How to Make the 'Turkey Model' Work in the Middle East

The Turkish model can succeed in the Middle East with U.S. support.

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Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses his lawmakers and supporters at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda.

The political advances Islamist parties have been making across the Middle East have caused a lot of uneasiness in Washington. From Egypt to Tunisia, religiously conservative Islamist politicians are leading major countries, complicating an already complex narrative for U.S. policymakers. But is this worry justified?

Time will tell, but at least we have one decent example of an Islamist party taking power and not crashing the government or the economy: Turkey.

The "Turkey Model"—how moderate Islamist parties could govern Western-oriented, Muslim-majority countries—was on everyone's lips during the Arab Spring as the new Middle Eastern paradigm. But the Turkish model will only succeed if these countries can build secular states with strong governmental institutions, and only if the U.S. backs these efforts, as it has strongly supported Turkey over the past 70 years.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

From the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been the beneficiary of almost a century of secular rule. Generations of Turks have lived in a modern secular state, so much so that women in headscarves even today cannot enter government buildings. The Turkish military is the primary enforcer of secularism, forcing out one government in 1997 the generals deemed too religious. While ugly, it cemented the notion that there are limits to how far religion can advance in the public marketplace.

As a secular-oriented nation, Turkey is bound to the West in many ways. The shopworn phrase that Turkey sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia is not just a throwaway line for the country's tourism industry. As a NATO member since 1952, Turkey is integral to the American-European military alliance, even if the European Union continues to give Ankara the cold shoulder. And NATO needs Turkey, for the country has the second largest military in the alliance.

Here at home, U.S. policymakers since World War II have seen Turkish stability as a core national security imperative. After all, the 1947 Truman Doctrine was founded specifically to assist Turkey against communist aggression. President Truman provided aid to the "freedom-loving" people of Turkey, for it was "necessary for the maintenance of its national integrity."

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Even now, Turkey is critical, and the US is deeply invested in the country. Turkey hosts U.S. troops at Incirlik Air Base and Izmir Air Station. 400 U.S. troops man Patriot missile batteries in the south, and the nation hosts an X-band radar system at Kürecik Air Base that keeps an eye on its irascible neighbor, Iran. Turkey is also critical to solving – or at least containing – the civil war in Syria.

Despite some rocky stretches, such as when the Turkish parliament denied the U.S. an invasion route in the run-up to the Iraq War, the U.S. assiduously cultivates Turkey because it remains in Washington's best interests to do so. As Kim Ghattas noted in "The Secretary," Secretary of State Clinton saw her Turkish counterpart as "one of her more consequential counterparts even if she didn't always agree with him. Developing a relationship with [Foreign Minister] Davutoglu was also a way of keeping Turkey close, in the orbit of the West."

And this rapport continues to pay dividends: During his latest trip to the region, President Obama brokered a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel renewing the two countries' strategic partnership.

This is all accomplished with religious conservatives dominating parliament. Despite some misgivings, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in power for a decade, and so far they've been successful in guiding the economy, growing it at almost 6 percent a year. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

Still, all is not all rosy in Anatolia. In 2010, Turkey voted against UN sanctions against Iran. A recent scandal named Ergenekon has placed numerous top military men behind bars. Turkey remains on edge with its Kurdish population. And simmering historic tensions with Greece threaten to erupt over Cyprus.

From a larger perspective, Turkey shows that religious parties and democratic rule are not inherently incompatible. However, a country requires a foundation of stable, credible civilian institutions and a history of citizen-state interactions for this to work—combined with a close and continuing interest from the world's remaining superpower. This successful recipe could be replicated, over time, across the Middle East.   

When the master Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan designed the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque in the 1550s, he let the structure's foundations settle for three years in the earthquake-prone city before beginning the mosque's actual construction. If the nations of the Middle East had time and patience to let their political foundations become strong and independent enough to withstand periodic shakeups, they too can be like Turkey.

It remains to be seen whether the leaders guiding the new Middle East have this perseverance—and whether America has the attention span to follow through on our side of the bargain.

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