A Test for The West In Turkey

By Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, who serves as honorary president of AccountAbility, an international nonprofit think tank that promotes accountability in business practices, civil society and public organizations. He also advises the People’s Justice Party of Malaysia (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/07/07):

This month’s elections in Turkey have been described as a battle for the soul of the nation. But far from being a battle between secularism and Islam, as some would have us believe, this is really a conflict between the forces of freedom and democracy on the one hand and authoritarianism on the other.

The outcome will decide whether Turkey continues down the modernizing path it was set on some five years ago by the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party or backtracks onto the path where might is right and power is achieved through the barrel of a gun. Will there be a resolution to forge a new consensus between state and citizen that is at ease with Turkey’s Muslim heritage and its secular political culture, or will the forces of the military usurp the people’s right to choose their government and undermine the government’s mandate to serve the people?

Demonstrations in Ankara in April and May raised the specter of radical Islam as reason to circumvent the democratic process. But to label this government with the attributes of radical Islam is to fly in the face of reality. This is a government clearly committed to the process of preserving democracy at great costs while taking concrete steps to dispel the misperceptions about parties with an Islamic tag. Whereas the secular underpinnings of the Turkish state have in the past always been secured by military force, today we finally see a secular government that is democratically elected and that has no need to demonize religion. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s courageous steps toward European Union membership, particularly in the area of legal reform, should also dispel any doubts about Turkish convictions regarding democracy.

Since the early 1980s, Turkish politics have been characterized by a strong state and a weak civil society in which individual rights were tolerated only if they conformed with the centrist vision. Elections throughout this period were overshadowed by draconian measures taken to stifle and subvert opposition groups across the political spectrum. But with the landmark parliamentary elections of 2002, these undemocratic practices seemed, until recent developments, to have been relegated to history.

Commitment to the democratic process represents a paradigm shift in Turkish politics through which the will of the people has been translated into sound economic policies, enhanced social welfare and greater integration with Europe. In stark contrast to the military’s threats of intervention, Turkey’s leaders have demonstrated clear resolve and commitment to reform.

The implications of a military intervention would be far-reaching and grave. One need not resurrect the sins of commission in Algeria. While constitutional provisions in Turkey mitigate against the possibility of a hijacked electoral process, the Turkish people would be unlikely to take such a move lightly if it did occur. We could expect negotiations with the European Union to immediately dissolve, much to the satisfaction of those governments in Europe that from the start have been bent on seeing Turkey excluded. The unprecedented growth that the Turkish economy is experiencing would undoubtedly slow. Ultimately, we could witness the collapse of the civilizational bridge being forged in Istanbul between East and West.

Also troubling would be the betrayed aspirations of Muslim democrats in Turkey and across the Muslim world. Turkey, like Indonesia, is widely regarded as a test case demonstrating harmony between Muslim politics and democracy. It is an expression of peace and development that has riveted Muslim interest and sparked pride internationally. Radicals would be sure to use a coup as evidence of the West’s duplicity in calling for freedom and democracy in the Muslim world while turning a blind eye to authoritarian rule. Moderates would lose ground in a region beset by radicalism that is fueled by the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli crisis.

In the coming weeks, the true colors of the stakeholders in this drama will be revealed. As one of its closest allies, Turkey may legitimately expect that the West will lend no support, overtly or otherwise, to any attempts to derail democracy. Failure to demonstrate unequivocal support for Turkish democracy would be a categorical invitation to extremism, whether Islamic or secularist, to reign free. Sure, those who claim to represent the aspirations of the modern Turkish state may well succeed in toppling the current government, especially when they are buttressed by sheer military force. But this would be a Pyrrhic victory, for the price would be freedom and democracy themselves.