Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Forgotten Secular Turkish Model

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Forgotten Secular Turkish Model

Article excerpt

Turkey, Past and Future

As the euphoric predictions of a brave new Middle East give way to more tempered expectations, Turkey is increasingly seen as a possible model for the fledgling Arab governments to emulate. According to a recent YouGov survey, 72 percent of Arabs identified Turkey as a "good model" with this figure higher (75 percent) among North African respondents and lower (65 percent) among Syrians and Lebanese. The three main reasons for this choice were Turkey's affinity with the Arab states in terms of culture, religion, and traditions (57 percent); Ankara's perceived prestige "in the eyes of the world" (56 percent); and the influence of Islam in Turkish politics (49 percent).1

Interestingly enough, the only Turkish experience that seems to be worthy of emulation is that of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP), ignoring the "original" Turkish model - secular modernism - and the role it played in post-colonial Middle Eastern history. Yet it was precisely this secular-democratic system that eventually - albeit unintentionally - led to the emergence and triumph of the Islamist AKP, which built much of its legitimacy on the critique of the very system from which it emerged. By contrast, the similarly secularist Arab regimes were ruthless dictatorships that held their subjects in an iron grip until a number of them were swept from power by the recent uprisings. An exploration of the original Turkish model, its strengths and weaknesses, might thus help inform and guide the future.

COLONIALISM AND THE APPEAL OF SECULARMODERNIZATION

The prevailing narrative of the "Great Arab Revolt" of World War I presents it as the culmination of deep-rooted resentment against four centuries of Ottoman control, ending once and for all any political unity between the Turks and the Arabs. What is less acknowledged, however, is that the Hashemite dependence on Britain, both during the war and throughout the attendant peace talks, can be retrospectively seen as a major mistake, creating a long-term dependency on the great powers and laying the foundations for the Middle East's chronic legitimacy crisis and anti-Western bent.

The ambitious anticolonial independence movements launched after the war were thus suppressed or co-opted by the colonial tutelage system. Even more problematic perhaps is that, with the exception of Algeria (and non-Arab Israel), the Arab states gained their independence not through struggle but by the consent of their post- World War II colonial administrators. It was only after (and because of) the latter 's imperial decline that they offered independence, leaving behind illegitimate, hastily built governments that were expected to protect the interests of their colonizers without colonial troops.

The Turkish republican leadership's obsession with independence and sovereignty, which rejected all forms of mandate, supervision, and foreign "assistance," stood in stark contrast to the Hashemites' acquiescence in joint statebuilding with the Allied powers as it was the Turkish war of independence (1919-23) that paved the road for modern Turkey to emerge as a fully sovereign and independent state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish independence is almost intrinsically tied to what can be termed the Kemalist project, after Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the republic's founding father, with its combination of republicanism, nationalism, and secular modernization. It was first copied by a non- Arab ruler - Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran (r. 1925-41), who embarked on an ambitious reform program along Turkish lines, which later slowed down because of mounting resistance from the Shiite clergy and finally collapsed altogether after his removal from power by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1 94 1 ? In the 1940s, Syrian Arab intellectuals Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, and Zaki al-Arsuzi pioneered the pan-Arab Baath party whose motto, "unity, liberty, socialism," mirrored that of the late Ottoman-era Committee of Union and Progress (with the addition of socialism). …

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