Obama's link to the Muslim world: Turkey
The West can learn a lot from Ankara's perspective and democratic successes.
As President Obama looks for partners in the Muslim world, he should consider listening to the government of Turkey as much as he listens to Egypt's president. He could learn a lot from Turkey about how a smart Islamist party can be a valued participant in a democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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Turkey, a NATO ally, has been ruled since 2002 by a moderate Islamist party – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – that has proved its commitment to democracy and pluralism at home and to an active, nearly always nonviolent, engagement in diplomacy abroad. And that's why the record of the AKP in Turkey is so compelling.
At home, after the party first won power, grass-roots supporters tried to leverage that victory to ban alcohol sales in some Turkish cities. The judiciary struck down those regulations – and the national government complied with the ruling.
Later, the national government tried to lift the country's longstanding ban on admitting scarf-wearing women to universities or to jobs in government. Once again, the courts struck down the proposal. And once again, the government complied without a protest. (That, though the wives of both the prime minister and the president always wear head scarves in public.)
In 10 days of travel, in three Turkish cities and vast swaths of countryside, I saw Turkish women wearing clothes that ranged from skimpy Western dress topped by tumbling – sometimes bleached-blond – hairdos, to a stylish version of Muslim hijab that involves an elegantly tied head scarf over a mid-thigh tunic and jeans, to the baggy black coverup of the ultrapious.
Most Turkish women are near the middle of that spectrum, and in many places young women with and without head scarves mingle easily, chatting and laughing together.
Regarding domestic affairs, one professor in Istanbul told me, "If you're a politically liberal Turk who cares about women's rights, the rights of the Kurdish minority, and religious minorities here, you couldn't find a better party than the AKP." I heard versions of that voiced by several other strongly secular Turks.
Back in early April, Mr. Obama came to Turkey and delivered a first important address to the Muslim world. Turks seemed delighted that he had included their country on his first trip abroad as president, and nearly all appreciated the respectful way he addressed the concerns of Turks and other Muslims.
On June 4, he gave another major address to the Muslim world in Cairo. Egypt, like Turkey, is a historic center of Muslim life. But the Turkish government follows policies that are much more in line with Obama's inclusive, diplomacy-focused approach to international affairs.