Why Turkey Can't Be a Model for the Future of the Arab Spring

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Ankara's unique brand of Islamist politics is heavily shaped by its historically Westernized past.

RTR3AY81-615.jpgA man prays inside the Halil-ur-Rahman mosque, built by the Ayyubids in 1211, in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

It is 5 a.m. in Istanbul, and I am looking for coffee. Having arrived in Istanbul's old city the night before and seriously jetlagged, I decided to walk into the Eyup quarter, which hosts Istanbul's most sacred mosque, Eyup Sultan. I hoped the revered shrine, which attracts early morning worshippers, would have an open coffee shop nearby, and I was right. As prayers ended, I watched Eyup's worshipers flow from the mosque, sipping a bland cup of instant coffee, unaware I was about to be treated to an experience of cultural flavor unique to Turkey.

A large group of Salafists, with their trademark trimmed beards and kaftans, walked out of the mosque, heading to my coffee shop. What happened next is a lesson in Turkey's distinctive direction compared to its Muslim neighbors: The Salafist men ordered coffee and Turkish bagels (simit) from the barista, a young woman sporting a tattoo and sleeveless shirt. Neither the exchange between the barista and the Salafists, laden with polite honorifics and formal Turkish speech, nor their body language, suggested tensions between the two opposing visions of Turkey brought into close encounter for me to witness.

As this encounter so succinctly encapsulates, Turkey's two halves are like oil and water; though they may not blend, neither will disappear. Turkey's Islamization is a fact, but so is secular and Westernized Turkey. But the historical roots and current manifestations of this synthesis indicate that it is a model that will be difficult to replicate elsewhere in the region, as Islamist governments rise to power after the Arab Spring.

Starting with the late 18th century, Turkey went through two centuries of societal and structural Westernization under the Ottoman sultans, a unique experience among Muslim societies to this day. The Ottomans considered their state a European one, and borrowed European institutions, setting up women's colleges and building secular schools and courts, to catch up with the continent. Enter young Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who imbibed the secular mindset in such Ottoman schools. The sultans' rule was followed by eight decades of constitutional secularism installed by Ataturk during the 20th century. This campaign, unique among Muslim-majority Middle East societies, mandated strict separation of religion, government, and education.

Turkey's two halves are like oil and water; though they may not blend, neither will disappear.

Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, rooted in Islamism, has challenged these premises, and the firewall between religion, politics, and education has collapsed. The result has been a rising tide of Islamization in Turkey. Take for example, a recent law that mandates the teaching of religion in public schools for nine-year-old children. What is more, Turkey now has a different identity. It considers itself Middle Eastern, rather than European, and views other Muslim countries as brother nations. This is a far cry from Ataturk's vision that viewed Turkey as a European country, only accidentally placed in the Middle East.

Turkey's Islamization is old news. But what is new -- as demonstrated by my encounter at the coffee shop -- is that such Islamization is taking place within the constraints of pre-existing and institutionalized Westernization, a feature unique to Turkey among its Muslim neighbors in the Middle East. The country is so thoroughly westernized that even the AKP and its Islamist elites cannot escape trappings of their Western mold. From the role of women in society, to the country's membership in the NATO alliance, Turkey's western legacy is an insurmountable fact. Perhaps most importantly, it is Turkey's embrace of liberal economics that has driven the AKP to the top in the first place.

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Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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