By showing that piety can coexist, if not thrive, with entrepreneurship, hard work and liberal democracy, Turkey has illuminated a path that the depressed youth in West Asia and beyond can pursue.
Turks in their millions headed for the polls on June 12 to participate in a crucial parliamentary election which is likely to have a strong bearing on not only the country's immediate future but also on millions outside, who are in the midst of an “Arab Spring.” Capturing the spirit of a series of bold pro-democracy uprisings in West Asia and North Africa, the Arab Spring promises to liberate vast multitudes in the region — from a stifling era of authoritarian rule.
Turkey is important to the rest of the world because it has been undergoing a profound transformation — many say a Renaissance — since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's A.K. Party (AKP) or the Justice and Development Party was elected to office in 2003. Over the last 11 years, Turkey has shown that it is possible to stitch together a winning combination of democracy, Islam and capitalism. Millions have been lifted out of poverty, and a new class of businessmen and entrepreneurs has emerged in Anatolia — the once “backward” Asiatic part of eastern Turkey. The economic miracle that Turkey has become is an eye-opener to those who have been routinely churning out stereotyped economic models for developing societies.
But Turkey's success goes beyond demonstrating how traditional societies can engage successfully in cutting-edge business in the age of globalisation. Its real success may lie in its ability to define a sustainable model that promotes international security by mainly relying on soft power. By showing millions of Muslims and non-Muslims alike that piety can coexist, if not thrive, with entrepreneurship, hard work and liberal democracy, Turkey has illuminated a path that the depressed youth in West Asia and beyond can now pursue. It has shown them alternative trails, other than the hopelessly self-destructive route charted by extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.
Turkey's unique blend of democracy and Islam minus the hard edge of fundamentalism was echoed sharply during the Egyptian uprising which, a few months ago, brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The example of the “Turkish model” resonated strongly during the demonstrations at the Tahrir Square, especially among youth belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical but loosely structured Muslim transnational organisation which has been undergoing a gradual transformation in recent years. The Turkish experience of recent years has also struck a chord with Yemen, especially within the Islamist Islah party, which has a major Muslim Brotherhood component. In future, Turkey may well have to play a leading role in neighbouring Syria, should a transition commence from the Allawite regime of President Bashar Al Assad to a new dispensation, probably again with a strong Muslim Brotherhood core.
Turkey's spats with Israel over the treatment of Palestinians have been a major factor in transforming its image in the Muslim world. Taking advantage of the political space for manoeuvre in the region, Turkey has followed it up with concerted efforts to shore up commercial and political ties with neighbours, especially Syria and Iran, known for their anti-Israeli positions. The breach of its ties with Israel allowed Turkey to reposition itself advantageously in West Asia, permitting it to tap new political and economic options in the region. Simultaneously, it provided Turkey the opportunity to loosen its traditional fixation with Europe — visible in Ankara's unquenched thirst for decades — of becoming a member of the coveted European Union.
Turkey has emerged as an influential player, partly on account of the surge in resources under its command. For its growing financial clout, Turkey's leaders owe a great deal of debt to the new class of businessmen that has emerged in Anatolia. Once in industrial backwaters, the city of Kayseri, around 880 km east of Istanbul in Anatolia, has become a major hub of manufacturing textiles and furniture. Taking advantage of cheap credit and an export-oriented trade policy encouraged in the 1980s by Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, businessmen in Kayseri are now raking in billions of dollars through manufacturing and trade. By 2007, furniture exports were yielding cash flows beyond $1 billion. Nearly every major brand of jeans in the world uses denim produced in Turkey, with large volumes flowing out of Anatolia.
Apart from the pro-business ambience that the government initially created, it is the mental make-up of the Anatolian entrepreneur, which seamlessly combines religious conservatism with a fierce commitment to globalisation and market principles that has been at the heart of the region's success. The mosque has been not only a place of worship but an arena for socialisation. The Nurcu circles, formed by the followers of Turkish thinker Said Nursi, have become avenues for networking and striking deals. In the words of Vali Nasr, author of Forces of Fortune: The rise of the new Muslim middle class and what it will mean for us, Anatolian businessmen “combine religion, hard work and economic innovation in much the same way as did Calvinist Burghers of northern Europe in the sixteenth century when capitalism was just starting out.” Mr. Nasr points out that many in Kayseri readily identify with “how Calvinists worked hard, prayed hard, saved money and then invested it in their businesses — and were comfortable being both rich and pious.”
The wealth generated by Turkey's new business class has galvanised an ideology and movement that has begun to touch the lives of millions across the world. The Gulen movement is rooted in the ideas of Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Gulen, who began his career in 1953 as an Islamic teacher, had to flee to the United States, following the surfacing in 1999 of a video, in which he seemed to have been espousing a gradual Islamic takeover of Turkey, by asking his followers to quietly infiltrate all organs of the state until their presence acquired a critical mass. He was later cleared of all charges but only after he had begun residing in a Pennsylvania country estate, from where his messages of moderation, inter-faith dialogue and primacy of education as a tool of liberty and economic well-being have been radiating across the globe.
In an article written for the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Mohamed Nawab Osman points out that in Mr. Gulen's view “it is unIslamic for Muslims to advocate the formation of an Islamic state,” a position that pitches the Gulen movement far away from the views of jihadists calling for the establishment of a caliphate, based on Islamic law, as a core element of their end-game. Mr. Osman adds: “He [Mr. Gulen] believes that Muslims must support and be active participants of democracy and a free-market economy, so as to align themselves with the mainstream global processes. In accordance with his opposition to an Islamic state, he also does not favour the state applying Islamic law.” With its strong focus on education, the Gulen movement promotes establishment the world over of quality schools which, despite the personal views of teachers, are secular in orientation, and usually follow the national curriculum of the host country.
The Gulen movement's link to Anatolian businessmen has been well established. The BBC quoted Serdarj Yesilyurt from Turkey's Federation of Businessmen and Industrialists, as saying that 95 per cent of his members support Mr. Gulen. The movement is not short of funds as its followers in the business community contribute 5-20 per cent for its cause, a recent study reveals. These contributions feed into the concept of Zakat — one of the five pillars of Islam which espouses contribution of surplus wealth for charity.
Backed by what has been described by some as the emerging “Islamic bourgeoisie” and followers of social movements such as Gulen, the victory of Mr. Erdogan's AKP in Sunday's poll was a foregone conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the party secured 50 per cent of the vote — the highest recorded since it began contesting elections in 2002. In terms of seats, the AKP got 326 in the 550-member Parliament. However, this still fell short of the 367-mark that it had wished to scale. Had it managed a “super-majority,” the AKP would have been in a position to re-write unopposed the existing Constitution, which was drafted under the influence of the military that toppled a civilian government in 1980. Nevertheless, Mr. Erdogan has not given up on his ambition of embracing a new Constitution, based on a national consensus. Buoyed by an impressive electoral performance, Turkey's culturally sensitive leaders are also well positioned to shape, as it meanders into the heat of summer, the Arab Spring, which is now looking for solid but nuanced political direction, preferably from an established regional powerhouse.