Whatever Happened to the ‘Turkish Model’?

About five years ago, everyone was talking about the “Turkish model.” People in the West and in the Muslim world held up Turkey as a shining example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and is now president, was praised as a reformist who was making his country freer, wealthier and more peaceful.

These days, I think back on those times with nostalgia and regret. The rhetoric of liberal opening has given way to authoritarianism, the peace process with the Kurdish nationalists has fallen apart, press freedoms are diminishing and terrorist attacks are on the rise.

What went wrong? Erdoganists — yes, some of them call themselves that — have a simple answer: a conspiracy. When Mr. Erdogan made Turkey too powerful and independent, nefarious cabals in the West and their treacherous “agents” at home started a campaign to tarnish Turkey’s democracy. Little do they realize, of course, that this conspiracy-obsessed propaganda, the self-righteousness it reflects and the hatred it fuels are part of the problem.

To understand why the Turkish model has let us all down, we have to go back to the 2001 founding of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. At that time, Turkey was under the thumb of secularist generals who would overthrow any government they couldn’t control. In 1997 they ousted the A.K.P.’s Islamist predecessor, so the founders of the new party put forward a post-Islamist vision. They had abandoned their old ideology, they declared. Their only priorities now were bringing Turkey into the European Union and moving the country toward liberal democracy.

This not only sounded nice, it actually worked nicely for a while. In its first eight years in power, the A.K.P. enacted liberal reforms and adopted liberal rhetoric. Turkey’s fundamental problem, the party said, was an overbearing state that trampled on citizens’ rights. Opposition to the state, such as the Kurdish nationalist movement, had to be understood as reactions to authoritarianism, not as plots by traitors or imperialists. Stability would come from more rights and freedoms, not fewer. As a result, the A.K.P. became the darling of Western capitals and Turkish liberals — myself among them.

But the story wasn’t over. After the A.K.P. won major victories in a constitutional referendum in 2010 and in elections in 2011 — and subdued the military — the party’s liberal rhetoric waned and its social conservatism came to the fore. Then it got worse. When the A.K.P. felt its power challenged in 2013, first by popular protests and then by a corruption investigation that many, myself included, believe was politically motivated, the party adopted the very authoritarian habits it used to oppose. Opponents turned into enemies to be crushed. The A.K.P.’s vision of democracy proved to be nothing more than the tyranny of the majority. Those who tried to stay loyal to the more liberal founding principles, including its founder Abdullah Gul, were pushed aside.

Turkey’s secularists see an Islamist conspiracy behind this: The A.K.P had hidden its “true colors” until the right time. But I think that the party’s changes involved less planning — and fewer principles. The A.K.P. adopted a liberal discourse out of mere necessity, without giving it much thought or going through a real ideological transformation. Once the party grabbed power, its members were tempted, intoxicated and corrupted by it. The cadres and classes that now rally behind Mr. Erdogan have found wealth, prestige and glory for the first time in their lives. They seem determined not to lose them — regardless of what that means for Turkish democracy.

But just because the A.K.P. failed as a model of liberal Islamism doesn’t necessarily mean that all Islamists threaten liberal democracy. Tunisia’s experience shows this. There, the Islamist Ennahda Party has proved not only popular and triumphant but also reconciliatory. Consequently, Tunisians have been able to accept an admirably liberal constitution with broad national consensus — something that looks like a distant dream for us Turks. One of their secrets, perhaps, is that Rachid Ghannouchi, a founder of Ennahda and its “intellectual leader,” is less a Machiavellian politician and more a principled scholar.

None of this means that Turkey should be pushed away from the West. Nor should anger at Mr. Erdogan and his party lead to the assumption that Turkey is always wrong or its foes are always right. Under the Erdogan government, Turkey has helped Syrian refugees more than any other country. Western countries should acknowledge this and offer support. And Turkey’s worries about Kurdish separatists are not unfounded, as proved by two recent suicide bombings in Ankara claimed by secular Kurdish militants.

Moreover, Turkey’s core problem is not merely the A.K.P.’s latter-day authoritarianism, but the country’s combative, divisive, cynical political culture in which Mr. Erdogan’s party has thrived. We are a “torn country” that has not achieved its peace yet, and I am afraid we will not heal soon. And while Mr. Erdogan might be the latest manipulator of this drama, all other political actors share responsibility.

To ever become a genuine “model,” let alone to ensure peace in our country, we Turks need to agree on the liberal values that the A.K.P. once promoted: There are no enemies within our nation, just citizens with diverse views. And all of them deserve equal rights and freedoms, under a modest state whose job is not to dictate but to serve.

Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, and a contributing opinion writer.

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