It has long been fashionable to describe Turkey as a model for the Middle East, if not the Islamic world. I’ve written on these pages many times how this notion is outdated as Turkey’s government has moved to undo the separation between mosque and state, and how the prime minister himself has acknowledged his goal to be to raise a religious generation.
American reliance on Turkey during and after the Arab Spring has been nothing short of disastrous. In Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, Turkey has moved to privilege the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups over relative moderates. Of greater concern to U.S. national and regional security, Turkey has become the chief transit center for religious radicals and al-Qaeda sympathizers entering Syria. Rather than stop Libyans, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, and Saudis who disembark Turkish Air flights in Gaziantep and ask them why their sudden interest in a location they previously avoided, Turkish police simply demand $40 and wave the jihadists on across the border.
The contrast with Morocco could not be sharper. While Jews are fleeing Turkey, and anti-Semitism appears rife at senior ranks of the Turkish government, Jews are returning to Morocco, if only as tourists. According to Jeune Afrique, 45,000 Israelis visited Morocco in the past year. Between 1993 and 1995, Morocco’s minister of tourism was Jewish. The Moroccan constitution of 2011 enshrines not only the Kingdom’s Arab and Berber identity, but also its “Hebraic heritage.” Such constitutional prerogatives and monarchy’s moderation dampen the populism of some parties which in the last month, for example, proposed a bill banning contacts with Israelis. That such a hateful bill stands no chance at passage underscores the checks and balances inherent in the system. In Turkey, by contrast, the prime minister himself led a campaign to boycott Israel and Israelis.
Morocco has consciously embraced religious moderation. Imams go through rigorous training and must continually renew their licenses. Those who promote intolerance or religious hatred quickly find themselves out of a job. While freedoms plunge throughout the region, Moroccans enjoy an increasingly free and vibrant press and readily engage in public demonstrations. During a trip to Rabat this past week, I saw separate demonstrations relating to unemployment and demands for the court to dismiss charges against a journalist who linked to a website hosting an al-Qaeda call for violent jihad. Moroccan police kept their distance from the demonstrators, and directed their attention instead to directing traffic around the demonstrators. Contrast that with Turkey, where the government’s response to a protest against the paving over of a park was to fire tens of thousands of tear gas canisters, beat scores of protestors, and kill at least four.
While Turkey embraces Hamas, Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran over that country’s attempts to promote radical religious interpretation. And rather than support religious extremists, Morocco has lent its expertise to promote constitutional checks and balances and women’s rights in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. While the Turkish ambassador to Chad openly endorsed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb when fighting erupted in Mali, Morocco continues to help Mali reconstruct itself and defeat all remnants of al-Qaeda.
Morocco increasingly also provides a model for justice. Just as in Turkey, serious human-rights abuses marked the 1970s, 1980s, and perhaps even 1990s in Morocco. In recent years, though, the two countries have again diverged. Morocco implemented a new, quite progressive constitution in 2011. Rather than sweep past abuses under the rug, the Moroccan state sponsored a truth and reconciliation committee in which citizens across the spectrum embraced, giving the Kingdom a chance at a fresh start. Not so in Turkey. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took over in 2003, he drew a sharp distinction between past and future, but used his power not to reconcile but rather to seek revenge against first real and perceived enemies, and increasingly against anyone who might develop an independent political base. While Moroccan press freedom and political space has increased over the years, Turkish press freedom has retracted to the point that Turkey now rests behind even Russia in watchdog rankings.
Neither Morocco nor Turkey is perfect, but trajectory is important. Morocco provides a path toward reconciliation and moderation, while Turkey’s political leadership has increasingly turned that country into a beacon for populism and hate. Generations of diplomats have become accustomed to thinking of Turkey as a partner and a model for the region. But autopilot should never be a substitute for wisdom. Increasingly, it is apparent that a moderate, more democratic future for the Middle East lies not in the Turkish model but rather the Moroccan one.