There should be no conflict within Turkey as a secular state with a Muslim population reconciling its Kemalist origins with a modern economy. Much has been written about Turkey as the model of a successful Islamic state, but the reality is that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s legacy was that of a strong, prosperous and free Turkish state, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s legacy will be of Turkey as a strong, prosperous and free Muslim country.
The two elements of Kemalism and Islam complement and strengthen each other in Turkey today, and Erdoğan’s genius has been keeping the balance between the two.
Erdoğan above all is a democrat and has brought Turkey into prominence in a new world of Islamic democracies, as they forge their identities within the global economic community. Nation-states create citizens, while Islam creates the soul and philosophy of a nation-state -- there should be no conflict as together they create a sum that is greater than its parts. While Prime Minister Erdoğan continues to be aware of the need for balance of the two vital elements of modern Turkish history, the country will continue its path to stable prosperity.
In 2023, Turkey will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic and that will probably be a more appropriate time to compare the significance of Atatürk and Erdoğan as founders of modern Turkey. Atatürk built the nation on the ruins of a corrupt Ottoman Empire, and Kemalism has held the country together for over 50 years. Every year on Nov. 10, the nation recognizes the anniversary of Atatürk’s death, but recently, observance of the ceremony is no longer as universal as it used to be. Turks are instead looking ahead to the next 10 years, and if Turkey does change from a parliamentary to a presidential system, then those years will almost certainly be Erdoğan’s. His image and popularity will depend on Turkey’s continuing prosperity, its continuing leadership in the world of emerging Islamic democracies and its continued example of pragmatic secular modernity coexisting with the central traditions, heritage and scholarship of Islam.
Turkey’s economy is recognized as a model of change and accomplishment and is the envy of most Middle Eastern countries. It is an example of enlightened social welfare programs and high quality public services such as health care and education. The last 10 years have seen a major leap forward in Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP), and it is now classified as an upper-middle income country according to the World Bank. The other great change has been the result of Turkey’s relationship with the European Union. The long drawn out process of applying for membership in the EU has led to many democratic changes in the country, encouraged by the economic advantages already in place through increased European trading partnerships. The West welcomes Turkey’s emergence as a regional power and power broker, and its influence is being recognized and sought in peacemaking moves in Syria, Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Turkey has always been seen by romantics as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, ever since Greek heroes of mythology swam across the Dardanelles. Now it truly has taken on this identity in the 21st century, and Turkey is not only being recognized by Western countries for its new role but it is highly respected and popular in the Muslim world. Turkey has played a leading part in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which consists of 57 member states, with a combined population of 1.4 billion (2008). The secretary general of this international organization since 2005 is Turkish academic and diplomat Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. The OIC has been one of the important aspects of Turkey’s multi-dimensional foreign policy and recent moves are under way to increase “transparency, greater involvement as a partner in the international arena, including dialogue with other international and regional organizations, a role in conflict resolution, cultural dialogue with the West and with the rest of the world, fighting disease and coordinating disaster relief.”
As Western democracies look inwards with concern for their domestic economies, instead of outwards to solving the Middle East’s problems, they are grateful for Turkey’s leadership and diplomacy, particularly with Iran, Syria and Palestine. Turkey could become the peacemaker for this troubled part of the world and foster a new era of relationships of emerging democracies.
My recent report “The Turkish Model: Lessons for the Emerging Democracies of Egypt and Tunisia” is being released soon by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and it discusses Turkey’s status as a model and example to the Muslim world. Turkey is indeed a major world power because of its unique East-West synthesis, economically, geographically and spiritually.
*Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the executive chairman of the Scotland Institute and a fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.