Why Pakistan Loves Turkey: Saim Saeed
Guest post by SAIM SAEED
Everybody loves Turkey. It’s where Pakistani families go for holidays, where students now go for education, where laborers go for work, where clerics go for counsel, and where both civilian and military officials and dignitaries go to find inspiration. Due to Turkey’s momentous economic and political rise, especially in the last decade, it is being held up to the rest of the Muslim world as a country worth emulating, and experts from everywhere have been referring to the “Turkish model” – an Islamic democracy with a robust economy – as the blueprint for a strong and stable (and still Muslim) country.
The ‘model’ and its applicability has been credited and discredited at length, and my focus is not its feasibility, but its foundations. Turkey has just emphatically elected Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his mildly Islamist AK Party (Justice and Development) for a third consecutive term, as it oversaw the banishment of the Turkish military from politics, a massive economic rise, and a vital role to play in Middle Eastern politics, especially after the Arab Spring. But the truth is that whatever Turkey’s political or socio-economic climate may look like today, it has little resemblance, not just to its Pakistani counterpart, but also to the imagination of the different segments of the Pakistani populace today.
Mohammed Ilyas Khan, the secretary of the Islamic Ideological Council of Pakistan (IIC), the legal body that determines whether Pakistan’s laws adhere to Shari’ah law or not, believes Turkey is a “role model” for Pakistan and that Pakistani madrassas should look more like Turkey’s. More broadly, the religious right loves that Turkey has a ruling Islamist party unafraid to highlight its ideological character. That the Pakistani religious right believes that the 97% Muslim population of Turkey is devout is also inspirational, since they believe that the social malaise in Pakistan is because of an abandonment of Islamic principles. Political parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) are nowhere near as Islamic in principle, and that is the sort of ideological shift that they seek.
Speaking of parties, not only do the PPP and the PML-N, but also Imran Khan’s PTI, all profess to aspire to become Turkey. In Erdogan’s Turkey, there is something inspiring about the rise and supremacy of political parties over an entrenched army. To them, Turkey has been able to vanquish its military demons under the guidance of a civilian, democratically elected party. Moreover, this party has been able to lead Turkey to become the sixth largest economy in Europe, while being instrumental in NATO, and negotiations in the Middle East. Imran Khan would particularly admire the balance that Turkey has struck in its alliance with the United States, while still supporting the Palestinian cause.
At the same time, the Pakistani military has had an enduring love affair with Turkey. Musharraf saw himself as a modern-day Pakistani Attaturk who would reaffirm the role the military plays in the secularization and modernization of Pakistan and its political processes. The Pakistani military has taken a leaf from the Turkish military’s book in assuming itself to be the supreme political institution in the country.
And liberals like Nadeem F. Paracha marvel at its secularism. Pakistani liberals extol how alcohol flows in Turkey’s bars right across mosques, that women are not required veils or headscarves (quite the opposite). They characterize Turkish political parties – even the AK Party, with firm Islamic roots – as essentially secular.
The contradictions in these characterizations are apparent. The religious right and segments of the military loves Turkey’s religiosity, while liberals and other segments of the military love its secularism. The truth is that every image of Turkey that its respective Pakistani perceiver holds is monolithic. None of these respective images allow for the existence of others. A religious Turkey with a religious party, in the minds of the religious right in Pakistan, cannot allow for a secular Turkey with secular people. This is why one does not hear of Turkish wines and raki, their national (alcoholic) drink, being condemned by the right in Pakistan – because it is ignored.
The military must be trying desperately hard to ignore the mass arrests and trials of generals in Turkish court these days, as the Erdogan government continues to become more and more powerful, at the expense of the Turkish military.
While the Pakistani political parties must be ignoring the actual work that the AK party has done in economic development, foreign policy, and public relations that has resulted in the attention that everyone now pays to Turkey, something they are loath to do in Pakistan.
It is marvelous how Turkey can render itself to such diverse entities as successfully as it does, and not just in Pakistan. Erdogan can call Israel a “terrorist state” and still have trade and open borders with it. It can be friends with Iran and still be in NATO. The multiple, and often contradictory, characters and relations it has, seems to be official policy. These interpretations lead to everybody wanting to talk to, if not be, Turkey.
As Madiha Tahir writes, Imran Khan’s rise in popularity has been because he has said everything that different electorates wanted to hear. By being moderate, cosmopolitan, and eloquent, he appeals to the urban middle classes; by being a born-again Muslim, anti-American and anti-drone, he appeases the religious and anti-Western segments of society; and by enough rhetoric on the strengthening of democracy, anti-corruption and other vague enough terms, he appeals to everybody else. In doing so, candidates like Imran Khan tell us more about the people who vote for them than the candidates themselves. In fact, Imran Khan himself is susceptible to the charms of the newest mirror to Pakistani society – Turkey.
All of this of course has nothing to do with the real political realities and machinations taking place in Turkey itself. The AK Party is far from perfect; its spotty record on negotiations over Cyprus, its stubbornness over accepting the Armenian genocide, and its woeful human rights record vis-à-vis the Kurds is there for everyone to see. Turkey also has the highest amount of journalists incarcerated, which puts Erdogan’s commitment to a free media in doubt, while questions regarding his autocratic ambitions continue to linger, especially with the AK Party’s attempts to redraft the constitution. Of course, like other facts, Pakistanis pick and choose which of these they wish to ignore, and which to lionize. Oddly enough, condemnation is something nobody in Pakistan does much of.