Watching the turmoil in Istanbul in the past few days, it’s easy to see why there is talk of Turkey hosting its own version of the Arab Spring. The scenario, at first glance, seems very familiar. First of all, thousands of protesters, mainly but not exclusively young and metropolitan, accuse their government of being authoritarian. The police respond with tear gas and truncheons. Then the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denounces the crowds as “bums and extremists”, and insists that this is not a “Turkish Spring”, thank you. Such blunt responses to people power elsewhere in the Middle East recently have often heralded a leader’s imminent demise.
Yet we in the West should perhaps be careful what we wish for in Turkey. For one, Mr Erdogan is democratically elected, with popularity ratings that many of his European counterparts would envy. And for another, whatever its shortcomings – and judging by the size of the crowds on Turkey’s streets in recent days, there are plenty – his Justice and Development Party is the nearest thing we have to an Islamist government that the West can work with.
In the wake of the recent disturbances, coverage of the Islamist vision of Mr Erdogan’s party, known in Turkey as the AKP, has focused on its attitudes to women and its restrictions on the sale of alcohol. A less talked about, but arguably more important aspect, though, is the AKP’s relentless worship of prosperity, which has helped transform Turkey from relative poverty 20 years ago into a major economic power today.
Unlike Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, this has come not by simply tapping oil or gas reserves to create a flashy, unsustainable bling state. Instead, it has been by a Protestant-like belief in hard work and industry that has given birth to a thriving modern business sector.
I use the term “Protestant” advisedly, as this is the precise analogy that studies into the success of the AKP have reached for. In an influential paper published in 2005, the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based thinktank, visited the AKP’s heartlands in central Turkey, an area that once epitomised the difference between afluent, Western-leaning Istanbul and Turkey’s impoverished, religiously conservative interior.
By 2005, though, the region had undergone its own mini-Industrial Revolution, spawning a string of manufacturing cities collectively known as the “Anatolian Tigers”. Top among them was Kayseri, the home town of Turkey’s president, AKP veteran Abdullah Gul, which by then had produced nine out of Turkey’s top 500 companies.
None of that business dynamism, though, had shaken off the area’s innate religious conservatism. While they had no problem building fancy villas and driving smart cars, the area’s entrepreneurs would still keep quotes from the Koran in their offices. Kayseri’s ex-mayor, Sukru Karatepe, likened it to an Islamic form of Calvinism, the Protestant doctrine that championed hard work in the name of Godliness, and which is sometimes credited as providing the spiritual underpinning for modern capitalism.
Or, as Mr Gul himself once put it: “The people in Kayseri are not dreaming – they are realistic, and that’s the kind of Islam we need. They go to the mosque, they lead pious lives, but at the same time they are very active economically.”
It’s this worldview that has helped 21st-century Turkey create an economic version of its old Ottoman empire, exporting everything from cars, cellphones and, yes, furniture to the rest of the Muslim world and beyond. It’s not just products either, but business nous and entrepreneurship. Go to Basra in Iraq at the moment, and you will find Turkish companies snapping up the bulk of reconstruction projects. They are present too in frontier countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, where the rapidly-expanding Turkish Airlines is among the few carriers that now fly direct.
But it isn’t just business practices that Turkey is exporting. The whole political model of the AKP is now seen as a template for the rest of the Muslim world to follow, for the simple reason that it’s the only one of its kind that has had any success.
Take post-Mubarak Egypt, for example, where the Muslim Brotherhood is now struggling to work out how to handle power after nearly a century as an underground party. The Brotherhood’s savvier leaders do look not to Iran or Saudi Arabia, with their stultifying theocracies, but to Turkey, where they can see a model that they can at least aspire to, if perhaps not recreate overnight.
The key to emulating the AKP’s success, though, is realising that government, even when it’s religiously inspired, is more about business than religion. As one Cairo entrepreneur, Hossam Salah, put it to me last year: “Finding work and providing for your family, that’s Islam. Not growing a beard.”
It’s that balance that the AKP so far seems to have got broadly right, although the concerns of more liberal-minded, secular Turks are certainly understandable. During successive visits to Turkey – and elsewhere in the Middle East – I’ve noticed that the fears of secular voters are always the same: namely that any concession to Islamic parties marks the thin end of a very sharp and powerful political wedge.
For example, the demonstrators in Istanbul will never be reassured by claims that the AKP’s new restrictions on selling booze between 10pm and 6am are not that much harsher than Britain’s licensing laws. The worry is always that it will ultimately be a move toward banning booze altogether, and recent comments by Mr Erdogan that anyone who drinks is an “alcoholic” have no doubt confirmed those fears.
Then again, I suspect that many of the Bible-quoting Protestants who helped build Victorian Britain often came across as fairly uncompromising characters, no doubt full of warnings about the risk of eternal damnation for anyone who took the occasional stagger down Gin Lane. Yet just as they helped lay the foundations of modern Britain, so the AKP party is doing its bit for Turkey, and quite possibly, the wider Middle East as it seeks models of governance that improve on the disasters of the past.
Is it perfect? Far from it. But show me a government that is – especially in that part of the world.