In an article I wrote some months ago on the disturbances in North Africa and the Middle East I expressed my doubts as to whether these revolutions could ever lead to democracy as many are hoping. My arguments were based on the assumption that Islam, of its very nature, does not allow for democratic rule.
Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey is proving me wrong on several counts. Mr Erdogan as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. On June 12, he was re-elected for a third term with a sweeping victory. At the time of his entry into national politics in 2001 few would have given him and his Islamic Party any chances of long-term success since to many he seemed to threaten with his background as an ardent Muslim the very foundations of the westernised secular nation-state established in the 1920s by the charismatic Kemal Ataturk and jealously guarded since then by the Turkish military.
Many feared that Mr Erdogan, who was imprisoned in 1998 on the grounds of threatening the Kemalist state, would ultimately impose Islamic law once he gained firm power. Instead, he took pragmatic steps not to irk the ever-vigilant military while embarking on a series of important reforms that brought stability and prosperity to Turkey after years of misrule.
Mr Erdogan signed an Association Agreement with the EU, and started negotiations for Turkey’s eventual accession to the EU. He also took steps to control a rampant inflationary situation, reduced Turkey’s substantial debt, introduced wide-ranging educational and welfare reforms, increased employment and reduced the gap between the rich and the poor. So effective were his reforms that the World Bank praised Mr Erdogan for the courageous initiatives he took in modernising the economy and the consequent stability which he brought to Turkey.
Emboldened with the fresh popular mandate of June 13, Mr Erdogan has now cast his glance beyond the Turkish borders. After the results of the election were announced, he declared in his victory speech: “I greet with affection the peoples of Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Tunis, Sarajevo, Skopje, Baku, Nicosia and all other friends and brother peoples who are following out the news out of Turkey with great excitement”.
Mr Erdogan has already outlined a shift in Turkish foreign policy which could have wide-ranging consequences in the turbulent region. Many analysts are even attributing the Turkish successful experiment in joining Islam with democracy as the spark that truly ignited the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. These are countries in a region where Turkey has historically exercised great influence.
The EU should take note of these important developments. Carl Bildt Swedish Foreign Minister stated some time ago: “The accession of Turkey would give the EU a decisive role for stability in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, which is clearly in the strategic interest of Europe”. Since then the importance of Turkey has grown by leaps and bounds especially in the wake of the Arab uprisings.
Here Turkey is poised to play a key role and Mr Erdogan’s third consecutive electoral victory could further enhance his stature in the Islamic world.
Harun Arikan in his book entitled An Awkward Candidate For EU Membership stated: “It seems unlikely that the ultimate objective of the Association Agreement – Turkish accession to the EU – will be achieved in the foreseeable future. On the one hand, this is because the EU has always considered Turkey as an awkward candidate for EU membership. Turkey is different, problematic, and thus, by implication, a more difficult case than any of the other applicants”.
This negative attitude on the part of the EU towards Turkey should now be revisited and changed in the light of the recent turbulent events in mainly Muslim countries. The EU would disregard these developments at its own risk if it does not want to be sidelined on the international stage. Turkish foreign policy is now taking a more robust outlook at these developments. Mr Erdogan has become a model and a leader in the region. Turkey’s influence is, as a result, ever increasing. With the recent revolutions in Muslim countries, the world is entering a new era in which Turkey will become more involved as the new Arab leaders try to translate the Turkish success in joining Islam with democracy to their own countries.
In these circumstances, the EU should see Turkey as the bridge between Europe and the Arab world. For this purpose, the negotiations for Turkey’s membership should be hastened and smoothed as Turkey’s presence in the EU would automatically give Europe a strong voice of influence in the region (and as a consequence also in the world). This is the pragmatic choice.
Mr Erdogan is reported to have stated that “Turkey’s accession to the EU would show that Europe is a continent where civilizations reconcile and not clash”. He could have added “and a unique opportunity for the EU to prove that it can also be the catalyst in the Arab Spring.”