Turkey tests Islamist appetite for democracy
Monday, May 14,2007 00:00
By Roula Khalaf, FT

The Arab world has often looked at Turkey with disinterest, considering it a staunchly secular state that turned its back on Islam long ago and has little in common with many of its neighbours.

However, analysts say the political crisis brewing in Ankara over the presidency – after the Turkish military threatened to intervene to thwart the presidential hopes of a candidate from a party with roots in the Islamist movement – has attracted unusual attention in the region.

Moderate Islamist groups, in particular, are watching events in Turkey as a test of the merits of engagement in democratic politics.

Issam el-Erian, a senior official from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, says the showdown in Turkey could have far-reaching implications for the evolution of Islamist movements in the region.

He says military intervention would strengthen the arguments of jihadi leaders who warn against participation in elections.

"The radicals will be more convinced that this [democratic path] is in vain," says Mr el-Erian.

For some Arabs, the Turkish military’s opposition to a candidate from the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which grew out of an Islamist movement, has revived memories of the Algerian army’s intervention in 1991 to stop an Islamist victory in legislative ­elections.

Mr el-Erian, however, argues that the experience of the AKP in Turkey’s more mature democracy will be different from that of ­Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (Fis).

The Fis was a newly established and radical party that lacked a coherent message when it was denied an ­election victory, sparking years of civil strife. The army’s move was also largely supported by western governments.

In Turkey, the government is fighting the challenge from the military by seeking to elect a president through a direct popular vote, rather than parliamentary vote, making it more difficult for the army, which considers itself the guardian of secularism, to interfere.

Arab Islamist groups have had an awkward relationship with the AKP, with many accusing it of abandoning its Islamist principles in pursuit of power within a secular state.

Islamists point out that there are crucial differences between Turkey and Arab states, where autocratic regimes confront Islamist parties but seek legitimacy from Islam and base their constitution, in one way or another, on Islamic principles (without, however, necessarily applying it).

Still, the region’s more moderate Islamists in recent years have looked to the AKP as a successful model. For example, the programme of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a banned group, includes a call for a "civil", pluralist and inclusive ­government rather than a "religious" state.

In Morocco, officials from the similarly named Justice and Development party (PJD), a legal group that is likely to do well in legislative elections this year, have been inspired by the Turkish experience.

"The AKP lives under a secular umbrella – we say we’re a democratic party but in an Islamic state," says Mustafa Ramid, an MP from the PJD.

"But success in Turkey could lend moral support to Islamist parties that are playing the democratic game while failure will also have an impact."

The Turkish test comes as Islamist groups in the region have faced a series of setbacks, despite recent success in elections.

Taking advantage of US pressure on Arab regimes to democratise, Islamist groups stepped up their political participation in the aftermath of September 11 2001, some of them also moderating their message to distance themselves from jihadi groups.

But enthusiasm in Washington waned when the administration realised that the better organised and more popular Islamists would do much better than weak and fragmented secular parties. So, over the past year, the Bush administration has appeared to revert to its old policy of backing authoritarian regimes.

The election of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, in January 2006 led to international isolation as western governments tied aid to a series of conditions, including Hamas’ recognition of Israel.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong performance in the 2005 legislative elections was met with a determined government crackdown to prevent the group from achieving further gains.

Olivier Roy, a French expert on Islamist movements, says that if the Turkish crisis is not resolved through the ballot box, it will be further confirmation to Islamists of the "intolerance" of western democracy and the preference for "authoritarian secularism".

Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan newspaper, says the Turkish experience has broader implications.

"If that experience fails, it will be a setback for modern Islamist movements and it will be a disaster for the western dream of encouraging a secular form of Islam," he says.