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December 05, 2011, Monday

The Arab Spring and Turkey

First, let me underline one fact: The Arab world has not been on Turkey's radar only because of reasons related to religion.

The increased importance of this region as a market for Turkish exports has made the Arab lands precious for Turkey. Turkey mostly relied on European Union countries for trade, but during the last decade it has realized the risks of focusing on a single market and decided to diversify its trade partners.

As a result, it has managed to carve out areas of cooperation for itself in Africa, the Turkic republics and the Arab countries. Today, the EU is still its main trade partner, but the share of the above-mentioned regions has increased significantly.

In these lands, Turkey is becoming a major player in direct investment, contracting services and commodity exports. Not surprisingly, Turkey cannot remain insensitive to the political developments in those regions that directly affect its trade.

As for the matter of Turkey being a model for the Arab world, this was discussed frequently during the conference organized by the Abant Platform in Gaziantep last weekend. I realized that a significant portion of the Arabs who attended the conference were uneasy with the term “Turkish model,” perhaps because of Turkey's secular nature.

The thing is, everyone serves as a model for others from time to time. Thus, during the time of Mehmet Ali Paşa, Egypt served as a model for the Ottoman Empire, triggering the reform process that would continue for 200 years. The process culminated in the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

The reform process in Egypt, on the other hand, was interrupted by the occupation of the country and resulted in a military dictatorship. Today, Egypt is transitioning to democracy under the supervision of the international community, but this is only a preliminary move.

The West would not want to see developments similar to those that occurred in Iran, so it will lend support to military tutelage for a while. And this is the model that Turkey has implemented since the 2000s and which is largely designed by the West. During the military system of tutelage, Turkey suffered from great sorrow and paid a high price, but it eventually attained democracy.

Muslim groups in Turkey played a great role in this by insistently refraining from violence.  During the last 30 years, these groups have developed commercial ties with the rest of the world and started to work with the Western world, which in turn helped them understand the “other” better and embrace the notion of democracy.

The Gülen movement, which is particularly influential among opinion leaders in conservative circles, emphasized dialogue, instead of clashes, with the West, thereby contributing significantly to the process. It is, of course, unnecessary to tell Arab countries that have just thrown off military dictatorships that they should adopt the Turkish model. But if they want to experience less conflict in the future, I think they should closely study the Turkish case and be inspired by Turkish conservatives.

It should also be noted that it is becoming increasingly impossible to make a distinction between the West and the Muslim lands, and, therefore, we need to learn ways to live together.

Moreover, there is a multitude of different Islamic cultures with distinct interpretations, not a single Islam in this region. Serious and patient efforts to increase economic development and improve education will be necessary to keep them all together and in peace.

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