Over the past decade Turkey has charted out a path that combines the essential attributes of a secular state and democratic governance with deeply held Islamic values, without falling into the false dichotomy of having to choose one over the other. However contentiously, Turkey has been held up as an example, if not a model, for Arab countries as they struggle to democratize. And Turkey is an example not only for the Arab world but for the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.
Iran and Turkey share several similarities. Both represent self-confident civilizations that blend Islam with their historical roots. Both are committed to following, by and large, independent paths in terms of their foreign policies, especially with regard to the broader Middle East. Both have increasingly demonstrated their soft power capabilities thus increasing their clout in inter-state relations in the Middle East and their popularity amongst the region’s Arab and non-Arab populations. Both are pre-eminent powers in their respective sub-regions in the Middle East – Iran in the Persian Gulf and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent. The fact is that no stable structure of regional security in the Middle East or its two major components can be established without their endorsement and participation.
However, stark differences between the two enhance the Turkish state’s domestic legitimacy and its regional influence whilst hobbling Iran from reaching its full domestic and regional potential. These differences have been clearly defined in the context of Turkey’s recent parliamentary election with the ruling AKP winning 50 per cent of the votes in a free and fair contest with a remarkable voter turnout of 88 percent. Contrast the infighting among regime insiders in Iran in a system that has become increasingly factionalized and opaque. The attacks on Iranian President Ahmadinejad by supporters of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei include the accusation that he won the Iranian Presidential election of 2009 by fraud.
The Turkish election of June this year produced a stable single-party government for the third time but also reinforced the checks and balances essential for democratic consolidation by denying the AKP the necessary amount of seats to change the constitution unilaterally. It will now have to depend upon at least some of the parties in opposition to push through constitutional amendments. Although some of these amendments are overdue in order to bring anachronistic and military-dictated provisions of the constitution in line with European democratic standards, a multi-party consensus on the changes will give them far greater legitimacy.
The Turkish election and the outcome it produced are in marked contrast to the Iranian elections of recent years. In the Iranian case, the unelected Guardian Council has often disqualified parliamentary and presidential candidates because of their political orientations. This practice reached its peak in the last parliamentary elections in which it disqualified most of the reformist candidates. This assured conservative, hard line factions a majority in the Majlis, whilst the Presidential election of 2009 produced such a counter-intuitive result that it led to massive street protests and an equally massive crackdown by the regime.
It is ironic that the office of the Supreme Leader, initially envisaged by Khomeini as the neutral arbiter between the clerical and representative institutions enshrined in the constitution, has assumed a partisan role under Khamenei - riding roughshod not only over the reformist and liberal forces but also over a president elected with the connivance of the Supreme Leader himself. Instead of acting as the ultimate ‘check and balance’, the Supreme Leader has become a part of partisan politics in Iran, thus discrediting his office as well as the constitution from which he derives his power.
What the Iranian ruling elite needs to understand is that factionalism is not the same thing as organized political parties with transparent platforms. Unelected clerical institutions fall prey to factionalism and partisanship themselves: checks and balances come from the innate democratic spirit of constitutions not from clerical supervision and the manipulation of representative institutions.
The same lesson applies to the relationship between state and religion in the two countries. Both the Iranian regime and the AKP perceive themselves as being rooted in Islamic values that they would like their wider societies to imbibe. However, they have gone about it in very different ways. The Iranian regime has attempted to impose its version of Islamic values from above often by coercion if not outright force. The AKP on the other hand is committed to the propagation of Islamic (“conservative” in current parlance in Turkey) values through example and without transgressing the limits of a secular constitution.
The two different approaches have been substantially determined by the different histories of the two countries – the Iranian Shah was overthrown by an ‘Islamic’ revolution in 1979 whilst a committed elite wishing to curb the role of Islam in public life established the Turkish Republic in 1923. However, these differences also speak to two distinct visions of the relationship between religion and state. In the Iranian case, the regime perceives the state as the instrument through which to impose its version of Islamic law and morality. In Turkey the AKP perceives its goal as rescuing Islam from the state while at the same time providing it with a greater place in the public sphere.
This last statement is not a paradox. The Turkish Republic in its zeal to marginalize Islam has gone to great lengths to control Islam and subordinate it to state interests as defined by the Kemalist elite. To give but one example, Friday sermons in all mosques in Turkey are vetted if not actually dictated by the Directorate of Religious Affairs that pays the salaries of all religious functionaries down to those of the village imams. The attempt by the Turkish state to regulate women’s headwear is another example of the state controlling religious observance. Secularism of the Kemalist variety in Turkey has not meant the separation of religion and state. Instead it has meant the subordination of the former to the latter. The AKP is trying to gradually remove the state’s stranglehold on Islam and encourage the country toward a genuinely secular status where both religion and state can maintain their autonomy from each other.
Ironically, in trying to impose its version of Islam on the general public, the Iranian regime has ended up subordinating Islam to the state as well. It is the functionaries of the state who now dictate the contours of Islamic piety and morality leaving the believer little room to exercise independent judgment. At the same time, by constantly invoking their role as guardians of Islam, Iranian rulers have conflated Islam with their personal behavior. Its direct association with the corruption and misdemeanors of the ruling elite has discredited Islam. What the Iranian elite needs to learn from Turkey is how to rescue Islam from the state: for where the two are fused it is the state that controls religion, both distorting and discrediting the latter.
The recent wave of democratic movements in the Arab world have brought to the foreground the differences between Turkey and Iran that transcend the realist paradigm often applied in the analysis of inter-state relations. This does not mean that realpolitik is irrelevant to the understanding of Iranian and Turkish reactions to dramatic events unfolding in their neighborhood. The initially cautious Turkish and Iranian reactions to the upheaval in Syria, where both have major economic and strategic interests, demonstrated the validity of the realist paradigm. It was relatively easy for both Turkey and Iran to denounce Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt but since both were heavily invested in the Assad regime it was much more difficult to do so in the case of Syria.
The realist calculations that have hampered responses to the Syrian upheaval were quickly tempered in Turkey because of the nature of its domestic polity and the fact that the government’s legitimacy is intimately tied to its democratic credentials. Prime Minister Erdogan made his government’s stance toward the democratic movements in the region clear in his victory speech on June 12, declaring that “We will call, as we have, for rights in our region, for justice, for the rule of law, for freedom and democracy.” Erdogan has also been openly critical of Syria’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors and allowed Syrian opposition elements to meet and strategize in Turkey. Its borders have also been open to Syrian refugees fleeing repression by the Assad regime.
Despite mounting evidence of state repression Iran continues to stand by its Syrian ally. Protests in Syria, as elsewhere in the Arab world, mirror the pro-democracy protests in Iran following the contested presidential election of June 2009 - reminding Iran’s rulers of their own legitimacy dilemma. Syria is Iran’s strategic partner on issues ranging from support for the Lebanese Hizbullah to resisting Israeli domination of the Middle East. Tehran has harshly criticized Ankara’s policy toward Syria terming it ‘Zionist’ thus openly breaking on this issue with Turkey, which had emerged as Iran’s friend, if not ally, in recent years.
The differences in Iranian and Turkish responses to the brutal crackdown in Syria reflect the nature of their domestic sources of power – one representative of popular will and the other a hybrid of ostensibly representative institutions and unelected clerical sources of authority. This distinction is not unimportant in the foreign policy arena despite the predominance of the realist paradigm in inter-state relations. The domestic political system in Turkey has helped Ankara to position itself on the right side of history in the Middle East while the Iranian system has curbed Tehran’s choices and landed it on the losing side.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by openDemocracy on June 29, 2011. Click here to read.