What to Do & What Not to Do


If the Muslim political leaders who came to the fore from the 1980s, two stand out: the late Turkish President Turgot Ozal and Malaysia’s retiring Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed.

The two stand out both for their character and their political vision. Neither used power for amassing personal fortune or paving the path of relatives and cronies with gold. Both managed not to become the subject of a cult of personality, a disease that has destroyed many Muslim leaders.

At the same time they were arguably the only senior Muslim politicians to rise above the day-to-day management of affairs and to develop a strategic political vision.

Not surprisingly, Turkey and Malaysia are, perhaps, the only Muslim states today that could be regarded as relatively successful in both economic and political terms. Many see them as the only “Islamic” models worth looking at.

The two leaders have much in common. Both were sincere believers and, thus, did not suffer from the schizophrenia that afflicts some Westernized Muslim politicians. The peddlers of political Islam could not accuse them of impiety.

I’ve had an opportunity to meet both men and interview them on a number of occasions. Despite all that they had in common, Ozal and Mahathir had two different visions.

Ozal was the continuator of the reform movement that began with the Tanzimat in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The Tanzimat led to the constitutional movement that introduced such Western concepts as citizenship, national sovereignty, and secular law, into the Muslim political discourse.

The men who had inspired the Tanzimat and the constitutional movement, in both the Ottoman Empire and Iran, saw them as instruments for creating “powerful states”.

They based their strategy on the teaching of Jamaleddin Assadabadi (often known as al-Afghani) who believed Islam needed benevolent despots who could create strong governments to withstand the pressure of the European colonial powers.

Ozal had a different reading of the Tanzimat and the constitutional movement. He believed that Europe had become strong not because it had powerful governments and large armies but because it had a strong civil society.

Thus the answer was not to increase the already disproportionate powers of Muslim governments. The way forward, for Ozal, was to strengthen civil society, especially by creating a robust private business sector.

In traditional society power flowed from top to bottom. Ozal insisted that the process must be reversed, with power flowing from the bottom to the top.

When he became prime minister in 1983, Ozal inherited a republic based on autocratic structures. The state controlled virtually all major sectors of the economy. It also had a monopoly on natural resources, most of which it kept locked up for fear that foreign investment could undermine the state’s authority. The army stood at the heart of the decision-making process. Politics consisted mostly of slogans about grand abstract ideas aired in a vacuum. None of the many parties in the field offered a “bread-and-butter” political platform.

Ozal’s reforms, introduced without fanfare, changed that. The army’s role was defined and limited in the context of a constitutional amendment. The economy was opened up to domestic and foreign investment and competition. A massive privatization program ended almost all state monopolies. Changes of governments through elections, rather than military coups, became the norm. Despite some shortcomings, notably in the case of its Kurdish minority, Turkey is now acknowledged as a “mature democracy,” with the credentials to become part of the European Union. Also, Turkey is one of only three or four Muslim nations that are richer today in real terms compared to 1980.

Ozal crowned his success by becoming Turkey’s first civilian president.

Mahathir shares Ozal’s conviction that only a free enterprise system can produce the material wealth without that no nation can progress. But Mahathir believes this can only be achieved through “strong government.”

In a recent talk, Mahathir insisted that Muslim nations should not be seduced by the siren songs of Western-style democracy. “We are weak nations,” he said. “We need strong governments.”

Mahathir may not be familiar with al-Afghani’s work. But he is promoting the ideas of the man known to many as “the mysterious Persian.”

Effectively, Malaysia has been a one-party state since its independence almost half a century ago.

From the 1980s onwards it has been recognized as a successful “Asian tiger.” Malaysia is the only Muslim country to have one or two industrial brands that feature in the list of the 5000 or so global industrial brands. It is also a reasonably peaceful and stable society that, ethnic divisions notwithstanding, has not suffered from violence in the past three decades.

There is much that other Muslim states could learn from both Turkey and Malaysia, things both to do and not to do.

My guess is that once Mahathir is retired, Malaysia will abandon its obsession with “strong government,” and become more like Turkey. If it does not its fundamental fragility could expose it to untold dangers next time it is hit by the downside of the economic cycle.

Mahathir’s light version of al-Afghani has outlived its usefulness, even in Malaysia.

Al-Afghani’s worldview was based on a deep pessimism. Because he could not imagine Muslims building a democratic system, he preached the concept of a ” benevolent despot” as the only realistic political goal in Islam. He looked at Europe of his time and saw the impressive performance of some ” benevolent despots,” especially in Prussia and Russia. But he had no means of knowing that both nations would in the end come to grief precisely because they had shunned democracy in favor of “benevolent despotism.”

Many other nations have had similar experiences. For example, Spain under Franco, Argentina under Peron, and South Korea under a string of military rulers enjoyed what Mahathir would see as “strong government” and achieved spectacular economic growth. In the end, however, none of them achieved genuine economic development until it had discarded the idea of “benevolent despotism” in favor of pluralist democracy.

Fortunately, more and more Muslim intellectuals and politicians are beginning to understand this. They understand that the key to the spectacular material and cultural success of the West is its acceptance of freedom as the central organizing principle of society. Contrary to what some in the West believe, the Muslim world is the scene of many political experiments with the idea of pluralism steadily gaining ground.

At a meeting in 1984 Ozal told me that a majority of Muslim countries would have a pluralist system with a capitalist economy and “some form of elections”. With just a year to go to Ozal’s deadline, part of his forecast is borne out. With the exception of Libya none of the Muslim countries talks about socialism and a command economy. (And Libya, too, does not really mean it!) As for the other half of Ozal’s prediction only 12 of the 53 predominantly Muslim countries have adopted a genuine pluralist system with regular and more or less clean elections. But the good news is that their number is increasing almost every year.

Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Mideast and Islam. Taheri is reachable through