I went to Bosnia this summer -- well after the Arab Spring was under way. It was my first time there and, as expected, it was a very emotional experience.
I frequently heard Bosnians intimate that the war wasn’t done but only paused and might at any moment resume. I thought hard about this understandable anxiety, about whether war could truly start up again and, if so, how the world would react to another Balkan genocide. The last time wasn’t very encouraging. In the 1990s, many Muslim and Arab states could do little for Bosnia, though some took a visible role in advocacy, such as Turkey and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states sent money and supplies. But did that stop the ethnic cleansing? Did it end the war any earlier? It struck me when I was walking down a Sarajevo street and passed a cultural center built by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Certainly, one would want a better international advocate than Iran.
Simply put, the ethnic cleansing went on until NATO intervened. Without effective, intelligent advocates, minority populations are regularly persecuted -- from East Turkestan to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. In the past, that suffering contributed to extremism, as sympathizers had no way to lobby their governments to action, and felt both angered and humiliated by their global impotence. The tremendous moral bankruptcy of such extremism, contrasted with Turkey’s recent success, shows how valuable democracy really is. And hence, while in Bosnia, I felt that a democratic Egypt, an empowered Tunisia and a republican Libya would respond very differently to the massacre of co-religionists in the heart of Europe. These democratic countries would operate within the global political order and hence influence it in a way their predecessors have clearly been unable to. We can see the evidence in Turkey’s ability to bring its concerns to the world’s attention -- because Turkey has not excluded itself from the world. But what is to say that the Arab Spring will reach its destination?
More required than economic ties
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Egypt, he brought along many businessmen, rightly promoting economic ties between Turkey and Egypt. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggested that Turkey and Egypt might form a regional axis; of course, a coalition of Middle Eastern democracies could help bring prosperity -- and peace -- to the region. But to do that would take more than just economic ties. Here’s a hint on how: Speaking to the value of a secular state, Prime Minister Erdoğan provoked a reaction from some Egyptian Islamists but gave heart to many others, eager for constitutions that do not enforce one ideological perspective. They need more than just encouragement. The Arab and Muslim world needs to nurture its thought leadership -- and this offers another space in which Turkey can assist, a role perhaps far more important than business ties. Turkey should marshal its considerable private sector and academic resources to build “Centers for Democracy,” employing its transnational credibility to bolster an already obviously transnational movement. I’m proposing a network of think tanks dotting the democratic Muslim world, linking scholars, activists and fresh minds, giving them real resources to think critically about the common challenges of Muslim societies and then share their learning. For too long, countries that have faced astoundingly similar circumstances have been isolated from one another’s experiences. These centers will create safe spaces to incubate political thought leadership at a crucial time, connecting activists across the democratic Muslim world -- from Mali to Indonesia. These centers will help ideas circulate, ideas relevant to the people proposing them -- in the same way Al Jazeera made it possible for Arabs to speak directly to Arabs, internationally. For there are two interconnected problems facing Muslim societies: The first is the divide between experts in “religion” and experts in “Western” disciplines. These people must talk. Where can they do that? The second problem is the dearth of cosmopolitan leaders. Let’s empower them and give them the strength -- through alliances and regional cooperation -- to confront irredentism. It’s smart for Turkey to focus on business links. These are necessary, but at the same time insufficient. We must ask ourselves: Who will be the leaders of the Middle East in the coming years and decades? How will they face up to common challenges? And how will they build trust, empathy and respect, enough to overcome years of stagnant politics? As the region rises up, it should not hesitate to think ambitiously and act globally. Why shouldn’t political thought, mutual learning and creative politics go through places like Bishkek, İstanbul and Dar es Salaam? The Muslim world needs to begin imagining better futures for its peoples and by its peoples, ending once and for all the frustration and isolation that has marked its societies and kept them from helping one another.
*Haroon Moghul is a fellow at The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a senior editor at The Islamic Monthly. He is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.