Can Democracy Flourish in the Muslim Mideast? Consider Turkey

07/09/2013 10:43 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2013

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 AFP 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.

Second of two articles. This post originally appeared at MinnPost.

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