Meanwhile in Ankara: The Real Hope for Spreading Democracy in the Middle East Isn't Iraq-It's Turkey

By Byford, Grenville | The Washington Monthly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Meanwhile in Ankara: The Real Hope for Spreading Democracy in the Middle East Isn't Iraq-It's Turkey


Byford, Grenville, The Washington Monthly


Less than a year ago, as the United States hurtled toward war in Iraq, the White House found itself in an acrimonious battle with longtime NATO ally Turkey. For more than half a century, the Turks had been a vital ally at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. During that period, Turkey had usually been a democracy, but an imperfect one. The Turkish military frequently- interfered in the political process on behalf of its version of secular, pro-Western values. But on the eve of the war in Iraq, the Turks had a new government. The Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had swept to power on promises of economic reform and greater democracy. Self-described as "conservative democrats," the new government was dominated by pious Muslims and struggled to rid itself of the "Islamist" label, and its negative connotations.

The United States leaned hard on the Turks to allow 40,000 to 60,000 American troops onto Turkish soil to push into Iraq from the North. And the new government did ultimately put the necessary hut highly unpopular legislation before Turkey's parliament, which balked. Despite public words to the effect that they respected Turkish democracy, the Bush administration's anger was obvious. Since then, tempers have cooled. Most recently, the Turkish government responded positively to the U.S. request for 10,000 peace keepers in Iraq and gained approval from parliament. The United States, however, promptly disinvited the troops under pressure from various Iraqi groups in January. In what little publicity, this visit received, it was billed as "fence-mending?

Such lack of media interest is a shame. As the Muslim leader of a real democracy, Erdogan is potentially a figure of historic significance. The Bush administration says that democracy is the juju which will fix the Middle East. Yet the steady progress of Ayatollah Sistani toward center stage in Iraq illustrates how difficult it is to implant democracy without the backing of islam. Whether Sistani is a devoted democrat or a sly defender of his religious faction in Iraq remains to be seen. What's clear is that positive change in the lands of Islam is far more likely to occur if Islam itself becomes a party to these changes rather than an obstacle. Prime Minister Erdogan is a pious Muslim who also believes in democracy and human rights, including gender equality. Terrorism cannot be Islamic, he says, because "Islam never supports terrorism" But the practice is supported by at least some self-described Muslims. If Erdogan can win his fellow Muslims over to his view of Islam, there is a real chance for democracy to flourish and terrorism to decline throughout the Muslim world. The aim of U.S. policy must, therefore, be to find ways to help Erdogan--and people like him--acquire the stature that they need to be persuasive. Given a powerful advocate, history suggests that changing how Muslims view their religion is not a hopeless task.

Religious evolution

Today we take it for granted that the Christian societies of medieval Western Europe have developed into the modern world. Their Jewish citizens contributed to this development once emancipation gave them the opportunity to do so, not least by founding the state of Israel as a modern, liberal democracy. But modernity is not an obvious product or Christianity or Judaism. It is, rather, derived from the ideas of individual Christians and Jews, ideas which have slowly become accepted by the majority of their co-religionists. Galileo, remember, narrowly avoided the fiery death of a heretic. Only later did Christians decide that a heliocentric universe was consistent with their faith.

For the past 400 years, most Christians have chosen to change their beliefs and adapt to modernity rather than reject it. The Jews who have left the Orthodox synagogue for the Reform and Conservative movements have made similar choices. Christianity and Judaism manage to co-exist with modernity because their believers have chosen doctrinal evolution. …

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