Islamists in North Africa and the Turkish Model
By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Published Monday, October 24, 2011
Muammar Gaddafi has been executed, and Libya has moved on to the next phase. There will be no real discussion about the nature of his execution or who was responsible for it. We’ll never know for sure if a Libyan fighter decided to get rid of him in a moment of anger, or whether his executioner was following orders. The Libyan people have decided to move irrespective of foreign intervention and involvement. Now, they see before them a country emerging from a civil war, albeit a brief one.
As for Libya’s future, it may not conform to the wishes of NATO countries, which destroyed Libyan cities and neighborhoods during the conflict and killed many. It will depend on the ability of Libyans to overcome their recent past, and the experience of other revolutions and regimes in North Africa over the past two decades. Tunis has been subjected to the first real test of democracy, and the results of the ongoing elections will be read carefully by the other peoples who have risen up during the Arab Spring, as well as those, like Egypt, who have not yet completed their revolutions.
The extent of Islamist movements’ involvement in running Libya will be an indicator of how much progress the Arab states are in fact making. There is nothing wrong in principle with the Islamists coming to power. Repeating the experience of Algeria — igniting a civil war because Islamists won the elections — would be foolish. Disrupting the democratic process to prevent Islamists from coming to power, as happened in Palestine after Hamas won the election in 2005, would be equally foolish. The important thing for the people of these countries (and not the West) will be the extent to which the rising political factions, especially Islamist groups, will be able to learn from past experience.
In this context, it is not possible for any of the groups in Libya to claim they have ‘cut the cord,’ so to speak, between them and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the most significant period of change to hit the Arab world since the foundation of Israel. There are many models that can be applied to confront Western meddling, but the two most popular on the state level at the moment are those of Iran and Turkey.
Despite differing ideologies, the two states have undergone a similar process of building a powerful state and a strong economy capable of withstanding pressures and challenges, benefiting from economic self-determination and the expansion of political and cultural independence that come with it.
The most important lesson offered by Turkey and Iran is not political or ideological. Rather, it is in the way they have managed sizable populations and convinced them to endure great hardships. The movements of the Arab Spring have not looked to Iran as a model, especially not the Islamists among them. Turkey seems to have a higher profile in their discussions; however, the Turkish model has its own peculiar features that don’t apply to countries of the Arab Spring.
In the previous century, Turkey fought a battle to escape from a colonial framework under the sultans of the Islamic caliphate, becoming a secular state, though unable to erase the role of religion in politics. Over the last two decades, the Islamists have slowly regained their dominant role and have been ruling the country for the past 10 years.
However, the Islamists are not capable of changing the secular foundations of the country. To its credit, Turkey has been able to build upon previous gains, while not hesitating to engage in new and diverse policies. This is what allows a country to secure its place on the international stage, if it can maintain its distance from Western countries.
Turkey is the object of admiration for many Islamists today, including Rachid Ghannouchi and the pro-democratic al-Nahda Party in Tunis, other emerging groups in North Africa, many non-Wahhabi Islamists in the Gulf, and Islamists in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Turkey is capable of presenting itself as the model of a secular state that improves the welfare of its people, but it is returning to its former colonial ways in attempting to revive its dusty past by extending its influence in the Arab world.
Today, Turkey faces a test that will bring us back to square one with questions still unanswered. Is it possible for a powerful state like Turkey to play the role of guardian to the emerging Arab Spring states without imposing a kind of mandatory rule, and is it possible for such a state to offer support without rendering those it supports its subordinate?
Turkey’s record of involvement in the region up to this point does not bode well. Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s strategy of a “zero problems” foreign policy has now resulted in nothing but simmering tensions stretching from Russia and Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to the Balkans.
Meanwhile, the colonialism of old has reared its ugly head in the state’s mistreatment of its Kurdish citizens. Turkey does not realize that when it launches a war to wipe out the smallest Kurdish opposition, they are wiping out their own people. Yet they have no qualms about lecturing others about freedom and human rights. And they do so in the name of the same Islam that has mobilized so many of the Arab people to stand up to their leaders.
The real danger in the case of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt is not that the people might choose who they want to lead the country, whether they be Islamist, liberal, secular, or otherwise. Rather, it would be in considering Turkey’s example worthy of emulation. Colonialism, subjugation, and cultural and moral condescension lead us to the one place we’ve all been before: dictatorship!
I wonder if any of them still care about Palestine.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.