Turkey has long ridden on the wave of increased popularity among the Middle Eastern countries thanks to its historical and natural assets, soap operas, rich culture, its ability to strike a harmony between religion and modernity and its high-paced economic growth.
But references to it as a model country with experience in democracy are no longer as frequent as they were in the past.
Several factors can be cited as an explanation for this, but the slowdown in the country’s reform processes surely tops the list. When the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, Turkey was caught up in a storm of reforms.
These reforms culminated in the country’s securing full membership negotiations with the European Union in 2005. Parliament passed one bill after another to tackle the country’s long-standing problems about non-Muslim minorities, the relations between civilians and the military, transparency in trade relations, the judiciary, etc.
By these regulations, the AK Party secured the support of Europe in its struggle with the military, also attracting worldwide attention to its policies.
However, the arrival of anti-Turkey leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, to office in Europe cooled relations between Ankara and Brussels. Subsequently, the AK Party started to move away from the process.
With the arrival of the Arab Spring, Turkey almost forgot the word reform. Turkey, extensively focusing on the Middle East, tried to become a leading actor in the region and is now also seeking to improve its political, economic, military and cultural ties with the countries in the region.
However, it does not seem possible for Turkey to become a strong and respected actor in the region without getting Europe’s support.
Today, if the Arabs avidly watch Turkish soap operas, the European identity of Turkey plays a great role in it. If Arabs show eagerness to travel to İstanbul, İzmir and Bursa, the role of the European Turkey in this cannot be denied.
Every Arab traveling in Turkey absolutely makes reference to Turkey’s Islamic and European identity. The Turks, as well as Arabs, are pleased to see a Turkey which outperforms many European countries thanks to its beauty, economic performance and progress. They are proud of Turkey. A Turkey that does not deny its values but which has not given up on its dreams of becoming a member of the EU may hold a strong position in the Middle East.
If Turkey turns its back on Europe, it doesn’t seem likely that it can preserve its power and prestige in the region.
Before the AK Party government, the political administrations in Turkey used to comply with EU requests. The relations between the EU and Turkey were not based on the principle of equality. However, it is not possible to speak of such a risk at this time. Turkey is now able to negotiate with Europe in every field and on every matter.
Turkey should not be misled by the economic crisis in Europe. With the exception of some marginal groups in the Middle East, no one is uncomfortable with the European identity of Turkey. Some may argue that the Middle East is Turkey’s origin. Some European leaders make such statements. However, as much as it is Middle Eastern, Turkey is also a European nation with its language, culture, history, geography and ties.
A Turkey that is aware of this may assume a leading role in the democratization of Middle Eastern countries. Middle Eastern nations which recently moved to democracy are now experiencing the problems that Turkey experienced during its democratization process.
Maybe Turkey has not completed its democratization yet; however, the steps it has taken so far may be reviewed by the Middle Eastern countries. For instance, Turkey’s progress on the most controversial issues, including the status of religion in social life, women’s rights, the separation of religion from state affairs, minority rights, freedom of expression and civil-military relations, is noteworthy. Turkey undoubtedly owes this progress in these fields to the reforms it has introduced during the negotiations with the EU.
If the Turkish government is associated with various political groups in the region and the people in the region become aware of this, this association may lead to the deterioration of Turkey’s image. Turkey should note that people in the Middle East always prefer a European Turkey over a Middle Eastern Turkey.