When President Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, the two discussed cooperation on Syria, counter-terrorism and supporting the Arab spring. But a central theme of the talks, and what most concerns the U.S. at the moment, is a sharply deteriorating Turkish relationship with Israel that the U.S. hopes to reverse. Conversely, this deterioration was the source of much acclaim when Erdogan visited Arab spring countries last week. Erdogan’s historic visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last week was noteworthy on several fronts, not the least for the near hero’s welcome he received in a region long suspicious of Turkey as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the Arab world for nearly 600 years.
Displaying Turkey’s new confidence and regional assertiveness, the Prime Minister attracted widespread acclaim in these “Arab Spring” countries, largely due to his outspoken support for the Palestinians and the perception among Arab publics that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could serve as the model for their own democratic transition.
The timing of the visit -- coming just after Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador over Israel's refusal to apologize for last year's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, and just before a vote in the UN on Palestinian statehood -- along with Erdogan’s statements about the secular state in Turkey, sent strong messages to the West, the Arab world and Iran.
In the first message, Turkey reinforced its intention to become a key player in the new regional political and strategic environment. After sharply criticizing its former ally, Syria for its brutal crackdown on peaceful opposition protesters, Turkey now intends to make Egypt the lynchpin of its Arab engagement, politically and economically. On the political front, both countries have recently clashed with Israel, and Turkey has signaled that it intends to defend the Palestinian cause as vociferously as any Arab country. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who accompanied Erdogan on the visit, said Turkey seeks to form "an axis of democracy" of the two biggest nations in the region. In return, Turkey expects to receive Arab support for any mobilization it undertakes to bring Israel before the International Court of Justice over the flotilla encounter.
On the economic front, the Turkish leaders were also accompanied by 280 businessmen, with Davutoglu predicting that Turkey’s $1.5 billion investment in Egypt would grow to $5 billion within two years.
Just as important as the intent to strengthen political and economic ties to Arab countries in transition was the message Erdogan delivered regarding the nature of Turkish democracy and the role secularism now plays. As Arab publics and political elites in the three transition countries continue to debate the “Turkish model” and the role of Islam in the future of their societies, Erdogan clarified for them – in speeches in Tunis and Cairo – exactly how that model is structured.
Perhaps to the disappointment of some hard-line Islamists, the Prime Minister preached secularism as the best option for a functioning democracy and urged Egypt and Tunisia to adopt it in their new constitutions. The speeches may have also surprised those analysts in Turkey and the West who have argued that the AKP has a hidden Islamist agenda to establish an Iranian style theocracy in Turkey.
Some Arab Islamists, such as the Tunisian Nahda party, link the “Turkish model” with the AKP’s rise to power and rule since 2002 in a secular democratic country. For them, the “Turkish model” represents a form of Islamism that is compatible with democracy and (has been) granted legitimacy in a country that carried out the most radical secularization program in the Muslim world. Others see the AKP-- heir to an Islamist party-- as a model for their project of Islamization. However, in Egypt and Tunisia, Erdogan stated that “Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state of law. A secular state takes equal distance to all religious groups, including Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists. He added: “This is not secularism in the Anglo-Saxon or Western sense; a person is not secular, the state is secular.”
In contrast to the Kemalists, the followers of Turkey’s secular founder, Kemal Ataturk, who see secularism as a way of life for individuals, the AKP has transformed the understanding of secularism and considers it “a constitutional regime for the state, not a required ideology for individuals.” For the AKP, Islam is not an institution of the state, but rather a social compass for society. It supports a secular state as the guarantor of religious pluralism, but opposes the secularization of the social space by the state.
By stressing the principle of secularism as the basis of religious freedom and pluralism, the Turkish Prime Minister distanced Turkey from the Islamists of the region, in the process also presenting Turkey as an alternative model to Iran, and tried to reassure his critics that the AKP has no Islamist intentions.
Whether this “third way” between an Islamist government and Western-type secularism will succeed in the Arab world remains to be seen. But Turkey’s newfound influence and respect in these emerging democracies mean that for many new leaders, the Turkish model is one worth emulating.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.