Islamists Look to Turkey for Inspiration

As revolutions across the Mideast bring religious parties within sight of real political power, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming the region's go-to man for Islamist leaders looking for a makeover. Tunisia's exiled Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is scheduled to visit Ankara in March, believes that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has shown others how to "align Islam with modernity," pointing a path from the political wilderness to the mainstream. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is also following in Erdogan's footsteps, setting up a moderate Freedom and Justice Party—which will include members of the Coptic Christian minority—to run in upcoming elections. Morocco's Islamists have borrowed the Justice and Development Party's name. In Jordan, too, the Islamic Action Front has called for King Abdullah to look to "the Turkish model." A recent study conducted by the Istanbul-based TESEV think tank found that 75 percent of Arab respondents considered Turkey a "successful example of the coexistence of Islam and democracy."

Why Erdogan is the Islamists' hero is no mystery: he has transformed from a radical firebrand, jailed for sedition in 1999, into the leader of the most successful political machine in modern Turkish history. Under Erdogan the AKP has won five national polls, fought off legal challenges and coup plots, and presided over a doubling of Turkey's GDP in eight years.

Erdogan himself is coy about talking up Turkey as an example to be followed. Turkey was once the region's colonial master, and many Arabs are still sensitive about Turks telling them what to do. Nonetheless, he tells NEWSWEEK, "I believe that Turkey could be a source of inspiration rather than a model for these countries…it is not realistic to expect one model to fit all countries in the region." But, says Erdogan, "Turkey has established a functioning democracy based on respect for human rights and rule of law." That in itself shows that Islam and democracy are not incompatible.

Indeed, when pundits talk of "the Turkish model" for a stable, democratic Muslim country, they really mean the AKP model. Just 10 years ago, Turkey was a prime example of how poorly democracy worked in the Muslim world, not how well: a revolving door of unstable and corrupt coalitions; a feeble banking sector; a military that removed four civilian governments in four decades, and which may have been involved in thousands of disappearances of Kurds and leftists. True, Erdogan's own democratic credentials are not completely clean: for years he was silent about the cruelty of Arab despots he counted as allies (he was even awarded the Muammar Gaddafi Human Rights Prize—perhaps the last ever—last December). But the bottom line is that today's Turkey—stable, growing at 8 percent, with the Army effectively and bloodlessly pushed out of politics, at peace with its neighbors and a regional economic powerhouse—is Erdogan's creation.

An inconvenient truth for Erdogan's Islamist admirers, though, is that the secret of the AKP's success is that it ditched all talk of Sharia and reinvented itself as what Erdogan calls "Muslim Democrats" on the pattern of Europe's Christian Democrats. As Erdogan and his allies have been tacking toward the mainstream, Islamist regimes in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan "failed to deliver on their promises of social justice, equality, rule of law, and freedom from foreign domination," says Gönül Tol of the Middle East Institute in Washington. As a result, "Islamism has lost its energy, legitimacy, and appeal among the new generation of Arab Muslims." Arab Islamists need to reinvent themselves for a new, postrevolutionary era—one in which they will be judged by how much security and prosperity they can provide their people. In Eastern Europe, Communists reinvented themselves as socialists. In the same way, Turkish Islamists like Erdogan reinvented themselves as post-ideological conservatives. If Turkey is anything to go by, it's a formula that works.