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Democracy's Turkish Test

September 01, 2002|MICHAEL A. REYNOLDS | Michael A. Reynolds is a fellow at Harvard University's John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, where he works on Near Eastern history and politics.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A new battle in the war on terror is about to begin. Its theater is currently off Washington's radar screen. Its time and place are not America's to choose. Its weapons are not military aid or bullets. On Nov. 3, Turkey goes to the polls--and, in the impending battle of speeches and ballots, more hangs in the balance than Washington seems to know.

Since Turkey's fiscal and stock-market meltdowns of spring 2001, international attention has focused on the country's dire economic situation. Its subsequent political meltdown has captured little attention. Rickety by nature, a coalition of the far-right Nationalist Action Party and the center-left Democratic Left Party collapsed this summer after Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and World Bank-tested financial guru Kemal Dervis quit the Cabinet and the party of the physically ailing prime minister, Bulent Ecevit.

Though it shocked outsiders, including the International Monetary Fund, Turks know the failure of Ecevit's coalition was no fluke. His party is only the latest of the establishment parties to implode over the past 10 years as a restless Turkish society grows increasingly disenchanted with its existing political options. The summer crisis of 2002 signals how desperate Turks are for change.

The biggest beneficiary of change will almost certainly be Turkey's newest Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish initials as the AK Party. Led by the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the party has, as even Turkey's staunchly secular media establishment reluctantly concedes, an excellent--even probable--chance to become Turkey's No. 1 party this November.

The reasons for AK's astounding popularity are easy to find, and they have little connection to religious fervor. Founded just a year ago, the AK Party enjoys the important advantage of having an unsullied reputation. Erdogan's record as an honest and effective mayor of one of the world's largest cities impresses an electorate disgusted by corruption and scandal. That he was jailed in 1999 for publicly reciting a well-known religious poem, labeled by the state as reactionary propaganda, enables him to run as someone outside an establishment increasingly blamed for mismanaging Turkey's abundant resources and its dynamic and capable population.

Unlike Turkey's other Islamist party, the Saadet or Felicity Party, from which it split, the AK Party places little faith in Islam as a political solution for Turkey's woes. Instead, its platform emphasizes the need to facilitate the growth of Turkey's democratic civil society and better protect human and cultural rights. Economically, the platform calls for greater foreign investment in Turkey and a reduction in the obstacles to free enterprise. Erdogan wants closer relations with both Europe and the United States. With the latter, he seeks to move beyond military ties to more investment and cooperation in trade, technology and education.

If that sounds suspiciously like a program designed by yuppies, that's because it is. An important segment of the AK leadership and constituency consists of the new class of businessmen and entrepreneurs from Anatolia that began in the 1980s to challenge Turkey's ruling business and political elites in Istanbul and Ankara. Their Islamic identity is both cause and effect of their frustration with the rigidly secular Turkish establishment, a frustration they share with the vast majority of Turkish citizens.

While the leaders and members of the AK Party do not flaunt their Muslim heritage, they do not hide it, either. And therein lies the importance of the party and Turkey's upcoming elections to the war on terror.

The Bush administration has, correctly, striven to make clear that the struggle with international terrorism is not a struggle with Islam. Many observers believe Turkey is an example of a successful Muslim democracy, one worthy of emulation elsewhere in the Muslim world. However, boosters of the "Turkish model" overlook a crucial fact: Muslims outside Turkey often regard its rigid controls on religious expression as both inimical to Islam and undemocratic.

Whether Islam can, in fact, be compatible with liberal democracy is one of the most urgent and important questions facing the world today. If liberal democracy is not an option for the Muslim world, the West will face a future of endless and escalating conflict with a resentful billion human beings, the clash of civilizations that Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington has warned about.

But if liberal democracy can be shown to be compatible with Islam, such a clash can be averted. The world will have no laboratory more favorable to a successful outcome than Turkey, with its extensive experience with democracy and its heritage of an Islam historically far richer and more tolerant than that of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states. And, given the central role Turkey has played in Islamic history as the seat of the caliph and the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's success in showcasing liberal Islamic politics in a vibrant democracy would not escape the notice of the wider Muslim world.

Some within Turkey remain suspicious of AK's claim to be a Muslim equivalent of Western Europe's centrist Christian Democrats. Some even seek to ban the new party. If intransigent elites prevail on this, the world may never know whether Muslims can attain a truly democratic politics. It makes sense to let AK have a chance.

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