By Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
BEIRUT: At the beginning of the decade many believed Turkey to be the ideal model for the region. It had transitioned from an authoritarian military dictatorship to more or less a parliamentary democracy in which once banned Islamists had come to power through the ballot box. Then Prime Minister Erdogan (and now president) even launched initiatives to increase his influence in the region like lifting restrictions on visas for Lebanese and supporting armed groups in Syria. But now as Turkey has been accused of funding fundamentalist groups and facing a simmering civil war with its Kurdish population, it is time to put to rest the thought that the Turkish model was an ideal one for the Arab World.
Modern Turkey replaced the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the last century. Kemal Ataturk, considered modern Turkey’s founding father, fought against any remnant of the past in order to establish a secular modern nation state like we see in the rest of Europe. He banned the veil, abolished the caliphate, and even made it mandatory to use a Latin script to write Turkish. For Western pundits, this was great, a Muslim nation adapting the model of the European nation state – their dream. Turkey naturally became a top Western and Israeli ally. What experts overlooked was the forced Turkification that non-Turks would endure in order to create a homogenous nation state although the Ottoman Empire was renowned for its diversity. Native Armenians and Greeks, who already had suffered ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Ottomans, were now faced with extra taxes and virtually had a ban on the building of their churches and even faced pogroms. It also goes without saying that Turkey still denies the Armenian Genocide. And then there was the Kurdish question in which for decades Kurdish was banned and the mere mention of being Kurdish seemed to be a sin against Turkish identity.
Turkey’s secularism was a mirage. Although Ataturk had banned the veil and abolished the caliphate, this did not mean Turkey had disavowed religion. The state had merely co-opted Islam. Mosques came under state control and imams were now on government payroll, unlike in secular France where the state is completely separate from the church. Also hints of Islamic law still lingered, with restrictions on church building, the patriarchal college closed and even at one-point taxes on non-Muslim religious minorities was enforced.
There is also the Turkish democratic system itself. Unlike in other democratic countries Turkey was trying to emulate, there were no real checks and balances on power within the government. The only power broker was the military, which would intervene against any government it did not like. As Erdogan has managed to cast aside Turkey’s powerful military institution, there has been little to stop his increasing grip on power and his possible move to strengthen the position of the presidency, which in the past was only a ceremonial position. He has already begun to launch a low level war with Kurds in southern Turkey, clamp down on press freedoms, and has built himself one of the biggest presidential palaces in the world. He has also begun to chip away at Turkey’s once touted secular system by pledging to restore certain churches into mosques, bring back Ottoman Turkish in schools and now has his own guard dress as Ottoman knights.
Is this the type of system we want in the Arab world, where militaries intervene, Islamist leaders run unchecked, and ethnic and religious minorities fought against? The answer is an obvious no. First and foremost it is time that so called experts stop trying to look for models of governance for the Arab World. Arab countries do not need to emulate the European nation-state, where enforcing one ethnic narrative is a must. Instead Arab states need a model of governance that embraces pluralism and can have effective checks and balances. Reports have shown people in the Arab world are fed up with corruption and poor governance. Why recommend a system that is prey to authoritarianism? We need leaders who recognize past atrocities in the region, not deny them. The Western world must stop looking to any Muslim country and hold it as an example for the Arab World which is an extremely diverse and expansive region and not a monolith. Such shallow logic is bound to fail.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon