Friday, April 26, 2013


English translation of an article originally published in


På Spaning Efter En Modell För Mellanöstern: … Av Turkiska Och Nordiska Erfarenheter

Umut Ozkirimli är professor i samtida Turkietstudier och verksam vid Centrum för Mellanösternstudier vid Lunds universitet.

Spyros A. Sofos är gästforskare vid Centrum för Mellanösternstudier vid Lunds universitet.

The “Arab Spring” caught everybody off guard. Almost overnight, autocratic regimes have been toppled, social and ideological fissures have emerged, and conflict has become the order of the day, sometimes crashing hopes for freedom, democracy and dignity. But political change is like the Swedish winter, long and replete with challenges. Transition to democracy requires a national consensus and a new social contract based on respect for human rights, recognition of difference and reduction of socioeconomic inequalities. Given these challenges, it is not surprising that many in the region and the West have looked upon models to emulate, ready-made frameworks to be adopted without much consideration of the historical and cultural specifities of the Middle East.

Two countries that have often been mentioned in this kind of model talk are Turkey and Sweden. Turkey has been widely seen as an attractive model for the Middle East with its booming economy, its success in finding a balance between secularism and Islam and its vibrant civil society. Sweden, on the other hand, or more broadly the “Nordic” region has been recently hailed as the “next supermodel” by The Economist, an example to be followed not only by the transitional societies of the Middle East, but also by the ailing European Union. Yet how can we present Turkey and Sweden, two countries with markedly distinct nation- and state-building experiences, as models to the Middle East and beyond? Isn’t this like comparing apples and pears, simply because they are both fruits?

We believe not. First, the way the two countries have historically responded to modernity are quite similar. Both Kemalist Republicanism and the Swedish Social Democracy are perfect instances of “social engineering”, designed to create a particular kind of (modern) citizen. Second, in both countries the state plays an important role in shaping and regulating society, leading to what Lars Trägårdh and Henrik Berggren have called “state paternalism”. Third, and following from the first two, they experience similar difficulties in state-society and state-individual relations. Hence one can see the cohabitation in Turkey of democracy and a certain form of “majoritarian authoritarianism” where the rights of minorities are overlooked and in Sweden of notions of individual autonomy and a political culture which is characterized by deference to the state.

These similarities should not blind us to the differences between the two countries and the divergent outcomes of their processes of modernization. Moreover, there are serious problems with the uncritical and patronizing use of the notion of the “model”, and the way the “model” talk simplifies the complexity of social experience and the various inadequacies behind “perceived” success stories. In fact, both the attractiveness as well as the weakness of the notion of “model” lies in its ambiguous character that makes its articulation possible in a number of different discourses and agendas. This multiplicity of meanings constitutes a real challenge that needs to be taken into account in the discussion of models and their applicability.

Still, the situation in the Middle East is critical. There is urgent need to develop culturally appropriate pathways to sustainable transition that will not replicate earlier mistakes (Iraq, Afghanistan), that will respect democracy, pluralism and human rights without sacrificing social cohesion and national unity. We believe that it is important to unpack the historical trajectories of Turkey and Sweden in a systematic way and examine whether there is any experience that can constitute the subject of a constructive dialogue between these two “models” and the Middle East. This dialogue, we argue, should be one which is based on “mutual learning”, not on top-down policy planning or elitist attitudes which frame the Turkish and Swedish experiences as “better” or “superior” to Middle Eastern polities and cultures. We thus need to look more closely into the “model societies”, distinguish between good and bad practice, achievements and mistakes, and problematize the terms democracy and democratization. We need to focus not so much on what experience can be transferred, but on the processes of exchange and interaction between actors and institutions in the so-called models and the Middle Eastern societies. Only this could foster democratic transitions on a local, grass-roots level and strengthen a strong, pluralist civil society. After as Ingmar Bergman once put, “only he who is well prepared has any opportunity to improvise”.

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