Turkeys secular parliamentary democracy is far from being a done deal. Its deficiencies are glaring and much of the current political in-fighting that we see has to do with this. Despite its shortcomings, though, it is at least a century ahead when compared with most of the Arab world. There was much talk in the West once about a secular democratic Turkey that would be a model for the politically and economically backward Islamic Middle East. At the time this was mostly wishful thinking because the last country the political elites in the region were looking to as a model was Turkey. Turkish democracy - or any democracy for that matter - was seen as a socially destabilising factor if carried to the region. Turkish secularism on the other hand was considered un-Islamic. I was told at a conference in Karachi some years ago by an Egyptian journalist/commentator that the public in his country was too ignorant to handle Turkish-type free parliamentary elections. These, he said, would only bring political chaos to Egypt. A Saudi professor of religious studies at the same conference, for his part, contended quite openly that it was not possible for Turkey to be both Islamic and secular at the same time, since these were terms that stood in direct contradiction to each other. But the times are changing in the Middle East too, as seen in the push for more democracy in Iran after the 2009 presidential elections, the highly controversial elections in Egypt last year and now in the popular uprising in Tunisia, which some predict will spill over to other Arab countries. In addition to this we have a growing Sunni-Shia conflict and increasing tension between the Muslim and Christian communities in countries like Egypt and Iraq. All of these indicate that the Middle East is ripe for developments that can further destabilise the already turbulent region, with dire consequences far beyond its borders. Given this situation it is hard not to note a growing interest in the so-called Turkish model among the Middle Easts democratic intelligentsia, as well as the regions political elites which, reluctant as they may be to give up on decades of privileges, see that the direction events are taking could be catastrophic for them unless there is social change. Iraq provides the only real tangible example of an effort to instil representative democracy in the Arab world. It is doing so not because it has a culture of democracy that it is returning to, but because its religious and ethnic diversity is forcing it in this direction in order to avoid a splitting up of the country in a manner that would result in strife for everyone. What also makes the Turkish model more palatable for the formerly standoffish Islamic intelligentsia now is of course the fact that there is a party in power in Turkey that is Islamic in political orientation, but which has had to win democratic elections, and continues to rely on democracy to stay in power. Just as there is no alternative to having a parliamentary democracy in a country as heterogeneous as Turkey, in terms of the many social fault lines that exist, the same reality is dawning on Arab intellectuals and politicians who now see that there is probably no other way out for them but to move in the direction of democracy also. Of course there is no ready-made formula that Turkey can produce for any country, given that its own democracy, for all its deficiencies today, is the product of the school of hard knocks, having had its fair share of trials and tribulations. This does not, however, diminish the value of the Turkish experience for those searching for ways out of the morass that the Middle Easts people find themselves living in today. The touchy issue for the region is of course secularism, since for most Arabs, Islam is not just their religion, but also part and parcel of their lifestyles, cultural identity and historic heritage. But there is not one clear model for secularism to follow in this world. The US Congress, for example, opens up every year with an ecumenical prayer, and the US dollar has In God We Trust written on it, but this does not make that highly religious country any less secular. Turkey, on the other hand, which is arguably even more religious than America, nevertheless has a secular system that is not ready to digest things like opening Parliament with a prayer, or having religious references on its national currency. Whatever animosity and resistance there may be from fundamentalist quarters, Arabs will have to come around to realising, therefore, that some kind of secularism is sine qua non if they are to prefer the democratic way for their social advancement. What kind of secularism this will be is up to the individual countries to decide. Turkeys own secularism is self-evolved but still problematic and is clearly undergoing revisions today because of this. But do away with the secular infrastructure of this country altogether and you open the way for social turmoil. So if there is anything to learn from Turkey in terms of its experience with secularism, this is it. The New York Times quoted Sarkis Naoum, an analyst in Beirut, on Tuesday as saying Turkey has become, I think, until the contrary is proven, an indispensable state in the reorganising of this region. His comments were referring to Ankaras current mediation efforts in Lebanon, of course. But they also carried overtones of a broader sentiment that is on the ascendant in the region. Namely the sentiment which says: The Turks are also Muslims, and yet they are developing. So why cant we do the same? This sentiment reflects the potential of Turkeys soft power - not necessarily to reorganise the region as Naoum suggests, and certainly not in any way that smacks of neo-Ottomanist interventionism - but as a catalyst for change by means of the positive example it provides. Whether this example will be picked up and emulated, is another story of course. But the fact is that there is more interest in it in todays Middle East than was the case before. Hurriyet