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Turkey can model democracy for the Arab world

By Frankie Martin, Special to CNN
  • Frankie Martin says Turkey can be a model for modern, democratic, Islamic nations
  • U.S. should encourage this as a bridge between Islam and secular democracy, he says
  • Turkey not perfect on rights for ethnic minorities, but democracy gives way to deal with this
  • Martin: U.S. should urge Egypt's army to move nation toward elected civilian government
  • Egypt
  • Turkey
  • Israel
  • Barack Obama

Editor's note: Frankie Martin is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International Service in Washington.

(CNN) -- The ousting of President Hosni Mubarak has raised an urgent question: What type of government will replace his dictatorship? There are hopeful signs that Egypt's ruling military is moving toward democracy, but there is much uncertainty amid the euphoria.

Speaking after Mubarak stepped down, President Barack Obama praised the Egyptian people for demanding their "universal rights" and offered American assistance on a transition to democracy. The president's speech was faithful to America's founding ideals, but because United States had backed Egypt's oppressive authoritarian system, it contradicted those ideals and muddied America's message.

Instead, many Arabs are increasingly looking to their northern neighbor, Turkey, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a model of a modern, democratic and Islamic nation nurturing pluralist ideals.

Rather than viewing Turkey's increasing currency in the region as a challenge, America should see it as an opportunity. From its free-market economic system, which is registering Chinese-level growth, to its compatible ideals, the promotion of the Turkish model is in America's national interest. Turkey effectively counters militant groups by challenging them from within Muslim society while also representing a crucial bridge between the West and the Muslim world.

Turkey's rise signifies the emergence of modernist Islam, which seeks to balance the religion with the modern world. Modernist Islam engages with other belief systems in pursuit of knowledge, including Western thought. This is an impulse that in history marked the apex of Islamic cultural and scholastic achievement.

Yet great shocks and crises such as colonization and its aftermath led many Muslims to believe they had to choose between a corrupt, Western-backed dictator who spoke the language of democracy but delivered little, and Islamic literalists who sought to purify their unjust societies of foreign influence by adhering to a religious blueprint.

Turkey rejected this paradigm. After many trials, it developed a secular democracy in which political parties rooted in religion could compete. It was this Islamic model that inspired many of the Arab protesters.

Erdogan was among the first leaders to call for Mubarak to step down. Nobel winner Mohamed ElBaradei; Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League; and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood praise Turkey's example. In Tunisia, prominent opposition leader Rachid Ghannouchi praised Turkey for proving "that Islam and democracy go together."

Turkey is even more tenable as a model because of the deep historical and emotional roots it has in Muslim societies from the Ottoman Empire's 700-year rule of much of the Islamic world. In the future, Muslims may look to Turkey not by paying tribute to its sultan but by taking the example of its democratic system.

To embrace and support the Turkish model, however, America will have to overcome its deep fear and paranoia about Islam. In the case of Egypt, some American policymakers contradicted and distrusted their own ideals -- cooling to democracy in favor of autocracy -- out of fear of the Muslim Brotherhood's intentions. For some, there is a similar concern the AKP may represent a kind of stealth "Islamism."

Some in Israel, especially those upset by Turkey's denunciation of Israel over the Gaza flotilla raid last spring, echo these views. But cries that Turkey has been "lost" are overhyped. If the issue of the flotilla can be resolved and progress made in the peace process with the Palestinians, there is no reason to believe that Turkey and Israel cannot return to their days of cooperation.

The need to engage with Turkey is recognized by prominent Israelis, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who last year called for an urgent rehabilitation of relations as imperative for Israel's national interest. As Turkey gains influence in the Muslim world, other countries might look to Turkey's policy toward Israel as a model for their own.

No model, of course, is perfect, and Turkey has its problems.

There are sometimes setbacks in securing equal rights for Turkey's ethnic and religious minorities, and there is distrust and opposition to the AKP from within the army as well as secular Turks. These tensions will also exist in Egypt and in other Muslim nations, but true democracies backed by strong ideals provide a forum to deal with such challenges.

America can immediately take practical steps to promote the Turkish model by encouraging the Egyptian army to move the nation toward a genuine, civilian-elected government. That's no small task considering how deeply entrenched the military is in Egyptian society. What is not tolerable is any further promotion of "stability" over the popular will. The people of Egypt, like the people of Tunisia, have spoken, and they will not be ignored.

With or without America, a new dawn has broken in the Middle East, which is reverberating throughout the Muslim world. America can place itself firmly on the right side of history as a global leader by supporting and encouraging democratic, modernist Islam. By doing so, America would be true to the aspirations of millions of Muslims -- and to itself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frankie Martin.