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How Revolutions Work: Turkey, America and the Arab World

If a radical movement seizes control of the state and can hold it for a very long time, it can fundamentally transform policies and foreign policy.
Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay

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And what about the patronage enjoyed by Islamist leaders? For example, I’m told that men working for the government know now that they are more likely to be promoted if their wives wear “Islamic clothing.” Companies know they are more likely to get government contracts if they toe the line. Once Islamists are permanently in power—even if they have to face elections—the transformation of the country continues.

When Islamists–like Communists, fascists, or Arab nationalists, reach a certain level of power their behavior becomes more authoritarian. Let me tell an anecdote. A friend of mine who fits the profile of a left-secularist Turk has energetically argued with me in conversation that the current Turkish regime is not really threatening to transform the country. But he told me that the nanny for his children, though secular, must wear “Islamic clothing” when she goes to work because otherwise she might be physically assaulted in her neighborhood. I have heard journalists talk in private about how scared they are to offend the regime, though some still do speak their conscience in very loud voices.

Thus, the fact that there will still be a lot of secular people in Turkey doesn’t mean things will remain static. And having about one-third of the population on your side is cold comfort indeed in a democratic state when those people’s votes don’t really count in writing laws, choosing judges, and determining school curricula.

This is where an interesting comparison to the United States comes in. Within Turkey, while under pressure and sometimes even intimidation, much of the mass media and universities are still in the hands of opposition forces. There are campaigns and themes leading to more Islamist attitudes. But by way of comparison, in the United States those two institutions are overwhelmingly in the hands of the pro-government left. This institutional control has gradually led to a remarkable change in popular attitudes that may end up enshrining the left in power for a long time to come. Other views will certainly not disappear in America. But, again, how important is that when the power to set law and customs resides in the hands of one side?

So, yes, Turkey will remain in large part a secular country but that will not determine public or foreign policy. As for NATO, the Turkish regime is accepting NATO support in order to promote an Islamist regime in Syria. Let’s also remember that the revolutionaries in Libya accepted NATO backing and those in Syria would quickly do so if it were available. Both of these groups include large Islamist elements.

As for Cagaptay’s second argument about Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, he writes:

Countries such as Egypt lack Turkey’s institutional westernization experience and constitutionally-mandated secular heritage, and are therefore more susceptible to thorough Islamization. In Turkey, Islamization will be tempered by the unique heritage of institutional and structural westernization. This has ushered in a blend of Western ways and Islamist politics — a first anywhere in the world.

True. But this makes me think of two Arab countries with a somewhat similar profile, Tunisia and Lebanon. Both countries are ruled by Islamists, the former by the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter largely by Hizballah. They might also be seen as blends. Even in Egypt, the secularists will not disappear. Yet they, too, are likely to be powerless. In Egypt’s presidential election, only 52 percent voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the second round. Even in the first round the Islamist candidates got around two-thirds, the same as in Turkey’s election.

The point is that if a radical movement seizes control of the state, even by elections and can hold it for a very long time, it can fundamentally transform policies and foreign policy. If they stay in power long enough they might even change the country’s political culture. If a minority of secularists, for example, remain but are also intimidated by threats and encouraged to conform by the offer of government benefits, it’s still a revolution.

Turkey will remain Turkey; Egypt, Egypt; Lebanon, Lebanon; and so on. But they will nevertheless be very different for their own people, pose tremendous challenges for Western interests, and basically change the nature of the Middle East.

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About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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One Response to “How Revolutions Work: Turkey, America and the Arab World”

  1. Gil Gilman says:

    While Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to be a nut case, due mostly to his mid process, paragraph, sentence reversals, he is merely operating under the delusions of all autocrats and dictators the world over, that what they say, and what they do will have no negative consequences for themselves, but only toward those upon whom they exercise their virulent hatred and disdain, not to mention brutality, simply because their feelings were hurt, and their only way of resolving these emotional and psychological bruises is by physically bruising their opponents. Apparently they realize that their policies, and biases have no standing in a debate where facts win the day.

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