Where Islam and democracy meet, uneasily

By David Rohde
October 21, 2011

ISTANBUL — Last month, Davut Dogan, an amiable, 51-year-old businessman from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, accompanied Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a historic trip to post-Mubarak Egypt. In a single day, Dogan and 259 other Turkish business leaders flush with cash announced $853 million in new contracts.

“We will go to Egypt next month to finalize the deal,” said Dogan, who is opening a $10 million furniture manufacturing plant there. “The factory will employ two hundred people.”

From the rapturous welcome Erdogan received to the economic power the Turkish businessmen displayed, the trip demonstrated Turkey’s potential to serve as a model for the Post-Arab spring Middle East. The violent death of Muammar Gaddafi Thursday in Libya and elections in Tunisia this weekend show the desperate need for an alternative to the region’s two failed models of government: American-backed dictatorships and authoritarian Islam.

Interviews this week with analysts, businessmen and journalists in Turkey, though, revealed a looming tragedy. Ugly and unnecessary authoritarianism at home by Erdogan threatens to scuttle a historic chance to redefine Islam’s relationship with democracy.

During his trip to Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli last month, Erdogan told rapt audiences that Islam and democracy can co-exist. A devout Muslim who has embraced electoral politics, Erdogan asserted that Muslims can be pious and democratic. And his success at creating jobs is desperately needed to prevent instability and violence in post-Arab Spring countries.

“Islam and democracy are not contradictory,” Erdogan declared in Tunis. “A Muslim can run a state very successfully.”

One of the most popular leaders in the Middle East, Erdogan has vastly more credibility among Muslims than any Western leader. By lambasting Israel over the last several years, he has turned himself into a folk hero.

Part of his fame comes from an economic explosion. Erdogan has embraced the free market and overseen a near tripling of per capita income since taking power a decade ago. Last year, the economy grew at 8.9 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. Today, Turkey boasts one of the fastest growing middle classes in the Middle East.

Along with his economic successes, Erdogan has broken the once-vaunted power of Turkey’s military, which overthrew three civilian governments between 1960 and 1980. In June, his party won a third term with 50 percent of the vote. And at Erdogan’s urging, a parliamentary committee began drafting a new constitution this week to replace the constitution drafted after a 1980 military coup.

Mustafa Aykol, a Turkish newspaper columnist and frequent Erdogan defender, said his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, AKP, is a model for Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In a new book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” Aykol argues that there can be liberalism within Islam and challenges the authoritarian interpretations of Iran, Saudi Arabia and militant groups.

“We can speak of an AKP model for other Islamic parties – and that’s a good model,” Aykol told me by phone from Washington, where he was promoting his book. “If more and more Islamists are inspired by the AKP model than by the totalitarian example of Iran, that will be good for the region.”

Dogan, the businessmen who went to Egypt with Erdogan, embodies how the AKP is transforming Turkey. His furniture company is one of the so-called “Anatolian tigers,” burgeoning firms that have risen from Turkey’s conservative Anatolian heartland. Dogan’s company, Dogtas, has opened 108 stylish, Ikea-like stores across the country that cater to upwardly mobile, iPhone-wielding middle class Turkish businesspeople.

More religious, driven and ruthless than the genteel Istanbul elite, the Anatolian firms have helped fuel Turkey’s economic surge. Launched by Dogan’s father 39 years ago, the firm has experienced extraordinary growth in the last five years, with sales revenues and employees doubling to $200 million and 1,000 respectively. The firm now exports to 65 countries and plans to aggressively expand in the Middle East, where it already has twelve shops in Iran, seven in Libya, five in Syria and two in Iraq.

“We want to be as big in Egypt,” said Dogan, who has made twenty trips abroad with Erdogan. “As we are in these other countries.”

Yet critics of Erdogan say the AKP and the Anatolian tigers are building a deeply corrupt nexus that will eventually slow economic growth. The government is steering lucrative projects to companies with links to senior party officials, creating an enormous patronage mill.

More alarming, Erdogan is using economic growth to mask growing authoritarianism. Prosecutors have jailed army officers, journalists and government opponents and accused them of plotting coups. Some of the initial arrests were justified, according to Turkish analysts, but the campaign increasingly resembles an effort to silence critics and exact revenge on those who oppressed the AKP in the past.

Soli Ozel, a professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said that Erdogan is moving toward “electoral authoritarianism.” Elections will be held in Turkey, but the outcome will never be in doubt.

Ozel warned that continued political and economic paralysis in the West could make the high growth and one party rule of China and Russia appealing to Erdogan and a new generation of Middle Eastern leaders.

“Unless the West gets out of its current economic malaise, it will be like the 1930s,” Ozel predicted. “Democracy will lose its allure. Authoritarianism is going to have a feast.”

There is another path for Erdogan. The drafting of a new constitution is an opportunity for him to strengthen Turkey, not his own rule. Increasing rights for minorities could ease the Kurdish insurgency, which has claimed 40,000 lives since the 1980s and bedeviled Turkey. Constitutional checks and balance that disperse power – instead of concentrating it – could restore faith in Erdogan’s commitment to democracy. And the country’s burgeoning middle class could be a source of stability for years.

Erdogan’s grip on power need not be so iron.

PHOTO: Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a portrait of modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk in the background, speaks during a news conference in Ankara October 20, 2011.  REUTERS/Umit Bektas

9 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

So, America holds out a hand in friendship, establishes stronger economic and political ties, the government of the people of Turkey grows more and more corrupt, more and more authoritarian, there is a revolution, and the people of Turkey blame, you guessed it, the U.S of A.

Been there done that.

I for one, don’t want their country’s friendship. Let Europe have them, they seem to love to embrace the Islamic culture. They are all yours liberal of Germany, France, England, Spain, and the lot of you. Enjoy these freedom loving,democratic Islamist’s to your heart’s content. Give them your daughter’s and son’s. All that they require of them is to become devout Muslims, and of course to consider you, their parents, as infidels.

Posted by garrisongold | Report as abusive

this is a very one sided article which was written by the kemalist elite of the country. David Rohde did not do his homework again…

For example it does not talk about why those generals are jailed… they are jailed because of planning a coup against elected officials… Turkey was run by military and bureaucrats for a long time and now they are not very happy about Turkish people are getting over the control. The wealth is not accumulated to Istanbul elite only anymore. Now Anatolian entrepreneurs are creating great companies in order to share the wealth…

David why do not you talk about New Constitution initiative in Turkey? Who did vote against the new constitution which will replace the anti-democratic constitution of 1980 which was written by Generals? Lots of corrupt businessmen prosecuted in Turkey… Maybe you can talk about Uzan Group which had stolen billions of dollars from Motorola…

Turkey is going through an incredible change and this is making David very nervous because they are losing a puppet in Middle East… Puppet is becoming the new Ottoman… Beware David…

AKP’s votes are increasing constantly since 2002… It was 34% in the first election and now it is 52%… at the same time Kemalist fascist votes stuck around 24%… More than 75% of Turkish people do not want David Rohde’s Istanbul buddies in Turkey…

David can you also talk about the journalists which run business deals for their bosses for profitable privatizations in late 1990s in Turkey? They used their pen to scare people away to get lucrative deals… Now some of them are in jail so what… How many journalist are in jail for criticizing prime minister? Inform us more… so we can learn…

I think you should quit writing…

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

From the time of the Prophet, Islam has tended to favor a single strong leader. The culture grew up around that centralized figure, from the Caliphs onward. This culminated in the strong single person (or family) governments of the past couple of centuries. From a historical standpoint, this makes perfect sense.

The question now is if the Islamic countries can convert that dedication to a strong central power invested in a man (or family) to an office (such as a Prime Minister or President)

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

who do you trust these days? i think reuters is the best news source in the american media, but sometimes like Ocala points out and i have seen in other instances too, maybe even sub-consciously, the picture painted has a biased hue!

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

stevedebi, can’t the same historical picture be painted about any society, including those that are now most democratic?
The primary difference comes in the last few centuries as far as I can tell.

Posted by roboticowl | Report as abusive

garrisongold …you have clearly conveyed the inability of the American people to grasp the complex history of the Middle East and their country’s corrupting influence in that history. Your inability to use the apostrophe correctly invalidates whatever argument you are attempting to make… please take some spelling lessons before attempting to tackle something as complex as foreign policy. And why insult Europe? Once again, an American manages to antagonize the whole planet in a few sentences.

Posted by ramoudi | Report as abusive

As a Turkish citizen, i can say that Erdogan is right in what he says; “until the end of judgement they cannot blame any journalists or ex-generals of coup”. Is it more democratic to effect the independent courts? There are serious suspects on these people and judgement still goes on. Even army generals in Turkey try to clear their organisation from people who has potential of coups. So better to wait and see.

Turkish oppositers have many contacts abroad, and my opinion is they inform those people in their angle only. Yes, it is obvious that Erdogan is not most naif president in this world but he already deserved my trust.

Re Israel / Turkey relations. I have Jewish friends in Turkey. I have Jewish friends in Israel. We do not have any problem to each other. Erdogan says “we do not have any problem with Israeli people, but with the Israeli government.” Like he said in Davos, Mr.Peres did not play fair to Erdogan. I understand Israeli government. They feel alone in mideast. But what they behave done until toay; definitely do not help to increase of even save their friendship in the region. New settlements, Dani Ayalon, Coalition Government (domestic politics). Solution in Israel is in hands of Isreali nation. Same like Turkish people did for the last 3 elections.

Soli Ozel; is Turkish Jewish journalist on the left. A semi-oppositer to Erdogan. Admires what Erdogan does in %50. And for the rest he stands like Haaretz.

EU countries; Turks are not anymore willing to join EU. EU countries (except few of them) never liked Turks to join their union. Still not. Sarkozy declares it very frankly. So does Merkel.

Erdogan declared in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria that a muslim may not be secular; but a government can. He can be a devoted muslim. If he and his friends would try anti-democratic ways in managing the country then definitely they would not be able to get %50 of the votes. Today; in Libya, Jalil declared that they will follow rules of Shariat. This is what Erdogan warned for and they did not establish on to the correct basement.

Even though i did not agree with David, in what he says about Erdogan, I totally agree with him that current AKP model can be a good model for the region and bring peace. So i believe David has been wrongly informed regarding the president and issues in Turkey.

Re Anatolian tigers. First of all, Read Emre Kongar’s books (a professor/coloumnist oppositer to Erdogan). He summarise Turkish economy very well in his books. When first elits born together with the young Turkish Republic, they were always supported and couraged by the system (army) as country needed capitalowners to operate the country’s economic system (invisible hand). Together with the liberisation after 80′s mid class born. Now those people started to have bigger factories like Mr.Dogan’s. And 1st elits (which are devoted “seculars”) tried to keep their power in economy and politics. And all fight happened because of that i believe. I believe USA supported Turkish army (and what they did in 60-70-80′s) until the cold war end. Which means no more need of Turkish army which was in the border of enemy Russia.

Posted by gokseld | Report as abusive

CarlOmunificent

I spend 26 years of my life in Turkey… I speak fluent Turkish and read several turkish newspapers daily conservative right to extreme left… David has good friends from the Turkish elite so he does not grasp the voice of the real Turkish people… this is like meeting with Harry Reid anytime someone comes to USA and thinks that all Americans are hardcore liberals… (scary)

Electoral authoritarianism is not the problem in Turkey. The problem in Turkey is Kemalist fascism can not create a competitive argument against AKP… 27% vote difference between the ruling party and the following party in 2011 elections tell the story… The Turkish elite called the 34% 2002 election victory of AKP as 34% of voters are stupid and now they got 52% of the votes argument turned into “electoral authoritarianism”…

If “electoral authoritarianism” is really a scare in Turkey then the Turkish’s Ankara elite would be getting what they had made most of Turkish people experience since 1923… only difference is red necks (american version) are getting back the government from bureaucrats and their big government buddies… hallelujah

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

If the right to recall is passed in the Indian parliament it would have some sense and worth talking about democracy. Whereas if there were five fools in a total of ten to elect one person, in a democracy it is easy for a tyrant to get elected, be it for 4 years in US or 5 years in Common wealth countries or a life time in Islamic countries.It is all the same. All democracies should understand that right to recall is a must in this moving world and should follow India’s attempt to bring this legislature.All Islamic countries too should have the right to recall there Kings or Monarchs in the same way.

Posted by hasanchaipillai | Report as abusive