Erdogan's Moment

  • Photograph by Adem Altan

    The standout Erdogan with his party's newly elected MPs after June's landslide

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    His message to them: be good Muslims, but make sure your constitution is, like Turkey's, secular. "Do not fear secularism, because it does not mean being an enemy of religion," he said in an interview on Egyptian TV. "I hope the new regime in Egypt will be secular." This came as a shock to some in the Muslim Brotherhood, who retorted that they didn't need lessons from the Turk. Feathers were soon smoothed, but the episode was a reminder that Turkish Islamism, rooted in a secular democratic tradition, is not so easily transplanted to societies where neither secularism nor democracy is well understood. The template, says Michael Werz, a Turkey expert at the Center for American Progress, "can be inspirational for Arab Islamist parties, but it can't be a model."

    All the same, many politicians in the Arab Spring countries are plainly modeling themselves after the Turkish leader. "Erdogan wears a business suit, but he prays in the mosque. That is something we can identify with," Essam Erian, a top leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, told me in Cairo in the summer. (There's an obvious echo in the name of the Brotherhood's new political arm: Freedom and Justice Party.) Abdelhamid Jlassi, a leader of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party was just as starry-eyed when I met him in Tunis a few days later. "Erdogan speaks our language," he told me. "When he speaks, we listen."

    Ennahda has since won a large plurality in Tunisia's first free elections, on Oct. 23, to form an assembly that will write a new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to do just as well in elections scheduled beginning in late November. Libya is not expected to hold elections until the middle of next year, but there, too, Islamist groups are expected to be significant players. Where — and to whom — they look for inspiration could change the way the world views them.

    The Ideal Islamist
    for some western observers, the rise of political Islam conjures up visions of extremist, reactionary states, like Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran. That limited view informed the anxiety that greeted the AKP's 2002 election victory. Even Turkish secularists feared Erdogan would seek to undo the separation of mosque and state that is the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Turkey. They pointed to comments Erdogan made in the 1990s, as mayor of Istanbul, like this one: "Democracy is a tram that gets you to your destination, and then you get off." Turkey's decision not to participate in the 2003 Iraq war led to fears that Erdogan would take his country out of NATO and turn away from the West.

    But AKP's critics were wrong: Turkey didn't become another Iran. Apart from a quiet repeal of a long-standing ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities last year, Erdogan's policies have hardly been an assault on Ataturk's secular legacy. (Domestic critics complain, however, of an Islamist agenda in the steep hiking of taxes on alcohol and cigarettes.) And far from drifting away from the West, Erdogan pushed harder than his secular predecessors for the ultimate Western endorsement: admission into the European Union, whose repeated cold-shouldering of Ankara says more about European hangups than Turkey's qualifications. Erdogan tells TIME he is "still determined" to pursue E.U. membership but can't help smiling at the irony that his country, once described as "the sick man of Europe," is now economically ascendant, while many members of the club that won't admit him are all but bankrupt.

    From Zero Problems ...
    For all its Islamist leanings, the AKP government also reached out to Jewish Israel and the secular Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad; previous governments in Ankara had at best cool relations with Damascus. There were overtures, too, to neighbors in the Balkans and around the Black Sea, and even to Armenia, with which Turkey has long-standing historical hostilities. These were all consistent with a doctrine Erdogan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, dubbed Zero Problems: Turkey would mend fences with all neighbors and make friends anew in the wider world.

    It worked: Erdogan seemed to form a close bond with Assad, even inviting the Syrian dictator to vacation in Turkey. And Turkey quickly became Israel's best friend in the Islamic world — that bar was, admittedly, low.

    Zero Problems also served Turkey's economic ambitions. Turkish entrepreneurs, nudged along by the government — but without the overwhelming financial backing of the state enjoyed by, say, Chinese companies — were able to rapidly grow business in the immediate neighborhood and farther afield, notably in Africa. Turkish construction companies in particular fanned out across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, competing with (and often beating) Chinese rivals.

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