Friday, January 1, 2010

Miracle in Turkey: How the Road to Peace Can Be Islamic

Turkey has long been seen as something of a "bridge" between The West and The Islamic World, even as those 2 cultural worlds have undergone major changes and political transformations. But none of those transformations can rival that of Turkey.

Before Prime Minister Erdogan's AK Party came to power, Turkey was almost manically secular, thanks to the tradition began by Kamal Ataturk, who sought to erase what he believed to be the "backwardness" of religion, including Islamic culture. Of course, "cultural revolution" sounds rather like many of the socialist movements, including China's, that became government tyrannies under the guise of enforcing social justice. With this same style of heavy hand, Turkey also became rabidly nationalistic, and embarked on a long and brutal cultural and political suppression of ethnic Kurds and others. The AK party, branded "Islamic" (ooooh, danger! orange!) by the West, has undertaken a total rejection of such oppressive and wasteful policies. One rarely hears in the press about how the Islamic-leaning AK party has turned from war and suppression to diplomacy and reconciliation in their dealings with the Kurds as well as their neighbors. There are no calls for antagonizing or attacking those of non-Muslim or other religious persuasions, not to mention nationalities. Note that this is in stark contrast to the stereotype of Muslims as being always on the jihad warpath against enemies - religious, ethnic, or those who diverge from some dogma du jour.

Under the old nationalist government much-adored-but-not-befriended by the West, the Turkish lire was famous for being almost worthless. Twenty years ago, you could go into Istanbul, for example, and need cash for bribes just to get around, meet lots of destitute and unhappy-looking people, see run-down buildings beside crumbling historical sites, wonder how people managed to live, and generally notice a sense of general desperation, corruption, over which the human spirit of the people had to struggle to rise.

Now it is as if Turkey has awakened from a bad dream. Landfills have been transformed into gardens with recreational areas for children and sports facilities for others. Bridges, tunnels, sewers, new roads, tram lines have been built. Hospitals, schools, libraries, training facilities, sports facilities, playgrounds, clinics, elderly care facilities and more have been established and are functioning not only in Istanbul and Ankara, but cities around the country. The government has invested $22.6 billion in five years for civil services such as health care and infrastructure in Istanbul alone. At the same time, crime and punishment have been revamped to provide equal enforcement of the law and to make public officials just as accountable as private citizens, and to strengthen and enforce anti-bribery laws. Corruption has died down while political life has been encouraged in many ways, including the establishment of centers where people can discuss political issues.

Both the government and Turkish charities have revived efforts to help the poor, including subsidized bread, access to health care, and money for immediate needs. Local councils have been established to which people can address their needs.

Importantly, money that would have been spent on the military and on skirmishes with neighbors is being spent on the needs of Turkish society. Taking after this same attitude, a more balanced approach in terms of religious freedom is worth looking at.
The previous nationalist government tried to use religion against freedom in an inverted way, by making religious expression illegal and socially "anti-Turkish". Erdogan had many problems to overcome in changing the status quo.

The one that caused the most problems for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the lifting of the headscarf ban. A relic of the Kemalist era, the ban on headscarves in Universities has deprived millions of female students of the right to education. While espousing values like freedom of choice and expression, the Turkish secular establishment saw nothing contradictory in not allowing students to cover their hair if they wished to. Erdogan’s measure that promoted true secularism was derided as Islamism by his critics. His choice for the President too was condemned as the future First lady preferred to wear a headscarf. Erdogan resigned in the face of such criticism and called for fresh elections to seek a direct mandate from the people. He returned to power with the greatest margin ever in Turkey. This only served to infuriate the opposition who almost succeeded in having his party disbanded by the Constitutional Court.

Which Turkey would serve as a better role model for the Muslim World?? A nationalist and oppressive regime which emphasizes military aggression and almost fanatic secularism? Or a government that favors Islamic principles of democracy and justice and fairness without making dogma and military enforcement of such the centerpiece of their power? A government that prefers cooperation and peaceful development over military might should be a role model not just for the Muslim World, but for the West, and in fact, for the planet and all its political players, east or west.

Pres. Obama promised to make domestic development superceded the international adventurism of Republican nationalism and cultural evangelism. Those same "forces" have influenced his hand in Afghanistan and driven him from the hope of a promised change of agenda. Maybe he should take a good look at Turkey.

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