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Asla Aydintasbas, Senior Correspondent and Columnist, Sabah, Istanbul

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May 6, 2004 -  Click here to listen to The Turkish Model: Asla Aydintasbas, Senior Correspondent and Columnist, Sabah, Istanbul, speaking at AJC's 98th Annual Meeting.

I'm here to talk about Turkey and the Turkish model, which we've been hearing more and more since 9/11. What is the Turkish model? After all, Turkey just happens to be not only the only secular Muslim country, but also the only Muslim democracy, the only Muslim country in the Middle East where the number of students exceeds the number of soldiers. A shining example, about to enter the European Union if Europeans finally decide to have a Turkish Muslim country amongst them in December, and a pro-Western society with free markets and relative freedoms and what not.

So the big question in the post 9/11 world is, has been, both in this country and in many European capitals, and, of course, in Ankara, is can we export the Turkish model, is this the way out for the Muslim world otherwise taken over by bin Ladenism and suicide bombings and forces of extremism? If when there are no forces of extremism, we have great dictatorships where there is nothing else by tyranny. So is there a way out in the Turkish model? Or is Turkey, because of its own particular history, a case of exceptionalism? Maybe Turkey is Turkey because of its Ottoman past, because of its geographic proximity to Europe, and the composition of its society.

Now, to answer that question we have to talk about Kemalism, the founding principle of the Turkish state. Much like Zionism has created Israel, Kemalism has created the modern republic of Turkey in 1923, a very strong tradition that's constitutionally guaranteed, which calls for, first of all, a strictly secular state, a strict separation of church and state. It solidifies the country's Western orientation. It has created, different from many countries in the Middle East, a relatively large middle class, pro-Western, moderate, professional, middle class education standards. Kemalism also has an uneasy relationship with political Islam. In fact, the Turkish state has always worked in various fashions to limit political Islam. In 1997, a party which by Turkish standard was deemed extremist, but happened to be in power, was forced out of power, not just by the country's military, which is often mistakenly seen as the sole guardian of Turkey's Kamelism, but by people demonstrating on the streets.

Much like France, Turks always debate through this sphere of religion and public space, secularism, head scarf. Do head scarves belong in universities? Really unresolved and painful issues in Turkey. Should women who cover their heads be allowed in public spaces? In fact, it's a debate we don't have in this country, but it's a very active issue in Turkey, and an emotional one. And where religion belongs in society and in the public sphere is hotly contested in Turkey, day in, day out.

Recently, just to give you an example, there was a big secularism debate and a scandal, because one of the Ministers in the Turkish Cabinet criticized full-page newspaper ads for a cellulite cream, which pretty much showed a naked woman's behind, and it really was a huge scandal. Because when the Minister criticized this, strong advocates of Turkey's secularism were saying, "Wait a minute, how can you criticize, how can you try to stop an ad?" And that started a huge debate. The Minister was saying, "Well, actually, I wasn't trying to impose a ban on this, and I'm not saying it because I think women's bodies should not be displayed in newspapers. It's just that cellulite creams don't work, according to my studies." So that's a peculiar Turkish story.

But here is this twist. You have in Turkey now a government in power which has delivered the vast, sweeping democratization reforms that brought Turkey closer to Europe than it's ever been. It is really pushing the frontiers of European Union membership, and the leaders of this party are coming from Islamist roots. They are former members of Islamist parties. They don't like to be called Islamists; in fact, they're conservatives or Muslim democrats. And I'm going to make a case here that perhaps rather than the Turkish model, as in Kamelism, rather than exporting that in the Middle East, rather than seeing Turkey as a blueprint that could be applied in the Arab world as a modernizing blueprint that could be, perhaps we should be looking at Turkey's Islamists, and seeing that as a blueprint. Why? Well, first of all, the country has a rather mature Islamist tradition in the sense that there's been a place for conservative Islamists in Parliament, which brought a good deal of accountability and responsibility and social and political surveillance at all levels. As a result, we now have perhaps nowhere in the world but in Turkey a bunch of guys who really get pissed off when you call them Islamists, and they say, "No, we are Muslim democrats, just like the Christian democrats are in Europe." Now, that's really good news for the Muslim world.

If Hamas, Hezbollah, political parties in Malaysia, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia could one day even think of incorporating the word "democracy" in the way they define themselves, I think we'd have probably 50 percent less problems with Islamic extremism. And that's not a scientific figure of course, but so much more and more the sliver of hope in the Muslim world that Professor Lewis talked about, is it in actually replicating Turkey's secularist model, Kemalist traditions, knowing that Arab countries really do not look kindly - they have a very strange love and hate relationship with Turkey, being that Turkey is a former colonial power - they do not really look at Turkey as an example to follow. And it's very hard for Arab leaders to come out and say, "We are Kemalists." In fact, just about the only person in the Muslim world who openly endorses Turkey's Kemalist aspirations is President Musharraf of Pakistan, who is criticized for that. But he in his own way thinks that he can be the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Pakistan.

But maybe rather than going to the Muslim world and saying, "Be a modernizing…. "Well, that's not a good idea, but it just hasn't been happening in the last 70 years. Maybe it's interesting to see if there is some thing, a sliver of hope in the way Muslim politics and Islamists have developed in Turkey. We are talking about trying to create a moderate alternative to bin- Ladenism and jihadism in the Muslim world, taking bin-Ladenism and turning it into an actual level of conservatism.

So, as Turkey moves into Europe and hopefully gets a date from Europe in December, gets a date for accession talks of some sort with the European Union, it will have greater and greater appeal as a real success story in the Muslim world. From this end what Washington and Western governments who are interested in seeing a real transformation in the Middle East, what they can do is to engage not just with the strong secularists and the Kemalist tradition in Turkey, which ought to be cherished and is great for Turkey, but also see this interesting example of Muslim democrats, which have so far, thank God, shown that they can rule democratically and without extremism.