Turkey has been increasingly visible on the world stage in recent years, especially in relation to the Middle East. The population is almost 100 percent Muslim, but the state is firmly secular and the government is democratically elected.
As the Arab World goes through a period of upheaval, people are looking at Turkey’s political experience and taking notes.
The ‘Leaders of Change’ summit held in Istanbul was a chance to exchange ideas. Economic and social themes were explored by the intellectuals, religious leaders, journalists and politicians. The development of modern Turkish democracy was a central theme.
Within the Turkish model, pluralist structures are blended. The governing AKP party was originally Islamist, but it became secular, just as Christian politics in Europe have now become secular in most countries.
Wendy Chamberlin, a veteran diplomat and the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, said: “I think Turkey is emerging as a very important leader in the region. Turkey has been able to demonstrate that rapid economic growth, democracy and faith in Islam are not incompatible. In fact, they are mutually supportive. And I think this is a very important leadership position for Turkey to be in.”
The belief that Turkey’s transformation is a work in progress is also held by veteran opponents of authoritarian rule.
Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, an opposition leader in Tunisia, said: “Turkey is unique; a democratic country run by a political party whose references are Islamic. The big question for the Arab world and the world in general is whether political Islam and democracy are compatible – and Turkey apparently answers that in the affirmative. I cannot say, however, if it is the exact model the Arab world is looking for. We are looking for a model which includes all forces, and that means also the forces of political Islam.”
Sceptics say that, at best, Turkish democracy is democracy for beginners, a good start – can do better. It is true that a key motivation for reform has been the country’s attempts to join the EU – and observers point to the army’s ambivalent role.
Tariq Ramadan from the University of Oxford told euronews: “The Turkish model must also be reformed. We are in a long process. Turkey has accomplished a lot but we are not in a democracy that is absolutely independent of military questions or questions of the EU. So, I think there is an idea from the Muslim point of view that can find something possible in Turkish democracy, which is having a lot of influence in the Arab world today.”
Others insist that Turkey should establish a better democracy at home before exporting its system.
Stephen Kinzer, a journalist and expert on Turkey said: “Before any country can assume an increasingly leading role in the world, it needs a solid base at home. Turkish society is showing signs of polarisation, and the intolerance that has plagued Turkish society for years still exists. Until Turkish becomes more unified and domestic conflicts are calmed, I think there is a limit to how much influence Turkey can have on the larger world.”
Turkey does not pretend to have a democratic package all tested and ready for export, but the evidence is that it is pursuing its own democratic revolution through constructive political means.