Turkey acts as mentor for emerging Islamists in Middle Eastern region

December 8, 2011

(A Turkish flag waves in front of a minaret of a mosque in downtown Istanbul November 29, 2011. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)

As Islamist groups emerge triumphant in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seems decided to act as their mentor — and to throw its weight behind the Syrian opposition seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, a former ally.

Ankara’s evolving response to the upheavals of the Arab Spring is broadly in harmony with its NATO and European Union allies, who had balked at the AKP’s previous “zero problems with the neighbors” policy, that indulged Syria and its ally Iran, and which some derided as a neo-Ottoman turn away from Turkey’s long-standing Western ties.

Both Turkey and its Western allies now hope the success of the AKP in transiting from Islamist roots to a sort of Muslim version of Christian Democracy, and in running a dynamic economy that has doubled the income of its people, will be an attractive model to Arab Islamist parties now coming to the fore.

“I think the AKP hope is that they will be really an example for the Islamists of the region and they will moderate themselves and become parties like AKP which respects Islamic values but mainly focuses on economic development and doesn’t support a radical agenda,” said Mustafa Akyol, author of the recent book “Islam without extremes: a Muslim Case For Liberty”.

Erdogan and his government are nonetheless intent on influencing the reformists in the Arab Islamist parties.

On a triumphal tour in September of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — the three countries that successfully overthrew their dictatorships this year — he pointedly defended Turkey’s model of a secular state as a shield that defended the beliefs of all, including Islamists.

Tunisia’s Ennadhda party has publicly embraced the AKP as a source of inspiration, while the new generation of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, look to the AKP as an example.

“They want to be a mentor to all these Islamist groups in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia,” says Soli Ozel, a prominent academic and commentator in Istanbul.

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