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Gul drops in, talks up the Turkish political model

May 24, 2012 |  9:22 am

Turkish President Abdullah Gul at NATO summit in ChicagoEgyptians voting this week in their first free presidential election face a choice between Islamist and secular candidates. To some Middle East observers, Turkey, with its constitutional boundaries on Islamist parties, provides a possible model for nations in the so-called Arab Spring movement to reconcile the values of Islam and democracy.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul came to California this week after addressing the NATO summit in Chicago. He spoke with Tribune Media's Global Viewpoint Network Editor Nathan Gardels in San Francisco.

Gardels: In a speech earlier this year in Cairo, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Muslim Brotherhood and others contending for power in their new democracy that they "should not fear secularism,” which has been the foundation of Turkey’s rapid economic development.

Is Turkey’s system, in which a Muslim-oriented party governs within a secular framework, a template for Egypt and the other liberated Arab states as they put together their constitutions?

Gul: What is unfortunate for the Arab and Maghreb countries is that their interpretation of secularism has been based on the French model, which is a “Jacobin” model of imposing a kind of irreligiousness. 

When you speak of secularism to Muslim communities of the region, it is misunderstood because of this French implication. In practice, the implementation of secularism in the Arab and Maghreb countries has meant fighting against Islam in the name of secularism. So we have to understand this sensitivity.

On the other hand, if you use the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism, as practiced in the United States or the United Kingdom, it is something that people should feel comfortable with. All it means is a separation of the state and religion, of the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as the custodian for all beliefs. It is based on respect for all faiths and the coexistence of plural beliefs.

I can tell you from my conversations with the leaders in Egypt or Tunisia, including those with a religious identity, that they are very open-minded and comfortable with this Anglo-Saxon sense of secular government.

They understand that what we are doing in Turkey is focusing on fundamental freedoms. Freedom to practice one’s own religion is one of the most fundamental of freedoms. We are lifting the barriers, that’s all.

Gardels: Due to the rapid rise of the emerging powers, American-led Globalization 1.0 is yielding to a new era — Globalization 2.0 — characterized by “non-Western modernity” and the interdependence of plural identities. The two fastest-growing economies in the world are China, which is reviving some of its old Confucian ways as it prospers, and Turkey, a secular state ruled by an Islamic-oriented party.

How do you see this evolving world looking out from the old Ottoman Empire?

Gul: What we are seeing today is a circle completing itself. A couple of centuries ago China was the most important economy in the world. Then the industrial revolution came and England moved forward, followed by the United States. Now, once again, the center of economic gravity in the world is going back to where it was. More wealth is being spread around to others. We live in a plural world with many power centers. Identities can no longer be prioritized as “Western” or “Islamic” or “Chinese.”

You are right that so-called modernity, as you put it, no longer belongs just to the West. We have managed to fashion it to fit the values of an Islamic society just as the Chinese have been able to style economic prosperity, science, technology to their ancient civilizational ways.

From a more philosophical point of view, though, I would say that the concept of modernity is itself debatable. More properly, we should talk about fundamental values — social justice, equality, respect for the faiths, languages and ways of others; a governing system and economy that delivers the goods to its people.

When you approach the issue in this way, and explain to the people that their values are not in contradiction with new ways and means to improve their lives, they take ownership of the process of development. Greater prosperity flows from their confidence and willingness to open up and engage the world on their own terms. Because of this sense of ownership, the idea of democracy becomes more strongly rooted. It can’t be easily dislodged because the people and their government are aligned in their aspirations.

This is the reform path we are taking in Turkey today. I think you will see China and, despite its present challenges and difficulties, also Russia move toward democracy as we understand it: good governance that abides by the rule of law and accountability.

If the idea of “being modern” is imposed from the top by authoritarian means, it doesn’t work. That amounts to social engineering. There is resistance to it because it is seen as importing Western values. We have seen this reaction clearly in the Arab Spring uprisings, which overthrew authoritarian “modernizers” across the region. The Arabs are now seeking their own path commensurate with their values.


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Photo: Turkish President Abdullah Gul attends the NATO summit on Afghanistan in Chicago on Monday. Credit: Tannen Maury / EPA