The new Turkish delight: More Muslim, more modern

The new Turkish delight: More Muslim, more modern

TESEV, probably the most prominent think tank in Turkey, launched a survey report titled, “The Perception of Turkey in The Middle East, 2010.” This is the second report of its kind trying to measure Turkey’s popularity in the Arab world. Through face-to-face or telephone interviews with 2,267 people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq (and also Iran), TESEV researchers found out that the Turkish ascendancy in the Middle East is not a myth.

“The region is highly aware of Turkey,” the report concluded, “and this awareness ranges from knowledge of Turkish products and TV series through to the upbeat view of Turkey’s policies toward the region.”

“Put simply,” it added, “the Arabs like Turkey.”

Why this is the case is a question worth pondering. The TESEV report sheds light on that as well, as it lists the top four reasons in the Arab mind that makes Turkey likeable: Turkey’s Muslim background, its economic power, its democratic regime, and that it “stands up for Palestinians and Muslims.”

As you see, these four answers nicely reveal two separate phenomena: That Turkey is being defined as a Muslim country which cares about “Muslim issues.” But it is also seen as a county that is successful in the two main aspects of modernity: economic development and democratic politics.

The Muslim identity here is so important that those Arabs who believe that Turkey cannot be a model for their countries have shown two main reasons: Its secular political system (which used to be notoriously anti-religious), and that “it is not Muslim enough.” (But, of course, being simply “Muslim enough” would not make Turkey interesting for anyone in the Arab world: otherwise, the Saudis would have rocked.)

All this, I believe, fits into what I have been arguing for a while: If Turkey becomes a pivotal county in the Muslim world in this new century, it will do so by presenting a case of “Muslim modernity.”

This, of course, is something different from the vision of Turkey’s Kemalist architects, who believed that there is only a single form of modernity – that of the West – and Turkey had to emulate it in full. Hence came the Cultural Revolution of the Kemalist regime, which wanted to transform the Turkish society into something indistinguishable from, say, the French: with the Hat Revolution of 1925, for example, traditional Islamic headgear was banned and the brimmed hat of the West was imposed.

However, as the late Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt argued, there can well be “multiple modernities.” The European modernity is not the only one, in this view, it is merely the earliest. Each culture and civilization, in other words, can develop its own version of rationalization, capitalism, democracy and even liberalism.

This conceptualization is very much needed for the Muslim world, for, whether we like it or not, the common Muslim mind is very resistant to cultural imports from other civilizations, and especially the West.

The modernity of post-Kemalist Turkey seems to bridge the gap here: Its successful capitalist growth is spearheaded by the “Islamic bourgeoisie,” or businessmen who keep noting that the Prophet Muhammad was a merchant. And its evolving democracy is spearheaded by unapologetically Muslim politicians.

Of course, the quality of Turkish democracy is still very low when compared to, say, that of United Kingdom or Sweden. (In terms of freedom of speech, the Turkish record is still outright shameful.) But there is a reason why quite a few Arabs still look up to Turkey as a model, and not to any European or North American democracy: for them, the Turkish experience is simply more Muslim and, thus, more relevant.

For all of Mustafa Akyol’s works, including his recent book, ‘Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,’ visit his blog, On Twitter, follow him at @AkyolinEnglish.