Arab Spring Should Follow Turkey

Early optimism on the Arab Spring is quickly disappearing. We have seen popular protest transform itself into minor constitutional change in Arab monarchies, civil war in Libya and Syria, and increasing uncertainty in Tunisia and Egypt. Nevertheless, the fact is that tyrannical regimes have fallen and elections have taken place where they were previously unthinkable. This may strike many Western observers as signs of success. Elections and constitutional wrangling are indeed steps in the right direction. But the question is whether what has replaced the old regimes represents a lasting improvement.

In order for liberal democracy to take root in Arab countries, not only must there be a thorough and complete break with previous regimes, but theocratic tyranny must also not be allowed to replace them.

It may be hard to generalize across such a broad section of the world, but we think we can make one key recommendation for the promotion of popular sovereignty in the wake of the Arab Spring: religion must not be allowed any involvement in new Arab constitutions.

To see why this would be a good idea, one need not to look far. Liberal Turkey should be the model for emerging Arab democracies. At the end of the First World War, the need to reform and eventually to abolish the sultanate was widely felt in Turkey. Opposition to the old Ottoman regime broke down into two main camps: Islamic reformist and those who favored western-style secularism. Ataturk's great victory in reforming Turkey was finding common ground between these two factions and building consensus on representative democracy, a republican constitution, and modernizing reforms. But religion was clearly recognized as an impediment to these goals, and so secularism was guaranteed in the Turkish constitution of 1924. Accordingly education was removed from the control of religious authorities, many religious societies and dervish orders were closed, and what we would call 'separation of church and state' was mandated.

Sunni Islam, the majority religion in modern Turkey, is controlled by the Department of Religious Affairs. Religious opinions deemed to be political are censored, and Friday sermons in mosques are vetted and approved by the department.

To see why Ataturk's reforms were useful and maybe even prescient, we need only look at the modern Iranian or Saudi regimes where religion plays a dominant role in public life, and were the sharia is the only source of law.

The sharia has recently been adopted in Libya after the death of Gaddafi, and the Muslim Brotherhood have won in Egypt. What will be the fate of the Arab world if recent revolutions take the same path as Iran and Saudi Arabia? In our view a secular, liberal Turkey should be the model for emerging Arab democracies and theocracy. The fact is that when you start asking questions such as 'will it work?' or 'is it fair?' instead of 'is it God's will?' you get a very different set of answers.

Co-authored with Michael Bonner

Michael Bonner studied Iranian history at Brasenose College in the University of Oxford. He has published on pre-Islamic Iran in both English and French, and his master's thesis was published a year ago by Studia Iranica in Paris. Michael is a member of the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage project, an archeological team based in Oxford devoted to the study of the ancient city of Balkh near modern-day Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan.