ISTANBUL - Istanbul is always fascinating in its vitality, with its endless traffic jams and young women in traditional scarves kissing their boyfriends in public. Very few women wear a veil; in any case, they're all connected on Facebook.
Commerce is flourishing, global companies are knocking on the door and the shopping centers feature an impressive array of international brands. The middle class' purchasing power is steadily growing, not all bearded men kneel when the muezzin calls, and not all women are conservative.
Minorities have much more of a chance to express themselves than in the past, and there is room for critical and intellectual thinking. In the city streets you can still see the old traditions, as well as the poverty and sadness of immigrants from the provinces drawn to the blaze of the big city.
Turkey is once again the long bridge between tradition and progress, East and West, Islam and secular democracies, its past and our future. For the Turks it's a success story: The government is doing wonders with the economy; its international standing, which looked for a moment as if it had expired with the fall of the Soviet bloc, has reestablished itself. Everyone is talking about Turkey, and Turkey is talking about almost everything. The lights of the bridges over the Bosphorus can be seen from afar.
In private, the Turks discuss great and small matters of strategy and politics with surprising openness. And when you try to separate the important from the secondary, isolate the music from the background noise, it turns out Turkey is proud and happy with its lot. It sees itself returning full force to its proper regional and international standing as a leader.
Turkey has a model it wants to export to the region. It pictures Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria as Muslim democracies in the future, partners to the Turkish model.
With this unique model, when the army is no longer the broom waiting in the closet, Turkey wants to export its reforms in education, commerce, economics, banking and regulation. It seeks to become one of the 10 strongest economies in the world, and it's on its way.
The Muslim Union
Although it's not said specifically, it seems someone here in Istanbul is dreaming about a regional Muslim Union - a union in contact with the European Union, which for the past decade has given the Turks the cold shoulder. Instead of being insulted they are initiating, instead of fleeing they are holding their ground and getting stronger. Instead of stagnating while waiting in frustration, they are developing a new discourse.
The democratic model, they say, does not necessarily have to be the Western one. Other models more suitable to societies that want to combine tradition, national pride and democracy are possible. The world, they argue, is no longer centered around the West. It's a new world of many centers, and Turkey aspires to be one of the most influential.
Many voices are being heard here about trade without borders, movements of capital, free migration of people, joint investments and regional legislative initiatives. Let's assume this is possible and it will take at least a decade. Then what? How will the EU deal with a strong regional coalition that has oil reserves, strategic waterways (the Bosphorus and the Suez Canal ), huge reserves of cheap manpower, and an insatiable political and economic appetite?
And what will Israel do when confronted with a powerful and democratic Muslim region? What will be the fate of the Palestinians under the endless occupation when the Israeli occupier suddenly no longer has a monopoly on democracy? And what will be the attitude of the democratic Muslim Union countries toward the only non-Muslim player in the region, Israel, and to their diasporas in the heart of Western Europe?
Before our eyes the Arab Spring is turning into more than a passing phase, and it includes far more than the Arab countries alone. It's a long-term awakening, with many objectives. There are no answers at this stage, but the questions are being asked and can no longer be avoided.