.
If the Arab Islamist interpretation of the AKP’s victory was constructed arbitrarily then one could argue that the Arab secular reading of the same scene was also arbitrary because it compared the political trajectory of Arab Islamist groups to that of the AKP and asked those groups to formulate policies that would reconcile between Islam and the secular state. Yet, the Arab reading or interpretation of the Justice and Development Party’s victory can be considered substantially incorrect because it de-roots the party from its own social, political and historical context and looks only at its recent victory. In reality, the Justice and Development Party’s experiences in modern Turkish politics are much more dynamic than the party’s recent victory alone.
This interpretation holds the assumption that if Arab Islamist parties follow in Erdogan’s footsteps the move will undoubtedly lead them to a political victory; however, this belief completely ignores the fact that Erdogan was not victorious and that his political will is part of a larger political game. The social and political factors in Turkey are not present in Arab countries, especially in Egypt, which is often viewed as the basis for comparison with Turkey because of its size and significance in the Arab world.
The first of the substantial differences between the Turkish scene and the Arab world, in Egypt in particular, is the lack of an Arab political life compared to the active political scene in Turkey. Such an active political culture dates back to 1945 when the republic ended its one-party rule policy. By contrast, the Arab world still suffers from the tyranny that results from one-man rule not just one-party rule, which has been the political reality of Arab states since their establishment.
The pluralistic history of Turkish politics, despite all of the challenges that it has faced, certainly contributed to refining the Islamist faction and all the parties that have an Islamic background. This is the rich history that most Arab Islamic movements and their nationalist, secular and leftist opponents lack.
Due to the long pluralistic experience in Turkish politics, the Turkish army’s ability to interfere in everyday life has become very limited after a long struggle with the Islamist and post-Islamist movements, beginning with Necmettin Erbakan until today. The division between political life and the army was solidified when the Turkish opposition decided against using the army to confront Erdogan.
However, within the Arab context, the army and political life are not yet mutually exclusive in the sense that the army is either working at the forefront of the political scene, working behind the scenes or working to undermine any opposition, as happened in Egypt, for example.
The second biggest difference is the fundamental difference in popular consciousness and how it’s linked to politics and education. The ability to read political events is limited as is the ability to form an opinion or adopt a mature, informed attitude.
If one takes Egypt as an example, we find that the illiteracy rate is 26.1 per cent compared to 5.9 per cent in Turkey (according to figures provided by the CIA). The stark difference in illiteracy rates between the two countries could serve as an explanation as to why the Justice and Development Party’ experience was not subject to as much manipulation by the media as its Arab counterparts. The Egyptian media succeeded in broadcasting propaganda against the Islamic faction whereas the Turkish media failed to convince the people that Erdogan has changed his position in the AKP despite the fact that they attempted to do so for months on end prior to the elections.
When we consider the fundamental differences between the Turkish scene and the Arab scene, and by this I mean between Erdogan’s experiences in the political arena compared to that of Arab Islamic movements, we find that the differences do not in any way reduce the mistakes made by these movements as the choices made by Islamist movements in Egypt specifically have strengthened their opponents both at home and abroad. Even if some of these groups attempt to replicate the Erdogan experience, it will not change the core issues that are not up for discussion at this time.
Lessons learned from the Turkish experience
Despite the fundamental differences that are found between the Turkish and Arab experiences, the Turkish democratic experiment could function as a model for secular and Islamic Arab political groups alike. Rather than simply asking the Islamist faction to learn a lesson or two from the Turkish example, secularist groups could also benefit from following this model.
The most important lesson that Islamic groups can derive from the Turkish experience is the need to determine a firm identity. Islamic groups need to stop depending on the idea of “constructive ambiguity”, which is something that many Islamic political groups depend on in their political slogans and their understanding of political dynamics and their position vis-à-vis liberal and democratic principles. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this ambiguity is that these Islamic groups often adopt a rhetoric that is contrary to that which is often exposed to the masses via the mainstream media, depending on the intended audience.
The Justice and Development Party defined its identity from its inception and distinguished successfully between itself and other political Islamic factions such as the Virtue Party and the Felicity Party by stating that it functions under the context of a secular state without losing respect for religion. The AKP has made it clear that it does not believe that being a moderate secular party conflicts with the religiosity of citizens, but at the same time it does not govern according to Islamic law.
While Erdogan and his party entered the Turkish political scene in 2001 with a clearly defined identity and ideology, Arab Islamic parties often participate in their respective political scenes without clearly defining their group’s ideologies or identities. At best, if we were to look at the Nahda movement in Tunisia, we can see clearly that there are often differences of opinion between the opinions of the group’s members and those of its leader, Sheikh Rachid Al-Ghannouchi.
While it is not necessary for all Arab Islamic parties to adopt a vision that is similar to the Turkish Justice and Development Party, what is required of them is to adopt a clearly defined group identity and to inform their members about it. This new found sense of clarity will achieve two things: first, Islamic movements will be held accountable by the masses based on their clearly defined identities and ideologies as opposed to falling victim to contradictions such as the stark difference between political slogans and the implementation of policies on the ground. This is exactly what happened in Egypt, for example, when there was a huge difference between the policies that the Muslim Brotherhood suggested and the actual policies that were carried out.
Second, those who elect an Islamic political group will do so based on a clearly defined ideology and characteristics and they will in turn be able to defend their choice based on this ideology and explain why and how much they are willing to give up in order to defend this choice.
The most important factor to consider and the most important lesson that Arab political groups can learn from the Turkish experience is that the democratic process prevailed despite all the complications that occurred before the elections. The democratic process prevailed thanks to the decisions that were made via the ballot box and the Turkish public’s acceptance of the outcome. At no point did the army intervene to stage a coup against an elected government, which is very different from what occurred with the Egyptian secularists.
Furthermore, the Arab secular faction must study the Turkish scene thoroughly in order to understand the importance of respecting religion in Muslim countries. The Justice and Development Party’s 12 years of success have enabled it to address the rising Islamic current in Turkey and to pair it with successful, practical economic and political achievements. This reality forced some secular Turkish groups to consider adopting slogans that are better suited to religious groups and the majority of the Turkish people during the last elections.
For decades, secular factions have failed to form solid grassroots movements for many reasons. Yet, the biggest reason is the inability of these groups to respect and consider the religious sentiments of the masses and the failure to develop media rhetoric that is harmonious with religion or reflects the sentiments of the majority of Muslims across the Middle East. Surely, secular groups must reconsider their rhetoric if they wish to reach the people and garner popular support.
Translated from Al Jazeera net, 7 May 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.