As the Obama administration and many Western officials persist in suggesting the Turkish experience might be a model for the Arab Middle East, it is worth considering whether the model about which American diplomats speak is the same one that Turkey’s Islamist prime minister considers.
After the AKP’s 2002 election victory, the party rightly focused on economics, and after the party’s second victory, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accelerated reforms to diminish the power of Turkey’s military. With the AKP victory in Turkey’s June 2011 general election, however, Erdoğan felt entrenched enough to implement his social agenda. Some of his agenda is bizarre: The prime minister, for example, now rants about the evil scourge of Caesarean sections. He has waged a war on beer. And now, the state-controlled media seeks to ensure that Lebanese pop singers dress more conservatively than they do back home. From Hürriyet Daily News:
Lebanese singer Jehan Barbur refused to attend a TRT show after she was asked to be careful about her clothes, daily Sabah reported. The singer complained of the incident on her Twitter account, saying: “I was asked to be a guest on one of TRT’s channels. But I was asked to be careful about my clothes. Who do you think you are dominating…?” The agent also told reporters that a similar warning was made for guitarist Kemal Evrim Aslan’s vocalist. “They put a table cloth over her because her shoulders were showing,” the agent said.
The Middle East may be more conservative than the West, but it is not monolithic. There is a huge difference between how people dress in the cafes of Beirut, Kuwait, and Erbil, than how they do in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Sana’a. It seems that Erdoğan embraces views of society derived more from Saudi culture than traditional Levantine or Mediterranean society. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks of Turkey as a model, she believes she is promoting a vision of moderation and tolerance. Alas, almost a decade into AKP rule, the Turkish model now symbolizes the opposite.