ISTANBUL — Fawaz Zakri was 17 years old when his father told him to pack his bags, bid goodbye to his family, and cross the border into Turkey. The year was 1981, and the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where Zakri had grown up, was in the throes of a violent anti-government insurgency led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Zakri's father feared that his son's links with the Brothers would be enough to land him in jail, or worse. "I was a sympathizer," Zakri qualifies, "but not a member." Two years earlier, the Brotherhood had attacked a local military academy, killing dozens of cadets in an assault that marked the beginning of an all-out war between the Sunni Islamist group and the Alawite regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Protests, assassinations, and terrorist attacks, many carried out by the Brotherhood, had since become routine. Syrian troops and security forces responded with a ruthless crackdown, at times employing artillery fire against neighborhoods in Aleppo. The war culminated in 1982, when, in the wake of another Brotherhood uprising, Assad's troops killed tens of thousands of people in the city of Hama. The massacre crushed the Brotherhood's Syrian wing, and its surviving activists scattered -- many eventually settling across the border in Turkey.
Zakri's escape placed him beyond not only the reach of the Syrian regime, but also the militant ideology of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood of that era. Thirty years removed from his flight, Zakri is a graduate of one of Turkey's finest universities, an iPhone-toting businessman with a trade in grains and heavy machinery, and a fluent English speaker. He is also, at least to some extent, a changed man -- a committed Islamist, to be sure, but one of a different hue. "After we came to Turkey," he says, "people like me, we faced a revolution in our thoughts."
While many in Europe and the United States fear that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has introduced a dangerous Islamist influence into the country's traditionally secular and Western-oriented stance, religious groups struggling to overthrow stagnant autocracies across the Arab world take a different lesson from the party's success. Particularly in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a domestic uprising has become increasingly brutal during the holy month of Ramadan, pious activists have looked to Turkey as a model for reconciling their faith with the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring.
But Turkish politicians steer clear of the "M" word. "We do not use that language because we do not want to patronize anyone," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief foreign-policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, told me this spring. "We do not want to impose our experience on others." There is more to this, of course. The days when the Arab world suspected Turkey of being a U.S. "Trojan horse" in the Middle East might be long gone, but the Turks, who remember President George W. Bush's repeated references to the "Turkish model," remain wary of being seen as doing the West's bidding.