Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan spoke during a visit to the Turkish police special forces base, which was allegedly damaged by a coup attempt. Photo: KAYHAN OZER/COURTESY OF PRESIDENTIAL PALACE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
THE “TURKISH MODEL” has been upheld as an exemplar of how democracy could come to the Middle East since 2002, when a once-banned Islamist party won free elections and took power under the wary eye of a military accustomed to calling the shots.
In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkey’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian strongman leader, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, has been busily erasing some of the signatures of that democracy: jailing journalists, banning academics from travel, purging hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state’s payroll.
Erdogan is at the same time under threat from dark antidemocratic forces and posing such a threat to his own nation. This conundrum, more than anything else, is the Turkish model’s contribution. In a region that hosts hardly any experiments with democracy or accountable governance at all, Turkey is still grappling with the messy, destabilizing process of transitioning from poor military dictatorship to modern, developing democracy.
Turkey’s path under Erdogan embodies far more than the megalomania of its neo-Ottoman president; it reflects a popular desire for economic prosperity as well as political rights, for security along with freedom. While fending off a military that has continually tried to reassert control over national politics, Erdogan has shifted the balance of Turkey’s republic away from secular nationalist pluralism toward majoritarian Islamism. The once-oppressed rural and religious have acquired new rights and in the process have taken away some rights from the secular and urban.
As elected Islamists gained authority, Turkey accommodated the aspirations of a socially conservative, religious, and Islamist plurality. As the country became more democratic in electoral terms, it became less so from the perspective of secular liberals and nationalists in the mold of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Secularism had been zealously protected not by courts, rule of law, or accountable institutions, but by the heavy interventionist hand of the military, which until Erdogan’s rise had simply dismissed governments it did not like.
Clearly, Turkey offers an ambiguous blueprint for democracy. Sadly, in its neighborhood, it offers one of the only blueprints. What can the rest of the Middle East, laboring under monarchs and dictators and runaway generals, learn from Erdogan’s style of government and the shaky aftermath of the latest effort by the military to cancel Turkey’s experiment with democracy?
Erdogan consciously evokes Ataturk’s creation myth with his grand sense of historical purpose. A popular mayor of Istanbul and a charismatic Islamist, he was banned from politics in 1998 for reciting a militant religious poem. He went on to cofound the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001 and led it to victory the next year.
He and his party have been in power ever since, at first governing as pragmatists with a religious background, but over the years adopting Islamist policies and dispensing with liberal niceties that got in the way of power. Erdogan even jettisoned founding figures of the AKP when he feared they could challenge his primacy.
What was most surprising about Erdogan’s rise was the absence of violence. To be sure, many have died in the conflict between the government and the Kurdish minority, and there has been some apparently government-orchestrated rioting against opposition political parties. Then there are the proven and alleged coup attempts. But until this July, there hadn’t been anything approaching widespread civil strife, and, even in this case, the coup plotters appear to have been swiftly routed.
Since the rise of a Turkish model touted as simultaneously democratic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern, its checkered history has defied easy categorization. Turkey is a lonely republic in a region ruled by dictators, kings, and ayatollahs. (The only other republic is tiny Tunisia, which exerts far less influence.) It is a country of ethnic Turks and Kurds facing a mostly Arab hinterland. Its imperial Ottoman history remains fresh in the minds of its neighbors.
Erdogan neutered the military and demonstrated that it was possible to have relations with powers like the United States and Israel without being their toady. But his methods have shown a contempt for rule of law and for Turkey’s democratic institutions. Turkey’s president has eroded the same traditions that brought him to power — Erdogan’s secular rivals in politics and the press have opposed military rule and defended electoral politics even when Erdogan has persecuted them for criticizing him.
Worried observers have been describing Erdogan as a dictator and a thug for some time, all the more vociferously since 2008, when he outflanked the military with a dazzling indictment. The ensuing Ergenekon trials defanged the military and allegedly stopped a pervasive conspiracy to overthrow the state, even if some of the evidence appeared to have been manufactured.
As with so much about Erdogan and his Turkish model, during the Ergenekon trials and the ensuing purge (which foreshadowed today’s ongoing and broader one), good and bad were both in evidence: A coup genuinely appeared to have been averted while at the same time strongman norms trumped institution-building. The republic was preserved, the republic was weakened.
This kind of yin-yang push-pull has repeated itself over and over in Turkey’s recent history, culminating with this summer’s chilling events. The military made its move late on a Friday night, attacking parliament and police stations, closing a bridge between Europe and Asia, and firing on civilians. Erdogan and his allies rallied support through the same independent news media that it has relentlessly undermined and, more crucially perhaps, through mosque loudspeakers.
Public opinion ran strongly against the coup, evinced in the great number of Erdogan supporters and detractors alike who took to the street against the military plotters. Crucially, so did official weight; the military hierarchy and rank and file did not support the coup plotters. Nor did any opposition political party or faction of the state bureaucracy.
A coup would have set back Turkey’s democratic trajectory. In a different way, some argue, so is Erdogan, with his encouragement of vigilantism against political rivals (predating the coup attempt) and his massive purge under the cover of a state of emergency since the failed putsch.
Amnesty International estimates that 45,000 government employees had been fired or suspended from their jobs, and more than 15,000 people had been detained. According to the government, 8,651 military personnel participated in the mutiny. The purges have so far affected about 1.3 percent of the entire civil service. And 131 media outlets and publishing houses have been shut down.
Surely there are criminals and coup plotters among the hundreds of thousands arrested, fired, beaten, harassed, or investigated since July 15. But just as surely, the disproportionate size of the dragnet and the speed with which it was rolled out suggest that its purpose is not merely to ferret out lawbreakers but also to stifle dissent once and for all.
It is hard to imagine how the Turkish military today, reeling from the purges (whether deserved or unjustified) will be able to effectively curtail attacks by the Islamic State or the Kurdish PKK, both of which have targeted civilians.
It’s also hard to imagine that Turkey’s overall progress and growth can continue in the wake of a government-led war against itself.
In a move that clearly went beyond the hunt for coup accomplices and metastasized into a war on any independent institution or patch of civil society, the government savaged education. It fired 1,577 university deans and rectors, revoked licenses for 21,000 teachers, and banned all academics from foreign travel. It closed more than 1,000 private schools.
“More than a decade after getting a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, Turkey looks less like a liberal European democracy than a one-man autocracy that you’d find, you know, in the Middle East,” said Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The other way of looking at it is from the vantage point of Turkey’s neighbors to the south, the heartland of the former Ottoman Empire. Istanbul’s historical hinterland stretches to Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. European Union members probably aren’t taking notes on how Erdogan squares his constituents conflicting desires for economic growth, religious freedom, and civil liberties — but many people in places like Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are.
Erdogan has taken some bold stances that have had major ripple effects around the region. He has continued a lukewarm alliance with Israel marked by occasional confrontations over episodes like Israel’s catastrophic war on Gaza and its attack on a ship full of unarmed peace activists. He has supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and given it a welcoming exile base after the 2013 military coup ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi. He has been a partner to the United States but not a patsy — Washington still remembers with irritation his refusal to let US troops invade Iraq in 2003 from Turkish territory. Such independence is noticed in a region where despotic rulers tend to do anything to please their most important foreign backers.
On Syria, Erdogan has taken a hard-line position against Bashar Assad and Russia, costing Turkey extensively, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last year and Russia retaliated with cuts to trade and the lucrative flow of Russian tourists.
Unlike any other government in the region (and virtually alone in the world), Turkey has welcome Syrian refugees — 3 million of them — and given them a clear path to citizenship.
Perhaps that is the most unique contribution of the Turkish model. For all the strains between Kurds and Turks, Islamists and secularists, and the troublesome identity politics and laws that reinforce denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkey boasts a national identity and an idea of citizenship that is flexible, open to multiple faiths and ethnicities, and has proven able to adapt and evolve far more than any of its peers in the neighborhoods.
Turkey is not an ethnocracy, or a theocracy.
And its elected leaders have bested would-be military dictators multiple times since 2002, in a region and historical period where authoritarianism in the norm and almost every state has regressed in terms of rights and freedoms.
Loss of some rights has also been the norm in Erdogan’s Turkey but not loss of all rights, or for all citizens. It’s hardly a Platonic ideal, but given the alternatives, it’s hardly a model to scoff at. Turkey’s approach, at least, offers a starting point toward two concepts in painfully short supply in the Middle East: elected civilian rule and a flexible concept of citizenship.
The one silver lining in Turkey’s attempted coup is that military dictatorship — for a change — didn’t win the day. In an era of authoritarian relapse, that’s no small matter. Even American and European politics today contain frightening doses of chauvinism, fear-mongering, and incitement to violence, reminding us that no one is immune to dangerous trends that have eroded freedom and security in places like the Middle East and former Soviet republics.
Turkey has offered a counterexample in the age of awful. Despite Erdogan’s increasingly tight grip, Turkey’s course since its last successful military coup in 1997 (dubbed the “postmodern coup” because the military managed to force a change in government without suspending the constitution or parliament) has offered an alternative to civil war, military, or sectarian dictatorship, royal or clan kleptocracy. It isn’t free or fair, but it also isn’t awful — or as bloody — as the rest of the neighborhood.
Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protested at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo. AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR
IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE in the Middle East? When observers worry about the future of the region, it’s in part because of the dispiriting political narrative that has held sway for much of the last half century.
The conventional wisdom is that secular liberalism has been all but wiped out as a political idea in the Middle East. The strains of the 20th century—Western colonial interference, wars with Israel, windfall oil profits, impoverished populations—long ago extinguished any meaningful tradition of openness in its young nations. Totalitarian ideas won the day, whether in the form of repressive Islamic rule, capricious secular dictatorships, or hereditary oligarchs. As a result, the recent flowerings of democracy are planted in such thin soil they may be hopeless.
This understanding shapes policy not only in the West, but in the Middle East itself. The American government approaches “democracy promotion” in the Middle East as if it’s introducing some exotic foreign species. Reformists in the Arab world often repeat the canard that politicized Islam is incompatible with democracy to justify savage repression of religious activists. And even after the revolts that began in 2010, a majority of the power brokers in the wider Middle East govern as if popular forces were a nuisance to be placated rather than the source of sovereignty.
An alternative strain of thinking, however, is starting to turn those long-held assumptions on their head. Historians and activists are unearthing forgotten chapters of the region’s history, and reassessing well-known figures and incidents, to find a long, deep, indigenous history of democracy, justice, and constitutionalism. They see the recent uprisings in the Arab world as part of a thread that has run through its story for more than a century—and not, as often depicted, a historical fluke.
The case is most clearly and recently laid out in a new book called “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” by Elizabeth F. Thompson, a historian at the University of Virginia, who tries to provide a scholarly historical foundation to a view gaining traction among activists, politicians, and scholars.
Thompson sees the thirst for justice and reform blossoming as long as 400 years ago, when the region was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the generations since, bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, and peasants have seized on the language of empire, law, and even Islam to agitate for rights and due process. Though Thompson is an academic historian, she sees her work as not just descriptive but useful, helping Arabs and Iranians revive stories that were deliberately suppressed by political and religious leaders. “A goal of this book is to give people a toolkit to take up strands of their own history that have been dropped,” Thompson said in an interview.
Not everyone agrees with her view: Canonical Middle Eastern history, exemplified by Albert Hourani’s 1962 study “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” holds that liberalism did flourish briefly, but was extinguished as a meaningful force in the early years of the Cold War. Even today Hourani’s analysis is invoked to argue that there’s no authentic democratic current to fuel contemporary Arab politics.
But Thompson’s work resonates with a host of Middle Eastern academics, as well as activists, who are advocating new forms of government and who see their efforts as consistent with local culture and history. It may offer a way out of the pessimism gripping many Arab political activists today, finding connections between apparently disparate reformist forces in the region, and political ideas that are often seen as irreconcilably opposed. Most intriguing, she finds elements of this constitutional liberalism even within fundamentalist Islamist movements that democratizers most worry about. These threads suggest a possible way forward, a way to build a constitutional, democratic consensus on indigenous if often overlooked traditions. Islamists and secular Arabs, it turns out, have found common ground in the past, even written constitutions together. The same could happen again now.
NO ONE , including Thompson, would claim that democracy and individual freedom have been the main driver of Middle Eastern politics. Before World War I, almost the entire region lay under the dominion of absolute monarchs claiming a mandate from God—either the Ottoman Sultan, or the Shah of Iran. Later, Western colonial powers divided up the region in search of cheap resources and markets for their goods.
Yet lost in this history of despots and corrupt dealers is a long stream of democratizing ideas, sometimes percolating from common citizens and sometimes from among the ruling elite. In the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries were beginning to move away from authoritarian monarchies and toward the belief that more people deserved legal rights. During this same time period in the Middle East, a similar conversation about law, sovereignty, and democracy was taking place, encompassing everything from the role of religion in the state to the right of women to vote.
Although authoritarian governments largely won the day, Thompson argues that the story doesn’t end there: Instead, she weaves together a series of biographies to trace the persistence of more liberal notions of Middle Eastern society. She begins with an Ottoman civil servant named Mustafa Ali who, in 1599, wrote a passionate memo exhorting the Sultan to reform endemic corruption and judicial mismanagement, because injustices were causing subjects to revolt—thus making the empire less profitable.
From 1858 to 2011, a series of leaders—most of them politicians and also prolific writers—amassed substantial public followings and pushed, though usually without success, for constitutional reforms, transparent accountable governments, and the institutions key to a sustainable democracy. Thompson was surprised, she said, to find the case for liberal democracy and rights in the writings of Iranian clerics, Zionist Jews, Palestinian militants, and early Arab Islamists.
With support from the Maronite church, a group of Lebanese peasants formed a short-lived breakaway mountain republic in 1858, dedicated to egalitarian principles. The blacksmith who led the revolt, Tanyus Shahin, insisted on fair taxation and equal protection of the law. His followers took over the great estates and evicted the landlords, but their main demand was for legal equality between peasants and landowners.
An Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Urabi led a revolt against the Ottoman ruler in 1882, inaugurating a tradition of mass revolt that had its echo in Tahrir Square in 2011. Urabi in his memoir recounts that when the Ottoman monarch dismissed his demands for popular sovereignty in their final confrontation, Urabi replied: “We are God’s creation and free. He did not create us as your property.” Decades later, in 1951, Akram Hourani rallied 10,000 peasants to resist Western colonialism and local corruption in Syria. Eventually, he and his followers in the Baath Party were sidelined by generals who turned the party into a military vehicle.
Some of the stories that Thompson tells are less obscure, like those of the founders of modern Turkey—the one sizable Islamic democracy to emerge from the former Ottoman empire or the Iraqi Communist Party, which had its heyday in the decade after World War II, and whose constitutional traditions remain an important force today even if the party itself is almost completely irrelevant.
Perhaps most encouragingly, in a region known for clashes of absolutes, she finds an encouraging strain of compromise—in particular in the early 20th century, when secular nationalists negotiated with Islamists in Syria to hammer out a constitution they could both support. It was swept aside when France took over in 1923.
“The Middle East is going to see these crises in Tahrir and Taksim and Iran until it can get back to a moment of compromise, which existed a hundred years ago with Islamic liberalism, where you can have your religion and your democracy, too,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she was surprised to find support for constitutionalism and due process in the writings of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue whose writings inspired Al Qaeda. They believed that consensual constitutions could achieve even their religious aims, without disenfranchising citizens who opposed them.
Some of the characters in this tale have largely vanished to history. Others remain hotly contested symbols in today’s politics. The name of Halide Edib, a feminist and avatar of Turkish nationalism in the early 1900s, is still invoked by the governing Islamist party as well as its secular critics. In Egypt, which enjoyed a period of boisterous liberal parliamentary politics between the two world wars, activists today are trying to revive the writings of early Islamists who believed that an accountable constitutional state, with rights for all, would be better than theocracy.
IN THOMPSON’S VIEW , this world did not simply vanish: It lives on in contemporary Arab political thought, most interestingly in Islamist politics.
It’s easy to assume that religiously driven movements are all antidemocratic—and indeed, some have proven so in practice, like the ayatollahs in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Thompson offers a more nuanced view, showing that many of these religious movements have internalized central elements of liberal discourse. The Muslim Brothers wanted to dominate Egypt, but they attempted to do so not by fiat but through a new constitution and a free-market economy.
Princeton historian Max Weiss says his own study of the Levant backs Thompson’s central argument that constitutionalism thrives in the Middle East: For more than a century, a powerful contingent of thinkers, activists, and politicians in the region have embraced rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and liberal economics. Even when they’ve lost the political struggles of the day, they’ve remained active, shaped institutions like courts and universities, and provided an important pole within national debates.
For those in power, “constitutional” government can often be used as a fig leaf: Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamism and Arab legal systems at The George Washington University, observes that leaders like the monarchs in the Persian Gulf have often wielded constitutions as just another means of extending their absolute rule. And they’re not alone: Egyptian judges, Syrian rebels, and Gulf sheikhs often use law and constitution to “entrench and regularize authoritarianism, not to limit it,” he says.
But among the people themselves, there is a longstanding hope for the rule of law rather than the rule of generals, or of imams. Knowing this history is important, Thompson argues, because it establishes that democracy is a local tradition, with roots among secular as well as religious Middle Easterners. Reformers, liberals, even otherwise conservative advocates for transparency and human rights are often tainted as “foreign” or “Western agents,” imposing alien ideas on Middle Eastern culture. This slur is especially potent given the West’s checkered history in the region, which more often than not involved intervention on behalf of despots rather than reformers.
Even if democracy is far from winning the race, its supporters can take courage from how many Middle Easterners have demanded it in their own vernacular. As Thompson’s book demonstrates, it’s very much a local legacy to claim.