The Turkish Paradox A Muslim Steps Aside, and the West Isn't Happy

The rules of post-9/11 politics are reversed in Turkey, as a flareup over the prospect of an Islamic president shows. Western leaders are more worried about the Turkish military's intrusion into politics than about the ruling party's Islamic agenda.

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Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül stepped out of a hotly contested presidential race on Sunday, after street protests and a parliamentary deadlock. Gül is a devout Muslim with a good reputation in the West.
DPA

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül stepped out of a hotly contested presidential race on Sunday, after street protests and a parliamentary deadlock. Gül is a devout Muslim with a good reputation in the West.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül withdrew from the country's presidential race on Sunday in disgust after secularists in parliament handed his Islamic-rooted party another humiliating defeat. Gül said the rift in Turkey between secularist and Islamic politicians has "damaged the parliament's honor" and may force a popular presidential vote.

Presidents in Turkey are elected by parliament, and Gül has now lost two rounds after boycotts by secular legislators, who deprived each session of a quorum. "There is no point in holding a new round," he told reporters. "The correct thing now is for the people to elect" a new president.

A defeat for Gül -- who belongs to Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, the AKP -- is, perhaps ironically, bad news for the West. The AKP has pushed more Western reforms in Ankara than many previous governments, and Gül is a popular diplomat in both Europe and the United States. "We have been friends for a long time," said the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, in April. "Turkey will be pleased to have him as president."

But the recent unrest seems to mock Solana's words of praise. Feelings between Turkey's Islamic politicians and its secularists run high throughout the country, and in Istanbul alone more than a million Turks have flooded the streets to protest Gül's candidacy. The Constitutional Court declared the first round of the presidential election null and void last week, and prior to that the army -- which sees itself as the protector of secular Turkish traditions -- stepped in to oppose an Islamic president. A sharp memorandum from Yasar Büyükanit's general staff, which many interpreted as a threat to overthrow the government, warned against "undermining the republic, and especially secularism."

The roles in this drama are reversed: The West, deeply mistrustful of anything remotely suggesting Islamism in the wake of September 11, has praised Gül as a "great reformer" and "reliable partner." But Turkey's secular elites are vehemently opposed to Gül, who they claim will take the country back to a darker age. "Turkey will not be another Iran, we don't want Sharia," protesters called out nationwide. "Turkey is secular and it will remain that way."

Could Europe be so wrong about Gül? Have pro-Turkey EU politicians allowed themselves to be carried off their feet by his charm and nonstop smiles? Turkey -- a longtime candidate for EU membership -- is once again embroiled in a serious crisis that has politicians in Brussels, Paris, London and Berlin deeply concerned. "This is a test of Turkey's readiness for democracy," says Graham Watson, the leader of the European Parliament's Liberal Democratic group.

European politicians are now more concerned about the Turkish military, which looks unwilling to keep its fingers out of politics, than any Islamic agenda. Is it possible that Turkey still hasn't transcended its violent past, typified in previous decades by coups and rolling tanks? "The role of the military will determine whether or not Turkey becomes a true democracy," predicts Hasan Cemal in the liberal daily newspaper Milliyet.

An open conflict between AKP supporters and the military would be fatal for the country, which -- according to sociologist Dogu Ergil -- has been a "shining example of the reconciliation between a majority Muslim population and a secular, democratic state."

The roots of the conflict

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, all but forced secularism and democratic reforms on the nation in the 1920s. Atatürk was a general, but in many respects he was ahead of some leaders in the democratic West. Women won the right to vote in Turkey in 1934, for example, well before female suffrage came to France (1944) or Italy (1946).

Atatürk's posture toward Islam was a function of his personal dislike of the religion, but it was also pragmatic. He wasn't shy about flying the green banner of the Prophet Muhammad when it could lift the spirits of devout Muslims in Turkey's war of liberation against the Italians and Greeks. But almost as soon as he took power he started to clean up the symbols of Turkey's old order. He eliminated the caliphate, and made Sunday the country's official day of rest (instead of Friday, the Muslim day of prayer). He introduced Latin writing instead of Arabic and replaced Sharia with a code composed of Swiss and Italian law. "Progress means taking part in this civilization," Atatürk preached to his people, "the Turks have constantly moved in one direction -- we have always gone from East to West."

But Kemalists, as the secularists are called, have barely budged from Atatürk's positions in 1938, when he died. Meanwhile Turkish political Islam has distanced itself from the radical positions of its founders. "Those who were once backward are the progressives today," says Zülfü Livaneli, a writer and songwriter in Istanbul, "and the progressives of the past are now the backward ones." Cemal Karakas, a political scientist, criticizes the Kemalist concept of secularism, calling it "authoritarian and undemocratic" and maintaining that it should be reformed.

Only one of four coups staged by the Turkish army was aimed directly at the Islamists: the "cold coup" against Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. Current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a protegé of Ekbakan's, and like Ekbakan he's deeply hated within the military's higher ranks. The army only reluctantly accepted his accession in 2003.

Of course, it was easy for the military to force the fundamentalist Erbakan out of office. He presided over a shaky coalition cabinet burdened by corruption scandals and some questionable projects abroad, including energy agreements with the mullah-run government in Tehran and efforts to cozy up to Libya's revolutionary leader, Moammar Gadhafi (who was still an international pariah at the time). The coup against Erbakan was popular, despite alarms sounded by democratic activists.

Many Turks agree that a similar overthrow would find no popular support today. Street protests aside, newspapers and civil organizations have criticized the military's recent intervention against Gül.

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