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Can democracy flourish in the Muslim Mideast? Consider Turkey

REUTERS/Cevahir Bugu
Protesters against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government shout slogans as they block the main Istiklal street in central Istanbul on Monday night.

Second of two articles.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, just after the Egyptian military decided to remove the elected, Muslim Brotherhood-led government, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a really terrible column (headlined “Defending the Coup”) that exemplified, in some ways, the condescension of our culture toward other, especially Muslim, cultures.

Others have ripped the column as a “Bigoted Rant” for suggesting that Egypt seems to lack even the “basic mental ingredients” for democracy.

It’s likely that Brooks, a moderate civil conservative and elegant writer who often makes subtler arguments, regrets some of those word choices. His main point, that electing a party more committed to a religious agenda than to democracy can be a setback for democracy, is both more familiar and more defensible than questioning the “mental ingredients” of a nation of 84 million.

But a much subtler blunder by Brooks was, to me, more telling. Facing up to that one might help us face some of the deepest issued raised by the coup in Egypt and the success of democracy in Turkey.

Yes, I said the success of democracy in Turkey.

Most Americans, including myself, know relatively little about Islam as a religion or a culture. Certain images – let’s say the image of Iranians chanting “Death to the America” and creating a system of governance featuring an unelected “Supreme Leader” whose power derives from his alleged understanding of the Qur’an – create a breeding ground for dislike and disrespect.  (Can I note, parenthetically, that Iran had a brief flowering of democracy in the 1950s but it was overthrown by a CIA-led coup on behalf of oil interests and justified on the false claim that the elected leader was in the thrall of Communists.)

Not a lot of democracy flourishes in the predominantly Muslim Mideast. In Iran, they actually have elections for president, but the ayatollahs get to decide who can run and whoever does win the job is subordinate to the Supreme Leader on key issue areas. Neighboring Syria makes even less of a pretense of democracy than that. The ruling Assad family, based in the small Alawite sect, has held power across two generations for 42 years while occasionally allowing for only the shamiest of election farces. The current Assad, who is slaughtering his subjects at an alarming rate, takes the tragicomic position that it would be wrong for him to engage in any negotiations for a change of government without allowing the Syrian people to decide at the polls.

The fragile, corrupt, U.S.-imposed democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and the oil-rich Mideast monarchies (all of whom are U.S. allies) also provide a reasonable breeding ground for Western suspicions that there is something about Islamic culture, at least in the Mideast, that is not conducive to the development of a real democracy.

Brooks says that those who hold this view have been “vindicated” by recent events in the Mideast. Here is the paragraph in which he blew it worse than his unfortunate “mental ingredients” line:

It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death.

But, for me, the most Islamophobic aspect of Brooks’ column was the inclusion of Turkey on the list of places where it “has become clear” that Islamists can’t govern.

Turkey is a democracy. And it is a democracy in which the military has played a role somewhat similar to the role the Egyptian military claims to want to play in the current crisis.

Turkey’s history

My chief guide on these matters is University of Minnesota political scientist Martin Sampson, who follows the Mideast closely. Sampson considers Turkey to be one of the two firmly established democracies in the Mideast. (Israel is the other.)

Turkey is ruled by a government chosen by the people, and has been for decades, in a string of elections deemed free and fair. It has executive, legislative and judicial branches. It has opposition parties. It has a robust news media representing a spectrum of opinion. (On the other hand, Bill Keller of the New York Times writes, it has more journalists in jail than any country on earth.)

The Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials as the AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won election and reelection by solid margins and has led Turkey since 2002, and has led it through a period of robust economic growth.

The AKP describes its policies as pro-Western, pro-American, pro-free markets. It is a (very important, given its location on the boundary between Europe and the Mideast) member of NATO and has been treated as a vital ally by all recent U.S. administrations.

Just pause there and ask yourself why Turkey would merit inclusion on a list of nations whose recent history has demonstrated that “radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government.” David Brooks should file some kind of retraction or clarification. But there is more to the story than that.

Following a principle laid down by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the post-Ottoman, post-World War I modern Republic of Turkey, the Turkish constitution bars religiously based parties. AKP is the historical descendant of an Islamist Party but, in compliance with the constitution, has officially abandoned Islamism as a governing program. Erdogan, a devout Muslim himself, was imprisoned in 1998 for reciting publicly a poem that was deemed an incitement to religious hatred. The poem had lines that translated as things like: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…”

Suspicion of Islamism

Naturally, because of its history, many secular Turks worry that the AKP is an Islamist wolf in secular sheep’s clothing, and maybe there are good grounds for those worries.

In addition to being under suspicion of Islamism, Erdogan also is perceived as an authoritarian. Both of these issues have been under the microscope this summer because of protests in Istanbul.

Erdogan has been backing a project in the highly popular Taksim Square/Gezi Park area that would replace some of the green-space (and Istanbul is apparently very short of green space) with a memorial structure to commemorate a military barracks that, at least in some eyes, was an homage to some glorious chapter in the Ottoman era when Turkey was the capital of all Islam.

As far as I can tell, some of the secular Turks of Istanbul saw this as evidence of Erdogan’s long-hidden Islamist agenda, some just didn’t want to lose the green space and, when Erdogan started to push back against the protesters, it also became a symbol of Erdogan’s authoritarian streak.

Things have gotten pretty bad, but not like bad would look in Iran, Syria or Egypt. Protesters blocked bulldozers. Cops used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. The crowds increased and lawsuits proceeded to block the construction.

Erdogan at first swore that he wouldn’t be deterred by a bunch of protesters. The protesters tweeted disrespectfully. Erdogan denounced Twitter as a “menace” that spreads “lies.” Now the names of Turks active on social media have been turned over to the police on suspicion of insulting Turkey’s leaders and fomenting riots.

On many recent days, Erdogan says or the authorities do something that makes you wonder whether Erdogan is about to let loose the hounds of hell. Only he doesn’t – or at least hasn’t yet. In Turkey, those are the dogs that didn’t bark.

The courts have ruled that the project should have been submitted to a popular vote in Istanbul. Erdogan has said that he will abide by the ruling of the courts, although it is under appeal. At least three protesters and one policeman have died in the course of all this back and forth.

That is no joke. But the news reports say at least 54 died Monday from riots and countermeasures in Egypt. And Egypt is under martial law, in the most fundamental sense that the elected civilian government has been dismissed and the military is directly governing the country.

The comparison between Egypt and Turkey has one more element that could help if you follow the crisis in Egypt over the months ahead. In both countries, it is often said that the military is the most respected of all institutions. In Turkey, the military has more than once taken power as the Egyptian military has just done. The Turkish military considers itself the ultimate guarantor of the secular, democratic legacy of Ataturk. Every time it has stepped in, it has ruled briefly, then turned the country back to a freshly elected civilian government.

To me, and I assume to most Americans, the idea of military rule seems roughly the opposite of democracy. But in Turkey, it seems to have been a vital element in keeping democracy on track. It’s easy to speculate but impossible to prove that the watchful eye of the Turkish military is one of the factors that encourages the AKP to restrain its Islamist impulses.

In Egypt, the military is asking Egyptians and the world to believe that it wants to play a similar role. It doesn’t want to run the country. It wants to be the guarantor of the fledgling new Egyptian democracy and to retreat to its purely military role after a round of constitution crafting and elections. Of course, that’s what the military supposedly did a year ago. This can’t work if it happens every year.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Steven Prince on 07/09/2013 - 02:02 pm.

    Excellent Post

    Instead of describing Brooks’ column as “really terrible” you could have said he wrote a typical Brooks column where the “factual” underpinning of his argument are based on a false equivalency. The amazing thing about Brooks is that anyone still takes him seriously.

    Brooks is too smart to consistently do this by accident, so I suspect it was not intellectual laziness that had him include Turkey in a list of failed democracies that includes Iran and Gaza. It was years of getting way with this type of intellectual dishonesty.

    For years I’ve use “Brooks” as a noun to describe an argument using an obvious false equivalency to advance an otherwise unsustainable postion. What would really be news would be if this column finally led to Brooks being dethroned as a “Serious” commentator.

  2. Submitted by Pinky Brain on 07/09/2013 - 09:51 am.

    About the army’s role in Turkey

    It is true that the military is keeping Erdogan’s and his Islamist allies ambitions in check. But over the last 6 years, Erdogan arrested many high ranking military officers with allegations of an imaginary coup that never happened. Islamists in Turkey for years organized themselves in the police and the judiciary, which enabled them to undermine the control of military. The leader of all this is an imam who is surprisingly living in a farm in Pennsylvania – Fethullah Gulen. On this imam’s green card application the references were Former CIA officers (formally and informally) Graham Fuller and Morton Abromovitz. So in Turkey, there is great suspicion that the islamists are supported by the US government – because the Turkish military openly opposed the invasion of Iraq by the US.
    Before he fled to the US – Fetullah Gulen was about to be arrested in Turkey when a video of him surfaced. In the video he was saying “The existing system is still in power. Our friends who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so that they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a nationwide restoration. However, they should wait until the conditions become more favorable. In other words, they should not come out too early.”
    For decades the Islamists used US support to undermine the secular system in Turkey. One thing the US foreign policy makers should understand – the same sneakiness you see in the above quote will turn against the US and the western world in general when the time is right for the Islamists. They use every play in the book to take power and appear democratic and pro-western. But their real faces will come out when they finish taking power in Turkey. I agree with Brooks that a party committed to a religious agenda cannot sustain a democracy. In fact, their aim is not to sustain democracy. Remember once Erdogan famously said “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.”

    • Submitted by Steven Prince on 07/09/2013 - 02:07 pm.

      “I agree with Brooks that a party committed to a religious agenda cannot sustain a democracy.”

      So how do you feel about Michelle Bachman and her fellow-travelers in the Republican Party?

      • Submitted by Pinky Brain on 07/10/2013 - 07:17 am.

        Same applies to them. I lived in both Turkey and the states long enough. They are more similar than I would have liked.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/09/2013 - 10:25 am.

    An interesting counterpoint…

    …to some of yesterday’s comments, including mine.

    One might make the argument that Turkey’s democracy is arguably more successful than most such attempts in the Middle East because of its specific effort to separate church and state. I’ve no idea how that idea would fly, or not, in the State Department or various universities, but it doesn’t seem totally without merit. From there, it might also follow that attempts by various public figures who call themselves “conservative” to inject various major and minor facets of Christian theology into our own government, ranging from Constitutional Amendments about prayer to inserting the phrase “…under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, are in fact not conservative in any meaningful sense, but represent the leading edge of a theocratic, anti-democratic, movement and spirit.

    History suggests that Christianity has not been notably more tolerant of dissent (read: heresy) than Islam, and true believers in any religion don’t usually encourage a full spectrum of opinions about any issue.

    And, as long as I’m meandering, I find it curious that the guarantor of democracy in Turkey seems to be the Turkish military. Most modern military organizations tend toward the secular (though it should be noted that “conservative” officials in and out of the American military have worked hard to inject fundamentalist Christianity into the service academies), but at the same time, there are no military organizations with which I’m familiar that operate democratically. That is, someone who’s spent a career in the military has very little practical experience with the democratic process. Orders are orders. They don’t get debated and/or compromised except at the command level. Noncommissioned officers in whatever service aren’t usually asked their opinion about a particular strategy or tactic unless things are going very, very badly, so badly that those with gold braid on their uniforms have gotten desperate.

    Having the military serve in the role of referee in a contentious democracy thus strikes me as more than a little odd, but hey, whatever works. If Turks are comfortable with that arrangement, and it serves their interests and needs satisfactorily, that’s all that’s necessary. Not every democratic government needs to be a copy of our own, nor should it be, since our own has recently demonstrated a kind of demented paralysis that doesn’t set a good example for anyone.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/09/2013 - 10:47 am.

      Excellent points!

      And while we’re at it, we might remember that Islam is not monolithic.
      The most radical Islamic countries; the ones posing the greatest threat to our interests; are Arab.
      Turkey and Iran, on the other hand, are non Arabic cultures that have long histories that predate Islam. It is not surprising that their political cultures are more nuanced than those of the Arabic countries. Both of them have a history of being bridges between Europe and Asia.
      And of course they lack significant oil reserves.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/09/2013 - 12:21 pm.

      The idea embedded in ….

      our way of looking at things i and maybe i have this in mind because of recent storm damage is insurance companies getting themselves off the hook due to “acts of god.” So what if the insurance purchaser is an”unbeliever ?”

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/09/2013 - 10:37 am.

    Is God’s will subject to results of a vote?

    Is it right that God’s will be subjected to the votes of unbelievers and infidels?

    What if the law you seek is entirely based upon an interpretation of God’s will made a thousand years ago?


    Recent survey data suggests that the vast majority of Egyptians are Islamists, as they continue to support in high numbers the implementation of sharia and its introduction into their country’s laws. In April 2013, Pew released a report titled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society”, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,798 Egyptians. The data was collected in November and December 2011, and hardly paints a picture of a stark secular-religious divide, or wide scale support for secularism in the definition commonly used. Rather, Egyptians overwhelmingly support the integration of religion and politics.

    The survey’s questions pertaining to the political role of sharia are particularly interesting. 74 percent favored making sharia the official law of their country, and this level of support varied little across age, gender, and education groups. Of those who favored making sharia the law of the land, 70 percent wanted sharia to apply to both Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The survey differentiated between and asked about support for a number of policies that might be considered part of Islamic law. There were high levels of support for many of these practices among those Egyptians who supported the implementation of sharia: 94 percent wanted religious judges (instead of civil courts) to decide family and property matters; 70 percent wanted corporal (hadd) punishments for crimes; 81 percent supported stoning as punishment for adultery; and 86 percent supported punishing those who converted from Islam with death. When asked “How closely do your country’s laws follow sharia?”, 39 percent of the sampled Egyptians responded that they did somewhat or very closely, while 56 percent responded that the laws did not follow sharia. More importantly, when asked whether it was positive or negative that the country’s laws did not follow sharia, only 25 percent of individuals said it was a good thing, with 67 percent saying it was a bad thing. Arab barometer data collected in June 2011 also found that 80% of a 1200-person nationally representative sample of Egyptians agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “The government and parliament should enact laws in accordance with Islamic law.”

    (end quote)

    As has been exhibited repeatedly in history, the marriage of democracy and a state religion is not likely. And the individual rights of minorities are quite likely to be suppressed.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/09/2013 - 01:02 pm.

    David Brooks

    fits the definition of an intellectual as
    ‘someone who can speak with equal ignorance on any topic.’
    Personally, I think he’s part of an insidious plot by the NYT to discredit conservatism.

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