As Tunisia and Egypt plan to hold elections sometime this year in the hopes of transitioning their societies from state-dominated repression to something more like a constitutional democracy, there is much concern about what a future government will look like in these countries. For one thing, a country cannot go from dictatorship to democracy overnight. Moreover, traditional Islamic values and the significant presence of illiteracy and poverty in many Arab nations may further impede their political evolution.
However, two dynamic modern Islamic nations – Turkey and Indonesia – may serve as a kind of “role models” for the Arab countries to pattern themselves after.
International Business Times spoke to Dilshod A. Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, and an expert on the Middle East and Islam about the feasibility of Arab nations emulating the models found in Turkey and Indonesia. Here is part 1 of the interview:
IBTIMES: There is speculation that if some (or all) of the Arab countries that are now in revolt eventually move towards a modern democracy, they should emulate the examples of Turkey and Indonesia (two Islamic societies with robust economic growth). Do you think Turkey and Indonesia are really examples for countries like Egypt to try to imitate?
ACHILOV: I think that all Middle Eastern authoritarian countries will eventually transition into more open, democratic political systems. However, the road to a mature democratic state will take time. The road will be rocky and filled with challenging hurdles. But this is not uncommon.
We have to realize the fact the citizens of Egypt will be practicing their democratic rights (defined as “expressing their free will”) for the very first time in history.
When we analyze the patterns of co-existence between Islam and democracy cross-nationally, Turkey and Indonesia often emerge as a positive reference for Political Islam’s potential to accommodate successful democratic governance.
IBTIMES: So, Turkey and Indonesia are valid models for them to follow?
ACHILOV: The coexistence model of Turkey/Indonesia is not absolute, deterministic or complete, but rather complex in nature. Democracy- building is an ongoing process in both countries.
Still, Turkey and Indonesia have a lot to reconcile in the process of building stable democratic institutions in which the role of Islam will be further tested in its capacity to accommodate democratic principles.
IBTIMES: Do the citizens of Arab countries really want a secular democracy?
ACHILOV: In the Islamic world, Islamist political parties have emerged as “default” opposition groups. How can we explain the rising popular support for political Islam? According to the largest Gallup Poll survey evidence ever collected on Muslim attitudes, Muslims want neither a theocracy nor a secular democracy and would opt for a third model in which religious principles and democratic values co-exist.
For example, officials of the Muslim Brotherhood have long praised the Turkish model to be potentially emulated in Egypt. Similar remarks were made by Rashid Al-Ghannushi (Tunisian Islamist opposition leader who returned from exile after the January uprising in Tunisia) who commended Turkish democracy as a model for the Islamic world.
IBTIMES: Is the Turkish example more relevant than Indonesia to the Arab world?
ACHILOV: We hear (and probably will hear a lot) about the Turkish model more often than we do about Indonesia. This is primarily because Turkey is located in the Middle East and has long historical ties with the Arab world going back for centuries (from the Ottoman rule era).
But, I would say that the Turkish and Indonesian democratic models will [both] serve as a strong point of reference to be potentially emulated in the region.
IBTIMES: How strong are the Islamists in Indonesia And Turkey? Do they have much influence? After all, even though Turkey is a secular country, the ruling AKP party is Islamist.
ACHILOV: The Turkish AKP (Justice and Development) party prefers to call itself as a “secular democratic” party. The AKP was always compelled to emphasize its “secularity” because almost all previous Islamist parties were either closed down or forced out by the military -- the last coup was in February 1997 when the Turkish military forced out the democratically elected “Refah” (Welfare) Islamist party.
Following the coup of 1997, Recep T. Ergodan left “Refah” party (later re-established as the “Fazilet” party) and formed a new party under his leadership – the AKP party – which has been in power since 2002.
Due to massive and highly successful economic, social and political reforms, the AKP has managed to win the large proportion of the electorate (an overwhelming and absolute majority re-elected the AKP in 2007 – which is a rare case in Turkish elections).
During the AKP’s rule, the Turkish economy tripled in size, corruption was significantly reduced, and substantial gains were made to raise the levels of civil liberties and political rights in the country.
Today, the AKP enjoys great influence in Turkish politics. However, it did not have much leverage seven years ago (when it first came to power). One of the primary vehicles of AKP’s power and influence today is its overwhelming popular support.
The critics of AKP warned that Turkey would become another Iran - a theocratic republic with Shari'a law. Conversely, the outcome of eight-year AKP rule proved otherwise - Turkey became more democratic.
The Turkish people had an opportunity to observe that Islamist leadership can make a “difference” in bringing more freedoms, transparency and economic development as previously doubted by ultra-secular regimes (prior to the emergence of the AKP).
IBTIMES: If the Islamists gain power in the wake of Arab revolts, what will be expected of them?
ACHILOV: If the Islamist parties gain political power in the region, they will be under serious pressure to deliver what they are promising today: a civil democratic state with high civil liberties and political rights. If they can truly deliver, then the phenomenon of political Islam (and Islamist parties) will gain a wider credibility while the support for coexistence between Islam and democracy will be substantiated.
Nevertheless, if the Islamist parties will fail to deliver their promises, then the rising role of political Islam will more likely lose its momentum and the compatibility of Islam with democracy will raise more skepticism.
IBTIMES: Indonesia had a “regime change” in 1998 and has since embarked on developing its economy to become a power in southeast Asia. Are there any similarities between 1998 Indonesia and, say, 2011 Egypt? Or does Egypt have too many other problems to advance so quickly?
ACHILOV: I would say that there are many structural differences between Indonesia and Egypt. Political attitudes, societal values, historical experiences, regional security and economic conditions are quite distinct in each country.
There are more differences than similarities between Egypt and Indonesia, albeit they share few qualities in common. Egypt’s situation is very complex with numerous variables in the equation: the future role of the military, regional security (U.S. interests, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear stand-off, etc) and internal disputes among opposition groups to name a few.
IBTIMES: How would you assess the states of “democracy” in Indonesia and Turkey? How much have they improved in this area and how much further do they have to go?
ACHILOV: I would classify both the Turkish and Indonesian democracies as “not fully mature, but highly vibrant and rapidly rising towards becoming a stronger consolidated democracy.”
In short, a fully consolidated democracy is still “under construction.”
However, they are probably the farthest ahead compared to other Muslim-majority states. According to the most recent report by Feedomhouse (2010), within the past 10 years, both Turkey and Indonesia have managed to increase their levels of civil liberties and political rights. For instance, in 2001, Indonesia was classified as “Partly Free” (with a score of 7). Today, Indonesia reached the status of “Free” with a score of 5 (lower score is more democratic.)
Turkey was “Partly Free” in 2001 with a score of 9. In 2010, Turkey is still “Partly Free” but now with a score of 6 (1 point shy of attaining “Free” status by Freedomhouse).
Overall, the state of democracy has improved by at least 30 percent within last 10 years both in Turkey and Indonesia. More work lies ahead in terms of further curtailing the role of the military, reducing corruption, enacting additional reforms in the judiciary, expanding minority rights, and raising the bar higher for checks and balances.
go to: Part 2 of interview