05/19/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Turkey: A Model for the Islamic World or One for Regional Hegemony?

Turkey's presidential elections will be held in August. On March 30 elections were held for city councils and municipalities in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP),led by Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan received 44.16 percent of the votes, a higher percentage of the votes thanwhat the JDP received in the last similar elections in 2009, when it received 38.8 percent of the votes. How can one explain the JDP's victories, even in view of the recent allegations of corruption in Erdogan's government?

Now that his own Party's rules do not allow him to remain in power as the Prime Minister, Erdogan may run for the presidency. He has spoken about transforming the presidency to similar posts in France and the United States where the president has broad power, because he does not wish to become a symbol of the nation, such as the Queen of United Kingdom. Will Erdogan be elected as Turkey's next president, and succeed in his attempts for transforming the presidency?

The Democratic Game: Erdogan's Party came to power after the 2002 elections in which it received 34 percent of the votes. The victory was repeated in 2007 and 2011. The Party's percentage of the vote in 2011 was 49.6.

Although the roots of JDP are in Islam, Turkey's political system is still secular in which the mosque is separated from the state. Erdogan's Party has not imposed the Sharia on Turkey, and abolished capital punishment in 2004. Turkey's elections have been certified by the European Union as competitive and free.

Human Rights: During its rule the JDPhas granted Turkish citizens the right to sue the government in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It also accepts the rulings of the court. According to Turkey's interior minister, from 2002-2012, 50,249 Turkish citizens have filed complaints against the government in the ECHR, and the government has had to pay them 180 million Turkish Lira to the plaintiffs.

According to a 30 January 2014 report by the ECHR during 2013 the top three violators of human rights in Europe were Russia, against which the court issued 119 rulings, Turkey with 118 and Ukraine with 65 negative rulings. In Turkey's case, the rights violations had mostly to do with security and the right to life. Turkey was found "guilty" in 35 cases;in another 32 cases the prolonged Turkish judicial process was found to be a violation of human rights; in 19 cases the credibility of investigation was questioned, and in 18 cases the government was accused of inhumane treatment of the citizens.

The Question of Islamic Hijab: Before the JDP came to power, Turkey'slaïcitéwas anti-religion and the government was trying to drive religion completely into people's private domain and eliminate it from the public, which is why it banned Islamic Hijab (cover for head) for women, not only in the governmental organizations, but also anywhere else in public. In a true democracy and according to fundamental principles of human rights women must be free to choose the cover for themselves, and the government has no right to intervene in such matters, and impose its will on them.
In fall of 2012 the government ended the ban on Hijab in universities and institutions of higher education. In January 2013 female attorneys were granted the right to appear before courts with the Hijab, although the right was not extended to female prosecutors, judges, and those in the military and the police. Then, in November 2013 having Hijab in governmental organizations and the parliament was also allowed.

Thus, in terms of the freedom for having the Hijab, Turkey is still not as free as Europe and the United States, but is making progress. That is why human rights organizations, including the ECHR, have avoided condemning Turkey. After the 1979 Revolution the Iranian clerics imposed the Hijab on women, but Turkey's Islamic Party is giving women the freedom to choose their own covers.

Corruption: A report by Transparency International indicates that during 2013 the US and Turkey were ranked, respectively, 19th and 53rd in its corruption perception index. In this regard Turkey is doing a lot better than Slovakia (61st), Italy (69th), Greece (80th), China 80th), India (94th), and Russia (127th). Thus, corruption in Turkey is much smaller than in those nations with the highest growth rate, namely, China (with an average annual rate of more than 9 percent during 1979-2013) and India (an average of 6.9 percent annual growth from 1990-2012).

Foreign Investment: Since the JDP came to power, foreign investment in Turkey has increased dramatically. According to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), from 2002-2012, $123.557 billion was invested in Turkey by foreign entities. Although thedecreased in 2013, the main reason for it was recession in Europe and less demand for Turkish cars. The possibility of changing the interest rate by Turkey's Central Bank might have also played a role in the decrease.

Tourism: During the JDP rule earning from tourism has increased very significantly. According to Turkish newspaper Hurriet, over the period 2003-2012, 295 million tourists have visited Turkey, from which it earned $236 billion. The number of tourists increased from 2.13 million in 2002 to 34.7 million in 2011, bringing in $28 billion. 35.7 million tourists visited Turkey in 2012, earning Turkey $29.3 billion. In 2013 Turkey earned $32.3 billion from tourism.

Economic Growth: Over the period 2002-2012 Turkey's economy grew at an average annual growth rate of 5.2 percent. It grew by 3.8 percent in 2013.

Inflation Rate: Many still remember Turkey's double digit hyperinflation rates of the 1980s and 1990s, during which the average annual rate was 71 percent. The Islamists have lowered the inflation from 30 percent in 2002 to the current rate of less than 5 percent. According to the World Bank, Turkey's inflation rates from 2008-2013 have been, respectively, 10.4, 6.3, 8.6, 6.5, 8.9, and 7.5 percent. It has predicted that the rate for 2014 will be 6.6 percent. The rate of unemployment in 2013 was 9 percent, which should be compared with Spain's 25.9 percent, France's 10.8 percent, and Italy's 12.7 percent.

The Danger of Neo-Ottomanism: Turkey's Islamists have always wanted to make political system a model for the Islamic world. These are Islamists that are allied with the United States, a member of NATO, seeking membership in the European Union, and have political relations with Israel. In fact, President Shimon Peres of Israel gave a speech in the Turkish parliament in 2007. Winning free and competitive elections and helping Turkey achieve high rates of economic growth have only sharpened their appetite for regional dominance.

During the annual conference of the JDP on 30 September 2012, Khaled Mashal, the political leader of the Palestinian group Hamas declared, "Erdogan is not only Turkey's leader, but also Islamic world's." Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was also present in that conference and spoke.
Erdogan strongly supported the government of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, condemned the military coup against Morsi, and criticized Western government for seemingly supporting the coup, reminding them that there is no such thing as a "democratic coup." He also condemned the harsh crackdown on the Brotherhood, which was called the "worst mass unlawful killings in Egypt's modern history" by Human Rights Watch, and declared the Egyptian regime as illegitimate.

After the start of the war in Syria, Erdogan transformed his warm relation with Bashar al-Assad into a "regime change" policy. He has supported the rebels in Syria by providing them with weapons and funds, has made Turkey a center of training for foreign Jihadist forces that will go to Syria to fight, and was reportedly even looking for an "excuse" to attack Syria.

Leaking of a tape containing a secret conversation between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, HakanFidan, head of Turkish Intelligence Agency, Deputy Chief of Military Staff YasarGuler, and other Turkish officials angered Erdogan and his allies.The tape indicated that the Erdogan government was plotting to provide Turkey with an excuse to attack Syria by firing missiles from Syria into Turkey by Turkish agents, attacking the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, and other "terrorist" acts.

Recent articles by journalist Seymour Hersh indicated that the chemical attacks in Syria had not been carried out by the Syrian government, but by the opposition in collaboration with the Turkish government. That has added to Erdogan's reputation as a ruthless and ambitious politician.

Erdogan is trying to modify the covenant of the JDP, which does not allow a member to be the prime minister more than three times, so that he can win a fourth term. At the same time, he is also trying to revise the Constitution in order to increase the power and authority of the President, so that he can be elected to the post with more power. The JDP's next goal is winning the parliamentary elections of 2015.

As the English Catholic historian, politician and writer Sir John Dalberg - Acton(also known as Lord Acton) put it, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Erdogan's impressive economic achievements and victories in consecutive elections have greatly increased his thirst for more power, which can be dangerous for his nation and his opponents, both in Turkey and its neighbors. In his first speech after the March 30 elections Erdogan called Syria an enemy of Turkey, promised to uproot the "parallel government" - a reference to the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan's one time ally and current opponent - and declared that his supporters have slapped his opponents in an "Ottomanian way." In fact, the Erdogan administration has asked the United States to extradite Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, to Turkey.

Erdogan has been threatening his opponents, on the one hand, and has been more accommodating towards the Kurdish minority, on the other hand, and has also offered some sort of regrets over the genocide of the Armenians in 1915. The question is, is democracy compatible with Erdogan's thirst for power?Last week's explosion in a mine that killed at least 302 people led to large demonstrations against the government in several cities. Police had to use tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. A senior advisor to Erdogan attacked a demonstrator, and it was reported that Erdogan himself slapped another man. The catastrophic explosion occurred only three months before Turkey's presidential elections, and cannot be beneficial to Erdogan's presidential ambitions.

Leadership of which Islam?

There are not unique interpretations of the teachings by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism, liberalism, etc. So, if Turkey has ambitions to be the leader of the Islamic world, the question is, which Islam? Turkey's Islamists are Sunni and cannot lead the Shiites. The Sunnis have tens of different branches, as do the Shiites. The Wahhabi/Salafi branch of Sunni Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia, and backed by that country's oil petro-dollars and the claim of being the "custodian" of Islam's two holiest shrines, also wants to be the leader of the Islamic world. Muslim Brotherhood has deep roots in many Islamic nations and will not easy accept Turkey's leadership. The Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan do not recognize any other interpretation of Islam, as do such terrorist groups as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the al-Nusrat Front in Syria, and the ISIS in Iraq. They only believe in their own.

But, there are also modern Islamic groups that espouse modern and enlightened interpretations of the Islamic teachings, although they are rejected by the conservatives and ultraconservatives and are even considered as heretical. Thus, Islam has been used by governments and political groups to advance their interests and gaining power and wealth. The question is, is this what Turkey's ruling Islamic Party wants to do also?

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei