Little wonder Turkish secularists argue that Erdogan intends to subvert Turkish democracy. The counter-argument is that democratic success has changed (or is changing) Erdogan and his Islamists; "tamed" them to paraphrase one analysis, schooled them to summarize another.
Turkey's political struggle with Islamism isn't over, so the answer remains speculative. Contemporary republican Turkey, the legacy of its polymath founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, demonstrates that a culturally Islamic society can successfully modernize. That is not speculation. Ataturk was a staunch secularist who separated mosque and state.
In mid-September, while visiting the Arab Spring states of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Erdogan urged their citizens to create secular democracies.
"Secularism does not mean that people are secular," Erdogan said. "I am not secular, but I am the prime minister of a secular state."
The productive value of Ataturk's secular democratic structure, in comparison to Iran, is self-evident. Has Arab Spring schooled Erdogan?
Tunisia's revolution certainly involves issues of cultural identity; issues Ennahda addresses. Prragmatic demands for jobs, education, and expanding Tunisia's economy, however, were also driving energies in the revolt.
"Ennahda is far more like Turkey's AKP than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood," Middle Eastern expert Robin Wright told me the day after the election. "Whoever cobbles together a new government or coalition in Tunisia will have the unenviable task of trying to deliver political and economic gains -- or face being voted out. Tunisians have extraordinary and excessively optimistic expectations. And raw realities have a way of forcing a degree of practicality on any party."
Can Ennahda's Islamists lose an election? As Wright indicated, Tunisians, as their struggle continues, will inevitably confront that question.
Meanwhile, several Ennahda leaders have called for establishing a coalition government with two secular political parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. That could be a hollow gesture, but given Tunisia's economic stagnation, and the threat posed by violent extremists, more likely it is indicative of the pragmatism Wright believes practical democratic governance demands.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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