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A man displays Turkey's national flags and flags printed with portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara

If Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan respects the will of his people, Turkey can become the first consolidated Muslim democracy of the 21st century. That is the observation of Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an article published in the New York Times.  Cagaptay writes that the modernization theory for development is beginning to realize itself in Turkey. And he says that even though the recent anti-government protests in the country have “exposed a fundamental rift” between the move for democracy and the ruling party’s leadership style they are nothing more than a manifestation of a natural quest for the respect of individual rights and freedoms, and proof that Turkey is maturing as a democracy. VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke to Cagaptay about Turkey’s prospects.

Below please find a transcript of the interview. To listen to it, use the audio player at the bottom of this post.

Yackee: Why do you think Turkey could become a Muslim consolidated democracy?

Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay

Cagaptay: Turkey already has some of the groundwork laid for it; it has a large middle class. In the last decade, thanks to the AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party), the governing party’s prudent policies, Turkey has become a majority middle class society. And I believe in the modernization theory that when societies become majority middle class it’s citizens start demanding rights that go with that development, such as respect for individual freedoms, freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and association, and I think that this is exactly what we are seeing in Turkey – these demonstrations are not against anyone or anything; they are for the respect for individual rights. This is the rising Turkey, but also its rising middle class that is now demanding stronger respect for democratic rights and freedoms.

“Turkey…  is actually, despite the tumultuous phase it went through over the past two weeks, on a good and positive trajectory overall.” – Soner Cagaptay, The Washington Institute

Yackee: I noticed in your [New York Times] article “The Middle Class Strikes Back” – the idea that economic development leads to more democracy is actually being proved right now in Turkey.

Cagaptay: Absolutely, and I think that Turkey for a long time was a country which always had a middle class, but the plurality of Turkish citizens or the majority of them would be considered poor and ‘working class.’ That is no longer the case. As of 2010, a majority of Turks became middle class, and by the end of this decade about 80 percent of Turks will likely be classified as middle class citizens. And this is, I think, driving the demands – the idea that protesters are taking to the streets to tell the government – ‘you might be democratically elected, half or more than half of the country supports you, but also respect our rights and freedoms.’ And I think that this is going to be the trend we are going to see in Turkey, whether or not the demonstrations fizzle out this time, the protesters will probably come into the streets again with stronger demands for respect of individual freedoms as well as their rights. So Turkey, I think, is actually, despite the tumultuous phase it went through over the past two weeks, on a good and positive trajectory overall.

Yackee: What role did Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership style play in the unrest in Turkey?

Demonstrators holding national flags shout anti-government slogans at a rally in Ankara May 29, 2013. (Reuters)

Demonstrators holding national flags shout anti-government slogans at a rally in Ankara May 29, 2013. (Reuters)

Cagaptay: Many people believe that Erdogan’s style of governance in which he dismisses dissenting views and largely does not take into account what the opposition thinks has helped build up the frustration against him, and some of the demonstrations that we saw were a result of this frustration. I think what is really interesting in Turkey is not that tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protests the government’s decision to turn a park in downtown Istanbul into a mall – that in itself is important; it’s a large pro-environment rally where people try to save trees in a park; that’s important – but what is even more important is that when the police moved in to crack down on the pro-environment sit-in, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in the middle of the night to defend the right of the sit-in protesters [to assemble]. So this was, I think, a very interesting development in Turkey where thousands, hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country basically said: ‘we may not agree with everything they are doing or saying, but we want to defend their right to protest.’ And that, I think, has signaled the arrival of a mature middle class society in which people are defending each others rights to defend, to protest and to dissent from the government’s views…

Yackee: I smiled when I read your statement that Mr. Erdogan has pushed to remake Turkey in his own image.

Cagaptay: In a way he has. I think Erdogan is a very powerful leader. He has won three successive elections, all with increased majorities. Each time he has won more votes. He is a very successful and charismatic politician. At the same time, though, he has amassed a significant amount of power. His government is the longest-ruling government in Turkish history ever since Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1946. He’s been in charge for 11 years. If he wins the election next year and the year after, he will have run Turkey for about two decades. At the same time his government, because Turkey is a parliamentary democracy, controls pretty much all three branches of government right now – both the executive and legislative branches, and it also appoints judges to the High Court. So this is more power than any leader has had, probably since [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk (modern Turkey’s founder) made Turkey in his own image in the 1920s and 30s as a secular European-style republic. I think now Erdogan’s vision is obviously a different one than Ataturk’s; he still wants to make Turkey a powerful nation, he still wants Turkey to compete against Europeans, but he also sees it as a country in which religion and piety has more [influence] in public life, in education and government, and I think that this is how Turkey is being remade in the image of its prime minister.

Yackee: Do you think this ‘mighty oak’ is going to bend a little bit to the wind of the middle class?

Cagaptay: Probably not because Erdogan is also realizing that he has support in the country. I don’t think the demonstrations are a signal of support for Mr. Erdogan slipping; I think what we are seeing is that half of the country supports Mr. Erdogan and the other half does not. What’s happening is not support for him slipping, but it is rather the other half that does not support him rising up, taking issue with his style of governance. So I think we are going to see a country that’s deeply polarized despite its economic growth and phenomenal success story between the supporters of the government and its opponents, and that might mean periods of strong demonstrations and political instability in Turkey, and that will be in contrast to the country’s ongoing economic stability and growth. Ultimately, it’s up to Mr. Erdogan to decide to what extent he wants to push the demonstrators away and to what extent he wants to embrace them, because Turkey’s stability is his success but that success also helps him win elections, and he wants to maintain that stability.

Listen to our interview with Soner Cagaptay:

Susan Yackee

Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.

9 Comments

  1. Erwin Schrödinger

    July 6, 2013

    I may be wrong, but I believe that any nation in which a majority of its citizen adhere to “Islamism” will not be able to establish a fair and just democracy. Probably more important than mere democracy are individual liberties, tolerance and acceptance of a broad range of human differences including religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality, sex, physical and mental capabilities, a strong separation of church and state,
    and other items enshrined in our Constitution and Western traditions. In
    particular, the belief that one religion should dominate in the legal and
    political sphere is simply incompatible with fairness and justice. Such a
    “democracy” is actually a mobocracy, the lowest, most degenerate form of
    government.

    Erdogan has temporarily improved the economy. His success in this sphere was probably due to inheriting a fertile base from which to build, developments in the world around him, and the fact that he hired many people who were technocrats rather than religious zealots. But his success is certainly not the only time during which Turkey has enjoyed economic success. It is a terrible mistake for forsake the wise policies of Ataturk who is the major architect of Turkey’s success. Separate of church (mosque) and state is one of the key ingredients of good government.

    Reply
    • tvcaldwell

      July 7, 2013

      You are wrong, first with your fancy meaningless notion of so called “Islamism”, then with your understanding of democracy. I see you nuance your term democracy to your liking calling it “mere democracy” when it does not suit you. However, you are not the only one who do this. I have seen many proponents of democracy who have a habit of lecturing others on its virtues very quickly start using modifying terms for democracy when the don’t like the outcomes and then come all the excuses.
      If Erdogan has “temporarily” improved the economy, the Turks will hope for more of such temporariness.
      As for Mustafa Kemal who seems to be your idol, the Turkish thankfully have gone well past his hated legacy. He wanted to make Europeans out of the Turks. The Turks chose to remain Turks and Muslims. Kemalists are no longer a significant force in Turkey. Their privileged days are over. They will never be able to take on power through the army ever again. The government has made sure of that.

      Reply
      • Erwin Schrödinger

        July 7, 2013

        I stand with Aristotle in my belief that a pure democracy is the lowest form of government, the tyranny of the majority. Only when individual rights are guaranteed can a democracy be compatible with a just society. I will start believing that Egypt is achieving some semblance of being a just society when I see the Coptic Christians enjoying the same rights and privileges as Muslims, when I see Jews moving back to Egypt, when I see Hindu, Buddhist, and Baha’i people welcomed
        as citizens. Good heavens, the Islamists were even planning to destroy the Pyramids, one of their greats tourist attractions, because they represent an alternative, though long dead, religion.

        “Islamism” is a term of hope; hope that the corrupt, violent, imperial designs of Islam are separable from the religion itself. I am still hopeful that this is true. So I, like many others, including many Muslims, use Islamism to bundle together the vile concepts that generally come
        to mind when one things of Muslims (violence, ignorance, and low productivity) from the pure faith in Allah. No one country or region needs to “become” another. I do not say that Turks should “become” Europeans. But they would do well to separate their government, their economy, and their politics from Islam similar to the way that is common not only in the West but in Japan, Australia, South
        Korea, and even Russia and China (despite the other problems of these last two). They should emulate and adopt the secularism of Europe or even better, the United States (or maybe even better, Israel, though you probably don’t want to hear that), if they want to develop into a modern, progressive nation. Currently they seem to be moving backwards, perhaps towards the ninth century when Islam civilization is said to have been at its peak. That was a long time ago but lately they’ve been moving backward so rapidly that they may not have much further to go.

        Reply
  2. hppyhippi

    July 5, 2013

    Muslim democracy is a contradiction in terms. Islam is a totalitarian cult, from start to finish, and cannot be reformed. Just say no to Islam in all of its pernicious forms.

    Reply
  3. Ayse Cunningham

    July 5, 2013

    he is ruling government supporter as an Turkish citizen i can see and feel it very clearly. middle class movement hasn’t been achieved by ruling government it started around 1990s with ozal government. and other point that convinced me that he is a government supporter , he believes that AKP , ruling government has received more than 50 percent of the votes which is total lie , they only received 25 percent because they changed the election system very cleverly , they ended up government. Turkish people wants freedom and Turkish people wants him to go . this demonstrations are not the proof of democracy in turkey , he is writing very manipulating way which is not very professional for an academic person. with his logic china has democracy , Egypt has democracy , Laos has democracy. pls read more unbiased article to understand what is going on in turkey

    Reply
  4. taha

    July 4, 2013

    A nice and convincing one.

    Reply
  5. Francis Ntege

    June 18, 2013

    ARE DEMOCRACIES BIRTHED BY UPRISINGS?

    Reply
  6. Gloria Braymore

    June 18, 2013

    Are North American citizens save to visit or do business in Turkey at this time.

    Reply
  7. hatem2012

    June 16, 2013

    Nice to mention the role of Turkish middle class in the democratic transition of Turkey .unfortunately after years of authoritarian regimes the Arab middle classes faced a tough conditions pushed them to revolt .anyway we need further focusing on Sociology more than Policy to distinguish between the successful and loser regime
    thank you so much

    Reply

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