Turkish Prime Minister received such a rapturous, rock star welcome on his recent tour of North Africa, you’d be forgiven for thinking the man was responsible for the Arab Spring. (He’s not.) On paper, there are many reasons to fete Erdogan, but is the media attention and accompanying frenzy about him being a savior of sorts a little … much?
In a quest to embrace Erdogan for his gutsy stance against Israel ─ coupled with several of his achievements I shall list below ─ it seems much of the Muslim world has accepted the Turkish premier as the “neo Ottoman”, the very phrase being used for him in the Western world but in a more disparaging manner.
Western weariness towards Erdogan’s fast-track to popularity in the Arab world stems largely out of fear of losing in Turkey an ally in the war against terror as well as apprehensions that Erdogan may lose sight of his country’s bid to become an EU member and lean towards Islamism ─ as it is being hailed as a model Muslim nation by other Muslim nations.
Neither of the fears is substantiated by Erdogan’s actions. He has repeatedly said he will try to meet criteria for EU membership so he’s not shirked responsibility there. As for his selling the Turkish model as an exemplary form of governance and identity for other Muslim nations to follow, this is just idealistic at best. The Turkish model is such because of its own struggles in history and it is not an organ that can be surgically transplanted into Egypt or Tunisia or Libya simply because they are nations in flux, ready to embrace democracy. Even Erdogan’s “advice” sounds more like rhetoric than anything concrete or tangible ─ “come be Turkish” hasn’t been followed by “let me show you how” except for the brief “make the Egyptian constitution secular” speech which got the Islamists worked up.
It’s easy to see why Erdogan is pitching himself and Turkey as the new regional power broker. On the surface he’s earned it: he was elected for the third term because his country is an economic success story, having been the fastest growing economy in 2010, barring China and India according to The Economist in June 2011. He wants to do right with the minorities and neighbors with whom Turkey has had long standing problems ─ Kurds, Cyprus, Armenia, all of whom he has made overtures to, however small they may appear ─ and he’s fought a tough battle to keep the powerful army at bay. He’s very recently re-invented himself as an Islamic secularist, crediting secularism as the backbone of Turkish society, governance and success while reassuring Muslims that there’s no reason to fear secularism. (There’s something comical about this given that not too long the army wanted to ban Erdogan’s party for not being secular enough but let’s leave that to pre-Erdogan the superstar and Middle East’s savior phase.)
However, scratch that surface ─ and the weird reinvention of himself as a secularist when he’s always won as an Islamist ─ and you realize that all the brouhaha surrounding Erdogan is about his stance against Israel. He’s nearly beating the war drum. It is that which has the Arab and Muslim world enthralled. And the West on the edge of their seats.
We’re so excited by Erdogan’s demand that Israel apologize for the Turks killed in the flotilla attacks last year, that we’ve nearly forgotten that his demand came a year after the event and shortly before the publication of the Palmer report. I fear so many are swept by the frenzy that they really believe Erdogan has ─ or is ─ “the solution” to the Palestinian issue. Or that Bashar al-Assad’s time is running out now that Erdogan has said as much. I’m all for standing up to the bully that is Israel, lord knows they deserve it, but this isn’t school yard politics.
This begs the question: what has Erdogan’s new heroic stature shifted the attention away from? In a bid to teach emerging Arab democracies on “Turkish ways”, are some of the more questionable tactics Erdogan employs towards the opposition, media and army going to be overlooked by countries and their leaders in awe of him? Perhaps it’s time everyone took a breather, a few steps back, and let Erdogan’s actions match his passionate words before he’s handed the keys to the Magic Kingdom.
(The writer is a staff member and be reached at email@example.com)