For four hours last Friday at a conference at İstanbul Şehir University, titled “Ideas, Perspectives and Political Platforms Transforming MENA Today,” leading international scholars tackled some of the hard questions about the nature of the uprisings still taking place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and analyzed the impact of various political forces, including Turkey, Islam, the West and globalism.
The result was a thoroughly thought-provoking and enlightening afternoon.
The ‘hijacking’ misconception
Several participants criticized works from Western writers, such as John R. Bradley, who claim the Arab Spring was “hijacked by Islamists,” a view that is seen as orientalist and misinterpreting the region. Dr. Burhanettin Duran, chairman of İstanbul Şehir University’s department of political science and international relations, discussed “The Meaning of the Turkish Islamic Experience in the New Middle East.” He explained that while “the early uprisings were overwhelmingly secular,” the Islamic participants in Egypt and Tunisia provided new political arguments and that the debate among Islamists often made reference to the Turkish experience. He proposed that the Salafis in Egypt and proponents of the Iranian regime, for example, “will have nothing to do in the region” but that Islam will definitely matter in the new Middle East. One reason supporting this view is that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is a model of how an Islam-friendly party can come to power through a democratic process, and that this model of moderate Islam has been effective because of Turkey’s “performance and results.” Moreover, Dr. Duran pointed to the fact that there is no debate about Shariah in Turkey, even on the part of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DİB). In answer to a question about the meaning of Islamism compared to Islam, he noted that it is reasonable for any Islamist party in the MENA region to have “sensibility to Islamic principles and way of life” without necessarily advocating Shariah law, and that Islam, of course, is just a religious identity and not political.
Dr. Nurullah Ardıç noted that while the uprisings themselves were secular in nature, Islam played a role and psychologically influenced the movements. He pointed out that “God is great” was a common slogan, victims were called martyrs, demonstrators prayed collectively, and Friday prayers before the demonstrations became political week after week. Dr. Hasan Kösebalaban agreed that Turkey’s model played a role in the uprisings, that “the model is being watched and understood,” but that it has “more to do with the economic success of this government than just Islam.” He reasoned that people “want to institutionalize efficient leaders who make less use of the religious card.” He also criticized Bradley’s “hijack” thesis and noted that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only prepared organization in Egypt with an infrastructure to facilitate mobilization and support for demonstrations.
The impact of globalization
Dr. Kösebalaban also cited several examples of how globalization played a role in the uprising. He noted that Barack Obama was the first president to use social media to organize voters successfully and win the presidency, and used the Internet to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Similarly, Obama came to Cairo and “jumped on board” by giving a speech that “gave hope for political change in the region” and likely had an “indirect effect requiring more research to be done.” Dr. Kösebalaban further explained that while globalization did not cause the uprisings, it certainly enabled its political actors. He explained that globalization and modernization both work to facilitate social mobilization, with the result that people have raised political expectations. When these expectations are raised, the issue is whether or not political change occurs. He stated that if “demands are channeled into participatory institutions” change could occur, but “if the region refuses to open up” then continuing conflicts would result.
Lessons for democracy
Drawing on his study of the experiences of revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe, which have experienced inconsistent success, Dr. Şener Aktürk managed to convey nine “lessons for democracy” in his brief 20-minute presentation, supporting each with examples. Viewed within the context of the Arab Awakening, they provided much discussion and food for thought.
Dr. Aktürk lamented that according to Freedom House only one Muslim country was seen as democratic in the world, and that was Indonesia, not Turkey (Turkey is listed as a “partly-free” electoral democracy, see www.freedomhouse.org). He cited a reverse wave against democracy in Muslim countries over the last five years. In response to questions, Dr. Aktürk said Islamists need better public relations and that secular authoritarian governments often tricked the West in order to maintain a grip on power by claiming that Islamist groups would threaten minority groups when, in fact, it was secular governments themselves that massacred minorities. He cited Slobodan Milosevic, Hosni Murbarak, Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad as examples. Another example was the Ottoman Empire, whose “three legs: Jews, Armenians and Greeks” all disappeared in the secular Turkish Republic. When asked what the West could do to support the Arab Awakening, he said, “The first thing you could do is to not support dictatorships” and not intervene.
A revolution of individuals and the question of the Turkish model
The well-known journalist Cengiz Çandar brought his unique perspectives to this academic conference based on a career in the media and years of experience in the Middle East. He reiterated the “profound, transformative, history-making changes” occurring in the MENA region and said the “Arab Spring” was a misnomer. In Çandar’s view it is the “Arab Revolution” and he noted that all of its participants viewed themselves as bringing about revolutionary change, even when they labeled themselves “reformers.”
Mr. Çandar agreed with other speakers about the impact of globalism and stated that globalism facilitated the “emergence of the Arab individual, who was humiliated and suppressed for decades,” and noted that “we are having revolutions with no heroes, no famous leaders, unknown heroes, and masses of people, like in Syria; a sum total of individuals.” He rhetorically asked if anyone could remember the name of the Google operative who emerged as a so-called leader at the beginning of the Egyptian uprising and stated that “he’s not running for anything and is back working for Google.” He said he did meet leaders of the Syrian opposition but that no one knows their names. He also pointed out the example of Tawwakol Karman, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who spoke two weeks earlier at Şehir, as someone who was “the most resistant person in Yemen, who became the symbol of the revolution, instrumental in removing the president,” but who will likely play no role in a future Yemeni government. “It was individuals who delegitimized the regimes, resulting in profound historical change.”
Regarding Turkey, Mr. Çandar said, “I give credit to the AK Party because of who they represent, a reflection of societal change in Turkey,” and that their rise coincided with three methods of power: economic growth, the democratizing effect of the EU process and the decline of American power in the region “due to the Iraqi debacle,” which created a power vacuum. He noted the Turkey of the 1990s could not possibly be a model for the Arab world. When the region erupted and was in turmoil, Turkey had to decide if it was on the side of the status quo or change, and that it opted for the later for reasons of choice and necessity, and because Turkey has presented itself earlier as being close to the region. He stated that Turkey has a role to play, but to maintain its transformative role, “in order to be on the same wavelength,” it has to be “much more democratic and overcome its Kurdish question.”
*Richard Peres is a writer and journalist living in İstanbul.