"A FELLOW’S VIEW: Inshallah, A Middle East Like Turkey Not Iran"
Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Author: Joshua W. Walker, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2010–2011
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Given the recent events sweeping the Middle East, the role of Turkey as a regional model or inspiration has gained considerable traction. As a longtime ally of the West and new partner of Iran and Syria, Turkey has been seeking the role of mediator and model in every available arena including Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. As a G-20 founding member, holder of a seat on the UN Security Council, European Union aspirant, and head of the Organization of Islamic Conference, Ankara has transformed itself into an international actor, capable of bringing considerable clout and influence to its regions. One fact often gets lost in the debates about Turkey and its potential as a model: Ankara did not transform itself overnight from a defeated post-Ottoman state led by Ataturk’s military to a flourishing market-democracy led by a conservative Muslim party. It has been almost a century in the making.
As seen from the region, Ankara’s official strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement has been a welcome one. With its non-sectarian and pragmatic focus, Turkey offers the greatest economic incentives to finding political and sustainable solutions to the problems of the Middle East today. On the whole, the Turks have been embraced by the region because they have been both pragmatic and proactive in their diplomacy, compared to other regional players such as Iran that have been more ideological and reactive.
Having clearly placed Turkey on the side of the pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East starting with Tunisia and Egypt, Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) struggled with its response to Libya and now faces its greatest test in Syria. Ankara’s newly cultivated relations with the Arab world represent an opportunity to come out on the proverbial right side of history. Yet, as in Damascus, they also are a major challenge for Turkey as it balances its principles and interests throughout the region. As the first country to call for President Mubarak to step down at a time that other leaders, including President Obama, were hedging there bets, Erdogan has set Turkey up as a regional leader encouraging democracy in other Muslim countries based on its own experiences and lessons.
The Turkish experience with the AKP in a still-secular state with the continuing influence, albeit weakened, of the military with direct connections to the West does offer hope for coexistence between conservative Muslims in democratic politics with strong institutions in the Middle East. But comparisons to Turkey should be approached with extreme caution. Despite their superficial similarities, the various Arab Muslim movements, including the Brotherhood and Turkey’s AKP, have little in common. The Arab world and Turkey represent different political traditions, and the shape of any possible government in Bengahzi, Cairo, Damascus, or Tunis is likely to be unique. However, pushing for a Middle East that looks more like Turkey than Iran seems eminently more likely and desirable in the long run.
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