ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey’s Muslim heritage is a major factor for those who see it as a “model” for the region – and for those who believe it is not – according to a survey of the Middle East released Wednesday.
More than 65 percent of respondents to the survey said they felt Turkey could be a “model for the region,” while 18 percent disputed the idea.
Sixty-six percent of respondents also said they thought Turkey represented a “successful blend of Islam and democracy,” according to the report, which noted that support for Turkey as a model had increased to 66 percent in 2010 from 61 percent.
Though it is unreasonable to think that neighboring countries can replicate the Turkish model, they can instead benefit from Turkey’s political and economic experiences, Professor Meliha Altunışık from the International Relations Department at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Wednesday.
“The rise of the Justice and Development Party [AKP] to power has inspired Islamist groups in the region. The AKP’s success has become an open door for the Islamists to power and they started to liken themselves to the Turkish ruling party,” Altunışık said.
Jonathan Levack, one of the authors of the report conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, or TESEV, told the Daily News that Turkey is being adopted as a model in the Middle East as the AKP government pursues a regional role amid the ongoing “massive change” in the neighborhood.
The release of the survey of 2,267 people in seven Arab countries plus Iran comes as Turkey has been touted by experts, observers and diplomats as a model for countries such as Egypt or Tunisia amid deep political crisis in the Middle East and North Africa.
Asked why they perceive Turkey as a model, the top four responses were Turkey’s Muslim background with 15 percent, its economy with 12 percent, its democratic government with 11 percent and its stance for Palestinians and Muslims with 10 percent, according to the survey.
Respondents who rejected the idea of Turkey as a model cited both its secular political system (12 percent) and its Muslim heritage (11 percent) among their top four reasons, followed by the country’s relations with Western nations (10 percent) and the argument that there is “no need for a model” (8 percent).
The report surveyed people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran – the latter added to the sample since the last survey – between Aug. 25 and Sept. 27, 2010.
According to the TESEV report, Turkey has enjoyed significant support in its neighborhood, with positive regional opinion about Turkey increasing to 85 percent from 75 percent. “Until recently, prevailing opinion in Turkey was that Arabs did not like the Turks. However, this research challenges this belief; there is now growing sympathy for Turkey and Turks in the Arab world,” the report said.
Rejecting the argument that Turkey is shifting its axis from the West to the East, TESEV President Can Paker said the country now is pursuing a “multi-axis” policy, adding that apart from the rising sympathy, support for Turkey’s role as a mediator is also growing in the region.
Report co-author Levack agreed, saying the lack of leadership and great frustration with the current regimes in the Middle East has contributed to Turkey’s appeal. Seventy-three percent of survey respondents believed Turkey has recently become more influential in Middle East politics, while only 12 percent disagreed; 78 percent said Turkey should play a bigger role in the region, including helping mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians replaced worries over economic problems in the report, with 26 percent of respondents naming the economy as the region’s most urgent issue, second to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with 30 percent.
Comparing the survey with a report by a U.S.-based opinion polling firm that listed Turkey as the fourth-most unpopular country in the Middle East in 2002, Altunışık said the decade in between the two reports has seen Turkey become a “soft power.” He said it has the potential of becoming squeezed between societies seeking change and the regimes trying to maintain the status quo due to its double-edged stance.
Noting that Turkey has become more active culturally, as well as politically and economically, in the Middle East, the report added: “The popularity of Turkish television series and holidaying in Turkey has become far more apparent. The results show that respondents saw Turkey as the most popular Middle Eastern destination. The survey results [also] confirm [the Turkish TV series’] popularity: 78 percent of respondents had watched a Turkish TV series.”
Support for Turkey’s European Union membership bid has slightly decreased from 57 percent in 2009 to 54 percent in 2010, the report said, adding that the proportion of respondents who felt the accession would benefit Turkey’s role in the Middle East had also dropped, from 64 percent to 57 percent.
Regional threat perception remained the same in 2010 compared to 2009, with 40 percent of respondents putting Israel atop the region’s threat list, followed by the United States with 26 percent. Iran was named the third-biggest threat, with 9 percent.
Responding to a question about Iran’s nuclear program, 40 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the Islamic republic developing nuclear weapons while 39 percent were opposed. Sixty-one percent of respondents welcomed Turkey’s role in the nuclear impasse between Iran and the West while 9 percent viewed it unfavorably.
The TESEV report also shed light on economic trends in the Middle East. “Enthusiasm for the Turkish economy among respondents is clear,” it wrote. “Fourteen percent felt that Turkey had the strongest economy in the region today – only Saudi Arabia was seen by more respondents as currently having a stronger economy than Turkey.”
Perception of the future prospects for the Turkish economy is also bright, the report added: “Turkey is seen as the region’s coming economic leader with more than quarter of all respondents (27 percent) seeing Turkey as the regional economic leader in 10 years