Turkish Delight Democracy

The land of Turkish delights is once again trying to prove to itself and to the rest of the world that it is on its way to producing the first homegrown Muslim democracy.
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For anyone who has been paying attention to what has been going on in Muslim majority societies only through news headlines, it has really been a rough couple of weeks. To name a few, there have been the Kenya mall attacks, the Pakistan church attacks, increased sectarian violence in Iraq, senseless and barbaric killings in Nigeria, ongoing bloodshed in Syria, heart wrenching turmoil in Egypt and the list goes on. Seemingly, nothing good or positive goes on in any prominent Muslim majority countries. Is that true? If not, why do these horrific news stories, one after another, flood our news headlines? Finding the silver lining appears to be a worthless struggle and a no-win battle.

This column is an invitation to pay attention to one of the very few good and encouraging stories that has made headlines in our part of the world: Turkey's recent attempts to combat terrorism and extremism in partnership with the U.S. as well as the country's recent encouraging attempts to improve democracy and civil liberties. The land of Turkish delights is once again trying to prove to itself and to the rest of the world that it is on its way to producing the first homegrown Muslim democracy. Turkey has a long way to go before declaring victory in becoming the first fully functioning Muslim secular democracy, but these recent developments are very important steps in the right direction.

The first good news was the joint fund created by the Turkish and U.S. governments (and a few other partners like the European Union) in countering extremism. A Sept. 27 article from the New York Times quoted officials as saying:

The new fund, formally called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, will for the first time combine financing from both government and nongovernment entities to identify credible local organizations; develop, monitor and evaluate programs; and channel funds to local projects that target groups and individuals vulnerable to appeals from terrorist groups. It is expected to be operational by mid-2014.

This is indeed very encouraging news on many different fronts. This first-of-its-kind initiative, at least on paper, reflects a much more comprehensive approach in dealing with this global cancer, focusing on prevention rather than treatment. It seems global powerhouses are finally starting to learn necessary lessons in shifting these long over-due efforts in the right direction.

More good news came in the form of the democratic reform package announced to the public last Monday by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The package includes historical changes and praise-worthy democratic reforms; it lifts decades-long shameful restrictions that were curtailing civil liberties, especially for the country's ethnic and religious minorities. For example, Kurdish and other non-Turkish languages, which have been shamefully banned for decades, will now be freely spoken and taught. Women who are civil servants will be able to wear head scarves if they choose to. The properties of religious minorities that were confiscated during the early years of the republic will be returned, and there will be harsher laws for hate crimes, racial profiling and discrimination. The country seemed to be showing signs of regression in its democratic process, particularly with the ruling government's response to the large scale protests throughout the summer. So this news comes as a breath of fresh air.

I really hope and pray that this package reflects the country's mid-course correction and is a bounce-back from its previously slipping efforts to improve its secular democracy. I also hope that not only will these reforms be implemented fully, but that more reforms and changes in this direction will follow, such as drafting a civil and fully democratic constitution, fully normalizing diplomatic and overall relations with Israel, allowing the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary (which has been unjustly and unfairly closed for decades) to open and fully function, working on an honorable reconciliation on the Armenian issue and more.

I am more hopeful than before about Turkey's candidacy on producing one of the first home-grown Muslim secular democracies. I think the country demonstrates that its direction has not changed despite many ups and downs, setbacks and bumps along the way. As those living in Western democracies know, this road to produce your own democracy is a long, difficult and never-ending work in progress. Let's appreciate these genuine efforts and wish for their full fruition. May our depressed world, with the never-ending bad news of the so-called "Muslim World," see a Turkish Delight Secular-Democracy, and may the process and outcome inspire and encourage many other countries to try to do the same in their own ways. Amen.

This column was originally published in the Duke Chronicle. It has been reprinted with permission.

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