By Shahid Javed Burki
June 29, 2015
Demographic and political developments have
come together in more meaningful ways in Muslim countries than in many other
parts of the developing world. Muslim populations in these countries are very
young with the median age of less than 30 years. In other words, 800 million
people in the world’s Muslim population of 1.6 billion are below that age. Most
live in urban areas and most are liberal and better educated than older people.
Most are unhappy with their situation since the established political and
economic orders don’t provide them the space they crave. They could get that
space in functioning political systems; in those that are non-inclusive, the
young turn to the street to agitate for their rights. Some get attracted to
extremist movements and the causes they espouse.
It is important to recognise that the
Muslim world is not homogeneous. The western part with 1.2 billion people has
had difficulties in making adjustments to the post-colonial period. Stretching
from Morocco in the west to Bangladesh in the east, this part can be further
divided into two segments; the Arab nations with 255 million people and the
non-Arab countries with 925 million. Pakistan and Turkey are two large
countries in the latter group. With a combined population of 275 million, they
seem to be moving towards a political future that could — perhaps, would —
serve as models for the other, more slowly moving nations.
Some of the more important political
changes in the Muslim world were spearheaded by the urban youth. They
challenged the political and economic systems that had largely excluded them.
They struck again with the June 7 elections when Turkish voters delivered a
major snub to President Recip Tayyip Erdogan. He had tried desperately hard to
get a large majority for his Justice and Development party. He led the AKP
three times to decisive electoral victories. The shares of the party in both
popular vote and the number of legislators elected to the 550-member parliament
increased each time. Erdogan wanted to win 400 seats in the June 2015
elections. That would have given the AKP the majority to change the Turkish
Constitution to a presidential form. In the changed system, Erdogan would have
wielded even more power than he was allowed when he was prime minister. This
move was opposed by all parties in opposition — in particular, by the youth who
were now alert to the machinations Erdogan had begun to use to increase his
power. In the end, with only 258 seats, the AKP came way short, not even
winning a simple a majority to be able to rule the country.
Like all other Muslim countries, Turkey and
Pakistan have very young populations. They are not afraid to give voice to
their political, economic and social aspirations. It was this expression that
gave birth to the Arab Spring of 2011 but the series of those seismic events
did not yield the hoped-for political advance. In Libya, Syria and Yemen,
political institutions were too weak to stretch themselves to accommodate the
awakened youth. The result in these three nations was civil war that has gone
on for more than three years, killed hundreds of thousands people, displaced
millions more, and destroyed the states. In the fourth country, Egypt, the
establishment hit back. Serious divisions among the youth created the space
into which the military was able to walk and once again take command of the
political system. The youth may have succeeded in ridding the country of
authoritarian military rule but they did not have the backing of an institution
that could settle their differences. Some of those who had participated in the
Arab Spring of January 2011 were upset at the way the Muslim Brotherhood had
governed. They took to the street once again.
The current state of political development
in Turkey and Pakistan can also be traced to two popular movements. In 2007-08,
the legal community in Pakistan was able to galvanise and successfully campaign
against the increasingly authoritarian ways of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf,
the country’s fourth military president, who had been in power for more than
eight years. The legal community was reacting to the military president’s
attempt to remove those judges from the higher courts who were not following
his line. A year and half after the lawyers first appeared in the street, the
president had to resign and — later — face treason charges for tampering with
the Constitution. It was also a popular movement in Turkey launched by the
young in the spring of 2014 that eventually checked the ambitions of President
Erdogan to use the Turkish Constitution to create an imperial presidency. Two
years of widespread anti-government protests set off by the plans to raze an
Istanbul park and replace it with a mall and a museum brought to the surface
the growing resentment among the young, liberal and secular Turks towards the
governing AK party.
In earlier times, such movements in
Pakistan and Turkey would have been suppressed by the military. In the four
decades starting in the 1960s, and ending with the political arrival of the
AKP, there was a military coup once every decade. However, with the political
rise of the youth and their ability to turn to the street prevented the
militaries in the two countries from moving in. They were afraid of popular
reaction to any such moves.
What the Turkish elections have shown is
that only a working political system will resolve the many different interests
of the various groups that constitute the many countries in the Muslim world.
The use of force to overcome dissidence can help but only temporarily. The real
solution is only in the development of viable and inclusive political orders.
Political reform aimed at bringing the young into the system is also important
for reducing the appeal of extremism.