The tensions inside Turkey that could threaten Middle East

In a region of chaos and violence, there is an unseen danger, writes Kemal Dervis.

In a region of chaos and violence, there is an unseen danger, writes Kemal Dervis.

A cycle of terrible violence has taken over much of the Middle East. Its centre has shifted from Iraq to Syria, but it encompasses Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia as well. Further east, Afghanistan is suffering its second decade of violent conflict, while Pakistan seems to be chronically on the brink of war, civil war, or social breakdown.

The most worrisome underlying threat is the increase in fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Likewise, pious conservatives and secular youth, who joined forces in Cairo and Tunis in 2010-11 to challenge the dictators, have now turned on each other: witness the Egyptian security forces' appalling massacres of Islamist demonstrators in Cairo, following a military coup carried out with liberals' support. The region's people are sliding into enemy camps.

I have often argued that Turkey should not intervene in the internal affairs of its neighbours or adopt a Middle East-centred policy. Both government and opposition should remain steadfastly focused on Europe, despite the obstacles that the European Union has placed in Turkey's way during membership negotiations.

But Turkey cannot be indifferent to the tragedy engulfing its neighbours. The Arab world's pain is acutely felt, owing to Turkey's historical, religious, and emotional bonds with these countries. Moreover, economic ties and sheer proximity mean that Turkey's prosperity depends, to some degree at least, on that of the Middle East.

In recent years, there was hope Turkey could help by serving as a model of a successful economy and well-functioning democracy; but recent events have raised doubts. Turkey must overcome four sources of internal tension if it is to continue to thrive economically, consolidate its democracy, and act as a compelling example to others.

The first and most serious source of tension stems from the need to recognise Kurdish identity as a fully legitimate part of the Turkish republic. Those who wish to express a Kurdish identity, as well as all other citizens, must be confident that Turkey is a country in which diversity can thrive.

Second, there is an underlying historical tension between the large Sunni majority and the Alevi-Bektashi minority, loosely linked to Shiite Islam.

Third, there is the difference between those who adhere to the tradition of political Islam and those who uphold the strict secularism that came with the republic. Often this social "divide" intersects with the Sunni-Alevi cleavage, as the Alevis have increasingly aligned themselves with the left.

Finally, there is a growing perception of partisanship within the public administration. Building independent, non-partisan regulatory bodies was one of the key pillars of the 2001-02 reform program. But these reforms have been rolled back recently, with independent regulatory authorities again coming under the control of government ministries. As the perception of non-partisanship in public administration has diminished, proximity to those in power has become another source of tension.

Turkey benefits from republican values that have been built over decades, as well as from humanist wisdom anchored in centuries of history. Yet, given the regional context, Turkey's internal tensions now represent a serious threat.

All sides must manage these tensions with great care and caution. Respect for diversity and individual freedom, and concern for generating growth and jobs in an atmosphere of social peace, must be guiding principles. Healing the wounds to which all sides have at times contributed should be the order of the day.

Turkey must look carefully at the catastrophe unfolding around it in the Middle East. Its political leaders and citizens must recognise that the only protection against a similar disaster at home is a vibrant democracy, a fully professional public administration, and a tolerant society embodying pride for the country's diversity.

Kemal Dervis, former minister of economic affairs of Turkey and former administrator for the United Nations Development Program, is vice-president of the Brookings Institution.

© Project Syndicate, 2013.

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