[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
“What collapsed in Tunisia is the Kemalist model.” So read the headline of Yeni Asya, a Muslim Turkish daily, last Tuesday. And it summed up the doomed fate of the modern Muslim Middle East, and its erratically unfolding future.
What just happened in Tunisia, the smallest of all North African states, is a popular uprising dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution.” The fallen dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the county last week with one-and-a-half tons of gold, had been in power since 1987. Yet the country was no freer before: Ben Ali was just a sequel to Habib Bourguiba, another dictator, who had ruled the country single-handedly since its independence from French colonial rule in 1957.
And that’s where the “Kemalist model” comes into the picture. Bourguiba was a great fan of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and of his secularization agenda. So, Tunisia went through a radical era of reforms under his rule, in which a “modern way of life” was imposed by state powers. As in the Kemalist revolution, some of the reforms were undeniably helpful, such as the empowerment of women. But others were more controversial, such as Bourguiba’s famous campaign against fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, which he found incompatible with the needs of modern life. When Bourguiba appeared on TV sipping a glass of orange juice during the time of fasting and telling his people do the same, he was actually creating a deep fault line between modernity and Muslim piety.
For worse, the Bourguiba-Ben Ali regime grew increasingly brutal on political opposition. An important component of the latter was the Islamic-minded Tunisian Renaissance Party, or the Nahda. Led by the Sorbonne-educated Islamic thinker, Rashid al-Ghannushi, this was a more democratic and liberal-leaning Islamic party than any other in the Middle East. Yet this did not save it from persecution: In 1981, Ghannushi and his followers were arrested, tortured and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Since his release in 1988, Mr. Ghannushi has lived in Europe as a political exile.
This, indeed, was the “Kemalist model”: a dictatorship by a secular cadre that took its legitimacy from a particular form of “modernization” and that alienated conservative believers by both offending their values and repressing their freedoms. No wonder Kemalist Turks and secularist Tunisians admired each other. The late Ahmet Taner Kışlalı, a Turkish Kemalist, wrote a column titled “The Tunisian Kemalists” in 1998, and praised the achievements of the Ben Ali regime. “There are no bearded men on the streets,” Kışlalı wrote, “or veiled women.” That indeed was the case, for the “Tunisian Kemalists” had imposed bans on the headscarf as well.
Similar things had happened in Iran before, in which the subsequent shahs, again with a lot of inspiration from Atatürk, had banned Islamic practices. Under the first one, Reza Shah (1925-41), the police even attacked veiled women and tore off their scarves and chadors. The ayatollahs who protested the regime were flogged and killed. Soon, as a response, the first modern Islamist terror organization was born: Fadayan-e Islam, or “Devotees of Islam,” which wanted to resist and get revenge on the shah’s attack on Islam.
A somewhat similar pattern can be observed in Egypt, Syria and Iraq as well, in which independence from colonial rule led not to democracy but brutal autocracy. The secular dictators that dominated these countries promoted a combination of nationalism and socialism, while imprisoning, torturing and killing their political opponents, which included the Islamic groups. Factions among the latter grew radicalized, waging “jihads” against their oppressors, and, ultimately, their Western patrons.
The Turkish model
In other words, the Westerners who are understandably alarmed about “Islamic extremists” today should understand that there is a political context that helped create these people – a context to which their governments, knowingly or unknowingly, often contributed.
What makes Turkey unique in this whole story is not that it had gone through the secularist reforms of Atatürk, as it is often claimed. Several other countries of the region have had similar experiences. Turkey’s uniqueness is that it found its way to multi-party politics in 1950 – something unparalleled in the Muslim Middle East.
To put it differently, “the problem with Arabs” is not that they lack “their Atatürk,” as the popular saying goes. In fact, they did have their Atatürks – deified leaders who imposed authoritarian modernization. What they have rather lacked is their Menderes, their Özal, or their Erdoğan – popularly elected leaders who promoted modernization within liberty, democracy and respect to tradition.
Today, the key question for the region is what will follow the inevitable end of Arab dictatorships – or the failure of these “gods,” to borrow a term from Arthur Koestler. Iran – secular authoritarianism replaced with an “Islamic” one – is certainly a bad model. But the Jasmine Revolution might turn out to be more promising. And the success of the Turkish model – secular authoritarianism evolving into democracy – remains utterly crucial.