Turkey: A Rising Regional Star?
ISTANBUL - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Ankara last week and praised Turkey as a leader in the Middle East and for playing a constructive role in the region. She also announced US President Barack Obama's plan to visit Turkey in April, heightening speculations about which Muslim country Obama would address the Muslim world from during his first year in the office. But why all the sudden attention on Turkey?
Turkey's star has been on the rise, at least in the international arena, due to numerous peacemaking efforts Turkey has been engaged in since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 and again in 2007.
For example, in 2003 the Turkish government mediated between Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis, which helped in the formation of a broad-based government in Iraq. Turkey's offer to help mitigate the Danish cartoon crisis in 2003 and its 2005 role, along with Spain, in the establishment of a high-level UN initiative for understanding between the Muslim world and the West – the Alliance of Civilizations – proved its desire to act as a bridge for better Muslim-Western relations. Turkey has been – and still is – an active peace broker between Palestinians and Israelis, Hamas and Fatah, Syria and Israel, Pakistan and Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the EU and Iran, and the United States and Iran.
Turkey's increasing influence in world politics, at least in the West's eyes, also stems from the model its secular democracy provides to surrounding countries and fledgling democracies in the region, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
During her visit, Clinton visited Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's mausoleum, the founding leader of the secular Turkish Republic. She also appeared on a TV show moderated by four feminist women and was interviewed by Turkish journalist and political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand who asked her about qualifying Turkey as an embodiment of "moderate Islam". Clinton responded, "We're not going to characterize any country's religious affiliation."
These words and gestures mark the United States' tacit approval of Turkey's secular identity.
Yet while Turkey is making some impressive strides in the international arena, many of the country's domestic problems remain unresolved. The AKP government presents itself as a conservative party with an Islamic identity that upholds a strong commitment to democracy, the rule of law and secularism. During its first term, the AKP's pledge to advocate these values was confirmed through a series of democratic reforms, including updating the penal code, that were undertaken to comply with EU membership guidelines.
After the 2007 election victory, however, on several occasions the government indicated that religious-based politics took priority over democratic practices. Especially on issues relating to women, children, minorities and education, the discourse of universal law and democracy has shifted to a religious discourse. For example, in 2007 the issue of HPV vaccination to prevent cervical cancer in women became a public discussion surrounding the issue of women's chastity, not woman's health. Issues such as these endanger the power that Turkey has earned thus far as an international peace broker by reducing its credibility as a secular democracy in the international arena.
Other cases of religious conservatism in the government still abound. A few weeks ago, Minister of Environment Veysel Eroğlu, replying to women who complained about unemployment, asked, "Don't you have enough work at home?" And recently, the national science board censored the cover story of Turkey's popular Science and Technology Magazine and fired its editor because Charles Darwin had been featured on the cover.
Relying on Islamic rhetoric and actions to solve pressing domestic issues and reinforce its role as a significant player in the Middle East is an unwise policy for the AKP. In the long run, following a course of combined religio-political action would be interpreted as reviving Turkey's imperialistic neo-Ottoman aspirations with regards to other Middle Eastern states. To the West, it would be perceived as a deviation from secular democratic values that might jeopardize its chances for EU accession.
The AKP must ensure that Turkey pursues its place as a potential transformative actor in the world community. Turkey's reputation as a rising star in the international arena depends not only on its mediatory approach towards world issues but also on how it conducts its affairs at home.