Turkey, An Imperfect Example For The Region

Published February 5, 2012 12:09PM (EST)

ISTANBUL (AP) — For adversaries in a long-distance spat, they made an odd couple. Turkey's leader, a brash visionary who propelled his country to regional prominence, tangled with an American author who dwells on the existential in his work.

The skirmish began when Paul Auster told a Turkish newspaper that he would not visit Turkey because it has jailed dozens of journalists, drawing a caustic retort from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Who cares?" was the essence.

In the swagger stakes, Erdogan won hands-down. But his reply points to the conundrum of a rising power that urges a region in upheaval to reform, but struggles to reform itself. Just as Auster's characters search for their identities, so Turkey wrestles with its own.

To exhaust the metaphor, Turkey has multiple personalities. This diversity has, for the most part, served it well. As a NATO ally, it has leverage in the West. As a nation with a mostly Muslim population, it seems like a beacon of prosperity and democratic politics to Muslims in countries that are emerging from authoritarian rule, or still, as in Syria, in its bloody grip.

Turkey shone in a new poll of perceptions in 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Some 78 percent of respondents gave it a favorable rating. The United Arab Emirates was second with 70 percent. Saudi Arabia and China were at 64 percent, and Egypt was rated favorably by 62 percent. The United States and Israel were last, with 33 percent and 10 percent respectively.

Respondents said Turkey was a regional model because of its democratic system, economic development and Muslim identity. The survey of 2,323 people was conducted late last year by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based research center that describes itself as independent. The regional results had a margin of error of 2 percent.

One admirer is the Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who said during a visit to Istanbul last week that Turkey's role as a voice for Muslims was critical to regional change.

By some indicators, however, Turkey has a long way to go before it is reliably democratic, and its flaws strip sparkle from its lead-by-example approach. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders places it at 148 out of 179 countries on its press freedom index. That puts it just ahead of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but well behind Morocco (138), Jordan (128) and Lebanon (93).

Auster, whose works have been translated and published in Turkey, also said he wouldn't go to China because of free-speech concerns. The fact that a writer who is barely known in Turkey riled up a leader with outsized ambitions for his country of 75 million people shows how sensitive Turkey is to criticism, especially when it comes from a Western source.

Auster's argument rankles Turkish officials, who note most jailed reporters in Turkey are accused of involvement in alleged conspiracies to topple the government, or suspected of links to Kurdish rebels. It's more complicated than critics think, they say.

But the arrests have tainted the reputation of a country that, on balance, has taken significant steps toward full democracy over the past decade. Erdogan pushed the military out of politics, and some analysts wonder whether the Turkish playbook might apply in Egypt, where the military still rules a year after the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Additionally, last week, the European Court of Human Rights identified Turkey as a leading violator among the 47 signatory states of the continent's rights convention. Its report said Turkey had the second highest number of complaints lodged against it, with 11 percent of all 119,300 court applications pending as of Jan. 1, 2010. Russia was first with 28.1 percent.

Many of those cases relate to the right to a fair trial and slow judicial proceedings that keep defendants, including journalists, in jail for years without case resolution. President Abdullah Gul recently compared Turkey's challenges to more dire ones in the region, where ousted authoritarian regimes, in Libya for example, left an institutional vacuum that weak governments struggle to fill.

"Just think of the problems that Turkey, as the most democratic, most secular and most developed country in the Islamic world, is going through," Gul said.

Columnist Mustafa Akyol described the quality of democracy in Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership with a secular political system, as very low compared to that of Britain or Sweden, but said the Turkish experience was regionally relevant.

"Whether we like it or not, the common Muslim mind is very resistant to cultural imports from other civilizations, and especially the West," Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.

He added that Turkey's "successful capitalist growth is spearheaded by the 'Islamic bourgeoisie,' or businessmen who keep noting that the Prophet Muhammad was a merchant. And its evolving democracy is spearheaded by unapologetically Muslim politicians."

Since Ottoman times, Turks have had a conflicted view of the West, coveting its modernity and resenting its influence. But the idea that Turkey's pragmatic leaders would forsake the anchor of those traditional alliances is remote. Turkey conducts nearly half its foreign trade with Europe, and Erdogan has had regular telephone conversations with President Barack Obama over regional problems.

"You can argue that the 'Arab Spring' has forced Turkey to reinforce its ties to the West because those are the only stable ones. It's a question of stability versus instability," said Henri Barkey, a Turkey analyst at Lehigh University in the United States. "One thing you can say about the West: It is what it is. It's not going to change."

Change and conflict in the Middle East, however, are making it hard for Turkey to stay above the fray as a model and mediator. Its leaders, who are mostly Sunni Muslim but say they favor no particular sect, have sparred with Iraq's Shiite-led government. Before a visit to Iran last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned of the threat of a "Cold War" of sectarian tension in the region.

The idealistic days of "zero problems with neighbors," the brand name of Davutoglu's early foreign policy, are over.

By Salon Staff

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