The growing relevance of Turkey

It is no longer a peasant society ruled by its army, but a dynamic nation with a strong civil society

Turkey’s history, geography and demographic content have throughout the years compelled one to maintain a keen eye on its political performance and influence in the world. Witnessing the toppling of regimes languid in governance and ruthless in repression in it’s vicinity, portends a global scenario where the discussion of freedom, secularism, human rights and the role of Islam in Muslim majority societies will adopt a frenetic pace.

Understanding how Turkey went through the motions of a moribund ‘Khilafah’ through much of the 19th century before withstanding ultra-secular surgery in the 20th century provides little of historic significance, until one studies the astonishing rise of the Justice and Development (AK) Party under Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the 21st century.   

Before counting it’s the key achievements and it’s growing relevance to the freedom ‘charge’ in the Middle East as well as our conflict-ridden region, it would be essential to emphasise the oft-repeated mantra of this writer about the contemporary relevance of delivery of good governance; underpinned by economic efficiency as opposed to charmed rhetoric, religious (Islamic) or otherwise. No country in the ‘Muslim World’ embodies that sentiment or fits that description more aptly than Turkey. Coupled with its rising influence in global politics, there is little else in terms of a role model for Muslim-majority states to aspire to. Indeed, in a recent conversation with one of Pakistan’s senior-most (albeit retired) foreign service officials, yours truly posed a question as to which country in the world could save Pakistan from it’s current dire predicament? Though he hesitated in response, he heartily agreed with my suggestion of Turkey.

In a discussion with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq outside his residence in the summer of 2009, one sensed a lack of direction in what he perceived to be the way forward for his ‘constituency’. In his own nuanced manner, he shared the indignation conveyed to him regarding various facets of the ‘Muslim World’. This writer cynically suggested that rather than take influence from Pakistan, which in this writer’s opinion has – at the best of times – difficulty in distinguishing between its elbow and the rest of its arm, that he would be better advised to solicit advice from Turkey. Many an example of the substance of Turkey’s diplomatic credentials were put to him. Though he cited issues related to confiscation of his passport by the Indian authorities at the time, one does wonder whether or not he heeded that advice in due course.

This coming June, Turkey’s third general elections of the 21st century are due. Opinion polls suggest that Erdogan’s AK Party – which some foreign commentators somewhat frivolously refer to as ‘mild Islamists’ – will return to power for an unprecedented third term. There is more than a hint of envy directed towards the way Turkey – under the AK party – has turned around not just the economy, curbing inflation (omitting the dreaded multiple zeros that the Turkish Lira was famous for), drastically curbing government debt, increasing per capita income; that it has changing the whole nature of negotiations for EU membership, from a hitherto utter wanna-be European country, to one that is assertive in it’s identity and confident in it’s aspiration, to be the indispensable hub between European and Asian markets.

The manner in which Erdogan has curbed the ultra-secular yet deficient in governance traits of the military, erstwhile politicians and judiciary is nothing short of remarkable. Turkey made it through the financial tsunami of the recent past virtually unscathed. It’s 5% rate of growth has only been bettered by India and China. No mean feat.

How Turkey has dealt with conflict (both internal and external, East vs. West, current as well as historic) shows how serious it is to re-align its importance as well as integrate with the world. It has displayed a pro-active stance, subtlety and forthrightness in foreign relations as and when it deemed appropriate. It mattered little who their counterpart was. The Kurds, Armenia, Greece, Israel, Iran, the Arab World, the Europeans or indeed the Americans, all bar none have been creatively engaged. The old Ottoman pedigree has resurfaced at times it seems. Furthermore, the Turkish army in Afghanistan is probably the only external force that maintains respect from all sides of the conflict. Meanwhile, the Turkish business community (religious and otherwise) when not painstakingly searching for global markets old and new, are waxing lyrical about the AK party.

The policy of relative pragmatism has shown that it has developed a fine art of balancing what most others get muddled up, in either action or interpretation viz. Islam and secularism, Asia and Europe, modern and ancient. Modern Turkey’s relevance to a burgeoning mass freedom movement in the Middle East should be all too clear. With respect to our region, yours truly has on numerous occasions in the past few weeks half-jokingly suggested to Pakistani friends to facilitate a ‘Turkish Handover’ of Pakistan. On a more serious note, as Turkey becomes more relevant in Central Asia and further East beyond Turkmenistan, a neutral Kashmir would be the ultimate trading hub enabling smooth cross-movement of trade, ideas and people.

Recounting the potential pitfalls that Turkey has managed to skilfully subside would be useful-admittedly through a long drawn out process of trial and error– 85% of Turkish respondents to an AP-Gfk poll described religion (Islam) to be an “extremely” or very “important” part of their lives. In the same vein, 65% of poll respondents wanted religious leaders to stay out of government. Much of Turkey’s public and some in the outside world notice Turkey’s slant to the ‘East’ yet simultaneously they recognise the importance of association with Europe, not least for inspiration in terms of continuously improving institutional mechanisms for human rights and the economy.

It would be grossly inappropriate if Turkey’s relevance to Pakistani administered Kashmir were not touched on. In this respect, when the earth-shattering earthquake of October 2005 befell this territory, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first foreign dignitary to surface in Muzaffarabad. Turkish relief and rescue teams were fast and frenetic in their work. They topped off their contribution by building a whole new administrative block sans involvement of the local population in construction. Perhaps an indication of how wise they were. They had no doubt heard stories of how essential building materials get siphoned off amidst the hustle and bustle of construction. The ‘finished product’ could arguably be described as the most stoic example of infrastructure building in the area since the Dogra Era.  

To end this piece by paraphrasing Turkey’s most notable author and critic of our times, would go some-way in re-vitalising the essence of the message delivered. Orhan Pamuk describes Turkey as no longer being as poor as it once was. "No longer is it a peasant society ruled by its army, but a dynamic nation with a strong civil society."

Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at