A Model Muslim State?

A Model Muslim State?

Turkey under Atatürk offered an appealing model for the Muslim world, in the view of U.S. officials, but its more recent independence on important internal issues may provide a more useful model.

Read Time:
2m 36sec

“Turkey’s Strategic Model: Myths and Realities” by Graham E. Fuller, in The Washington Quarterly (Summer 2004), Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1800 K St., N.W., Ste. 400, Washington, D.C. 20006.

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey in the 1920s, he wanted a thoroughly secular state that kept religion at the margins of public life. Now, after decades of repression, a moderate Islam has moved to the center of Turkish life. And Turkey, with its maturing democracy and growing independence, is fast becoming an appealing model for the Muslim world, argues Fuller, author of The Future of Political Islam (2003) and a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency official.

“It was only natural that a key feature of the Turkish identity—its deep association with the protection and spread of Islam for hundreds of years—could not remain forever suppressed,” he says. For all the economic progress that modernization brought, the vast majority of Turks remained religious. And as Turkey’s commitment to democracy deepened in recent decades, in part because of its desire to join the European Union, the Turkish military, the zealous guardian of Atatürk’s secularist legacy, “increasingly limited its previously interventionist role in politics.” The overtly religious Justice and Progress Party, which “prudently describes itself as coming from an ‘Islamic background,’” scored a spectacular victory in the 2002 elections, becoming the country’s ruling party. Meanwhile, the popular Nur movement, springing from “the same traditional Anatolian heartland,” calls for an apolitical revival of Islam as the moral basis for civil society, stressing the need for education, democracy, and tolerance.

As “the first state in the history of the Muslim world to freely elect to national power an Islamist party,” Turkey seems to have accomplished “the management and political integration of Islam,” which is “the leading challenge to the Muslim world today,” says Fuller.

Seeking to become an advanced, Wester­nized nation, Turkey under the Ata­türkists tied itself closely to the West. But with the Soviet threat gone, Ankara can now be more independent of Washington. “Arabs sat up and took notice that a democratic Turkey could say no to Washington on assisting the U.S. invasion of Iraq, something despotic Arab rulers dared not do.”

For decades under the Atatürkists, Turkey tried to ignore the Arab world and Israel. But threats from regionally ambitious authoritarian regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria led Turkey’s leaders to develop ties with Israel. Now that those threats are much diminished (thanks, in part, to the United States), Turkey “is almost surely moving toward improved relations” with the three Muslim countries. And Ankara’s decision to meet some of the demands of its Kurdish population for cultural autonomy and linguistic rights has muted Kurdish separatism and eased Turkish anxieties about neighboring Iraq, which also has a large Kurdish population.

“This new independent-minded Turkey, moving toward resolution of its traditional Islamist and Kurdish issues and away from the old, hackneyed vision of a secular pro-U.S. state,” concludes Fuller, “is on its way to becoming a genuine model for the Muslim world and gaining acceptance among many Muslims as such.”

More From This Issue