Turkey and the Arab Spring


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photograph by Serdar Kilic

From New Left Review:

The political upheavals of the Arab Spring and electoral victories of Islamist parties have brought a resurgence of talk about the ‘Turkish model’—a template that ‘effectively integrates Islam, democracy and vibrant economics’, according to a gushing New York Times article last year, which hailed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as ‘perhaps the Middle East’s most influential figure’. White House officials stressed the positive example that Turkey could play, as a Muslim country that maintained diplomatic relations with Israel; in 2009 Obama hailed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as a ‘model partner’ and pillar of the NATO order on a much-trumpeted visit to Ankara. The International Crisis Group describes Turkey as ‘the envy of the Arab world’, delighting in ‘a robust democracy, a genuinely elected leader who seems to speak for the popular mood, products that are popular from Afghanistan to Morocco—including dozens of sitcoms dubbed into Arabic that are on TV sets everywhere—and an economy that is worth about half of the whole Arab world put together’. Tourists from elsewhere in the region flocked to witness ‘a Muslim society at peace with the world, economically advanced and where Islamic traditions coexist with Western patterns of consumption’.

The praise is echoed by Tariq Ramadan, who declared the Turkish Prime Minister’s September 2011 visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya ‘an immense popular success’—‘Arabs and Muslims looked on with amazement and admiration’ as Erdoğan spoke up for Palestinians’ right to exist. ‘He is on the right side of History’, Ramadan proclaimed. ‘Turkey can and must play an important role’, helping ‘to reconcile Muslims with confidence, autonomy, pluralism and success’. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has prided himself on bringing a new pax ottomana to the region, a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ approach that would expand Ankara’s influence across the Caucasus and the Black Sea, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, while helping to broker better relations between Israel and the Arab states. This vision disavows any neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions; rather, it is described by its proponents as a matter of ‘soft power’, underlining the smiling face they wish to set on it. As an emergent structure of feeling, the pax ottomana has been embraced by layers of the intelligentsia and by popular culture, extending far beyond AKP ranks. A nostalgia for all things ottomanesque has swept even secular Turkey, leading to record ratings for a soap opera about Sultan Süleyman and his harem’s intrigues; banalized and sexualized forms of imperial splendour have become part of the air one breathes.

After a decade of AKP rule, an international consensus has portrayed Erdoğan’s Turkey as the ‘successful’ alternative to both secular Arab authoritarianism and the revolutionary Islamism of Iran. Opinion polls reveal a more cautious assent: some 60 per cent of Arabs are reported to see Turkey as a model. To what extent does a cool-headed examination of the AKP’s foreign-policy and domestic record support these claims?

“Democratic Janissaries?”, Cihan Tuğal, New Left Review

Cover photograph by Paul Williamson