The decision by Turkish authorities to send the riot police in to clear Taksim Square — while expressing a more conciliatory tone in a meeting between the prime minister and a delegation of Taksim activists — is a high-stakes gamble at a moment of genuine vulnerability for the country. However, the thinly disguised glee with which the protests against the prime minister’s domineering rule have been met by observers in the West is as politically shortsighted as it is strategically misguided. That Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought much of his recent troubles on himself — with his imperial manner and his government’s creeping encroachment on the civil and political liberties of his citizens — is evident even to many of his supporters. He and his thrice-victorious party now have an essential task of dialogue and engagement ahead of them, in order to ensure that what remains a fairly limited protest movement does not escalate further and undermine the momentum enjoyed by the Turkish republic.
For the West, however, two equally important tests have presented themselves: can it calibrate its concern for domestic political liberties in Turkey with an adequate appreciation of the economic and geopolitical value that the country provides? And is it willing to accommodate more generally — and more lastingly — an alternative model of a globalized, economically thriving democracy that nevertheless ascribes profound value to its religious and cultural heritage?
For all his success and standing, Erdogan was never, in the minds of most Westerners, “our kind of leader.” Proudly Muslim; resentful of the casual and damaging racism long directed at his country and his people by a standoffish Europe; and fiercely nationalistic in his attempt to carve out a Third Way of Islamist capitalist democracy, Erdogan’s success was often seen more as a rebuke to the West than a welcome demonstration of a Muslim society’s ability to combine modernity with national identity, religious devotion with commercial vibrancy, NATO membership with an independent foreign policy.
It is a measure of the still-resilient illusion of a Western-defined process of globalization that the right kind of emerging markets leaders — and their politics — should look and sound like ours. Well, Erdogan doesn’t and won’t. Nor did Lula of Brazil. And nor will President Xi Jinping of China, something made plain under the surface of pleasantries at last weekend’s summit with President Obama.
The Turkish model was never as flawless or widely applicable as its proponents made it out to be. Tarnished, however, as it is today by over-zealous police enforcement in the streets of Istanbul and the arrogant reaction of a bewildered leadership with a sterling record of electoral success and economic growth, the danger is that the world now loses sight of just how valuable Turkey’s example remains to global politics as well as economics.