October 21, 2011 / 3:45 PM / 8 years ago

Where Islam and democracy meet, uneasily

Last month, Davut Dogan, an amiable, 51-year-old Turkish businessman from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, accompanied Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a historic trip to post-Mubarak Egypt. In a single day, Dogan and 259 other Turkish business leaders flush with cash announced $853 million in new contracts.

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“We will go to Egypt next month to finalize the deal,” said Dogan, who is opening a $10 million furniture manufacturing plant there. “The factory will employ two hundred people.”

From the rapturous welcome Erdogan received to the economic power the Turkish businessmen displayed, the trip demonstrated Turkey’s potential to serve as a model for the Post-Arab spring Middle East. The death of Muammar Gaddafi Thursday in Libya and elections in Tunisia this weekend show the desperate need for an alternative to the region’s two failed models of government: American-backed dictatorships and authoritarian Islam.

Interviews this week with analysts, businessmen and journalists in Turkey, though, revealed a looming tragedy. Ugly and unnecessary authoritarianism at home by Erdogan threatens to scuttle a historic chance to redefine Islam’s relationship with democracy.

During his trip to Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli last month, Erdogan told rapt audiences that Islam and democracy can co-exist. A devout Muslim who has embraced electoral politics, Erdogan asserted that Muslims can be pious and democratic.

“Islam and democracy are not contradictory,” Erdogan declared in Tunis. “A Muslim can run a state very successfully.”

One of the most popular leaders in the Middle East, Erdogan has vastly more credibility among Muslims than any Western leader. By lambasting Israel over the last several years, he has turned himself into a folk hero.

Part of his fame comes from an economic explosion. Erdogan has embraced the free market and overseen a near tripling of per capita income since taking power a decade ago. Last year, the economy grew at 8.9 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. Today, Turkey boasts one of the fastest growing middle classes in the Middle East.

Along with his economic successes, Erdogan has broken the once-vaunted power of Turkey’s military, which overthrew three civilian governments between 1960 and 1980. In In June, his party won a third term with 50 percent of the vote. And at Erdogan’s urging, a parliamentary committee began drafting a new constitution this week to replace the 1982 constitution drafted after a 1980 military coup.

Mustafa Aykol, a Turkish newspaper columnist and frequent Erdogan defender, said his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, AKP, is a model for Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In a new book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” Aykol argues that there can be liberalism within Islam and challenges the authoritarian interpretations of Iran, Saudi Arabia and militant groups.

“We can speak of an AKP model for other Islamic parties - and that’s a good model,” Aykol told me by phone from Washington, where he was promoting his book. “If more and more Islamists are inspired by the AKP model than by the totalitarian example of Iran, that will be good for the region.”

Dogan, the businessmen who went to Egypt with Erdogan, embodies how the AKP is transforming Turkey. His furniture company is one of the so-called “Anatolian tigers,” burgeoning firms that have risen from Turkey’s conservative Anatolian heartland. Dogan’s company, Dogtas, has opened 108 stylish, Ikea-like stores across the country that cater to upwardly mobile, iPhone-wielding middle class Turkish businesspeople.

More religious, driven and ruthless than the genteel Istanbul elite, the Anatolian firms have helped fuel Turkey’s economic surge. Launched by Dogan’s father 39 years ago, the firm has experienced extraordinary growth in the last five years, with sales revenues and employees doubling to $200 million and 1,000 respectively. The firm now exports to 65 countries and plans to aggressively expand in the Middle East, where it already has twelve shops in Iran, seven in Libya, five in Syria and two in Iraq.

“We want to be as big in Egypt,” said Dogan, who has made twenty trips abroad with Erdogan. “As we are in these other countries.”

Yet critics of Erdogan say the AKP and the Anatolian tigers are building a deeply corrupt nexus that will eventually slow economic growth. The government is steering lucrative projects to companies with links to senior party officials, creating an enormous patronage mill.

More alarming, Erdogan is using economic growth to mask growing authoritarianism. Prosecutors have jailed army officers, journalists and government opponents and accused them of plotting coups. Some of the initial arrests were justified, according to Turkish analysts, but the campaign increasingly resembles an effort to silence critics and exact revenge on those who oppressed the AKP in the past.

Soli Ozel, a professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said that Erdogan is moving toward “electoral authoritarianism.” Elections will be held in Turkey, but the outcome will never be in doubt.

Ozel warned that continued political and economic paralysis in the West could make the high growth and one party rule of China and Russia appealing to Erdogan and a new generation of Middle Eastern leaders.

“Unless the West gets out of its current economic malaise, it will be like the 1930s,” Ozel predicted. “Democracy will lose its allure. Authoritarianism is going to have a feast.”

Where Islam and democracy meet, uneasily

There is another path for Erdogan. The drafting of a new constitution is an opportunity for him to strengthen Turkey, not his own rule. Increasing rights for minorities could ease the Kurdish insurgency, which has claimed 40,000 lives since the 1980s and bedeviled Turkey. Constitutional checks and balance that disperse power – instead of concentrating it – could restore faith in Erdogan’s commitment to democracy. And the country’s burgeoning middle class could be a source of stability for years.

Erdogan’s grip on power need not be so iron.

PHOTO: Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a portrait of modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk in the background, speaks during a news conference in Ankara October 20, 2011.  REUTERS/Umit Bektas

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