Arab Spring Nations May Look to Turkey for Guidance


As the Arab Spring rages on, the question of what the region will look like after the dust settles is the crux of debates. Even now, emerging nations search for a model on which to base their governments. Democracy may be too western, but clearly whatever was in place before last spring was not working. Turkey may provide the answer. Can the complex balance of democratic secularism and Islamic authoritarian tradition found in Turkey provide a model for nations with similar demographic and traditional challenges to modernity, like the Middle East and North Africa? 

One must begin to answer this question from the perspective that everyone desires control over their own decisions. It is an element of human nature that people want to make decisions about what is best for them, and do not want be told what they desire by an authoritarian state. Accepting this as truth we can see the Arab Spring, perhaps not as the desire for democracy per se, but as a collective desire for more autonomy. 

The Turkish nation, both on state and social levels, moved towards a freer society as well. There was reform in Turkey on the basis of Islamic reasoning. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, state controlled religion became less and less important partially for military reasons. In the defense of territory in a changing balance of powers in the Middle East, military influences began to outweigh those religious influences in the Ottoman culture. It is entirely reasonable to believe that in the turmoil that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is currently experiencing, that different cultural priorities may arise to “secularize” these nations. In fact, we have already seen some evidence of shifting priorities influencing the MENA region simply through the vocal discontent regarding the way these societies have been ordered for decades. 

The need for reform in the Ottoman Empire was clear to nearly everyone. Reform was supported by the Ulema in order to preserve Islamic values, not to dismantle them.  It is not at all unreasonable to see Muslim leaders in countries like Egypt or Tunisia advocating reform in order to prevent structural collapse. 

The demographics of these nations are similar to Turkey in terms of the prevalence of Islam.  Egypt is 94.7% Muslim, Libya is 96.6% Muslim, and Tunisia is 99.8% Muslim. Clearly, Islamic forces will not disappear even if these countries “secularize” out of their people’s desire for more autonomy. These similarities between Turkey’s former structure, and the Arab nations' emerging present point to a need for democratization of forces. These nations will also have to struggle to be accepted in an increasingly liberal democratic world, while being viewed by many of these liberal democracies as “too Muslim.” 

This is not to say that MENA nations will all attempt to join the EU, but rather, as governments are democratically elected, reflecting the desire of the people in these nations for more autonomy, and these nations seek to benefit from being a part of the liberal democratic community, the inexorable influence of Islamic forces within their societies will produce a very similar duality as the one that can be found in Turkey today. As Turkey seeks to solve some of its problems relating to human rights abuses and democratic deficits, many emerging MENA nations should look to Turkey as an example and learn lessons to be used in their futures if same problems arise due to the similar dual forces of democracy and Islam. Therefore, Turkey can indeed be seen as a model for emerging MENA nations.

The question remains, over whether or not this vision of the future of the Middle East and North Africa is one that could be approved by western ideologues.