By Ray Hanania
In any other election, if someone were to receive more than 51 percent of the vote (a 2.5 percent margin) over a highly controversial issue, the mainstream news media would declare it a decisive victory and a mandate.
But the mainstream news media does not apply the same standards of civil rights for the Muslim and Arab world that they apply to the West.
In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the few truly democratically-elected leaders of the world’s 50 predominantly Muslim nations, won a referendum that expands his powers by eliminating the nation’s antiquated parliamentary system and implementing a new government similar to the one established by the US.
Turkey was, until the vote, a parliamentary system governed by a ceremonial president who appoints the country’s prime minister.
Many of his foes are concerned but Erdogan’s strategy seems to be intended to prevent Turkey from transforming into another religious state that could morph into a bastion of extremism.
Despite his faults, Erdogan is one of the most moderate Muslim leaders in the region and he represents the survival of secular government in a Muslim world.
Erdogan represents the evolution of the growth of democracy, driven by the vision of Mustapha Kamel Ataturk following the dismantling of the six-century-long Ottoman Caliphate, which was disbanded at the end of World War I. The transformation period ended on March 3, 1924, when Ataturk was elected the country’s first president and founded the Turkish Republic.
What Erdogan is doing is merely continuing Ataturk’s vision, protecting the nation from the threat of religious extremism and establishing a constitutional form of government that respects the rights of citizens.
Unfortunately, during much of the 20th century, many religiously-run governments have found ways to use principles of so-called democracy to undermine freedoms and replace civil law with religious laws.
Erdogan’s referendum would eliminate the office of the prime minister and give the president executive powers to represent the people who elected him. The president could serve two five-year terms, or possibly a third term if Parliament calls for new elections during a president’s second term.
Erdogan would be given the power to appoint judges and select the officials who will run many of the government’s offices, similar to the American system.
Turkey would continue to have a Parliament, which would essentially become similar to the US Congress — majority coalitions would not come together to run government but it could override the president’s executive decisions.
The government changes come in the wake of an attempted coup on July 15, 2016, that was allegedly, according to Erdogan himself, led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his loyalists in the Turkish military.
Erdogan was on vacation at the time but quickly called on the people of Turkey to stand up to the military coup. Eventually, Erdogan returned to full power, imposed nationwide curfews and restrictions and weeded out plotters from every level of government, the religious establishment and society. More than 100,000 people were purged following the attempted coup.
Many of Erdogan’s critics have warned that the nation is headed toward a totalitarian regime, but Erdogan’s history seems to show just the opposite.
Erdogan rose up from his political activist roots with the Islamist Welfare Party. He was elected to Parliament in 1991 but was barred from taking his seat due to his religious associations at the time. In 1994, Erdogan was elected the mayor of Istanbul, raising fears of a religious revolution. Erdogan focused instead of improving government services and tackled the city’s problems with water, pollution and heavy traffic.
However, his association with the Islamist Welfare Party continued to plague him and the party was outlawed in 1999, Erdogan was forced out of office before his term expired and he was imprisoned but served only five months.
In 2001, Erdogan established a new, secular, political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which promised to build on his past focus on improving services to everyday Turkish citizens. The AKP won 66 percent of the seats in Parliament and secured him the seat of prime minister. However, the judiciary once again blocked his rise to power and he was stripped of that power, returning years later with the help of another opposition party’s support.
In 2014, Erdogan was elected the nation’s 12th president, winning 51.8 percent of the vote.
Erdogan quickly became the target of many in the West when he began providing funds and supplies to opposition groups who were battling Syria’s Bashar Assad. Critics tried, unsuccessfully, to assert that he was funding Daesh, including former US Vice President Joseph Biden, who later apologized for making the claim. Erdogan supports Palestinian rights and has confronted Israeli regional violence, including denouncing Israel’s military for its cold-blooded murder of civilians, including one Turkish American citizen during the Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident in 2010.
Erdogan is also building alliances with Sunni Arab states, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. All these nations are confronting the rising extremism of Shiite politics driven by Iran, its Hezbollah-controlled militias and Assad’s Syria.
His leadership has challenged the racist view that drives the policies of many European and Western countries toward Arabs and Muslims.
Erdogan cracked down on growing extremism in the country’s religious media. He also cracked down on Kurdish separatists by opposing Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria.
Yet Erdogan offers a balance that strengthens the moderate Arab world. He serves as a buffer to the West and a forceful line in confronting growing Israeli political extremism. He is the strongest voice against the alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the real threat to the survival of the moderate Arab world.
Despite the criticism levied against him, Erdogan stands as a dependable ally for the moderate Arab world in the war against religious extremism.