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.
A Hidden Islamist Agenda?
Prime Minister Erdogan's Islamic conservative AKP has ruled the country for the past four and a half years, and has been quite successful. Europeans are envious of Turkey's 6 percent economic growth, and the country's former epithet -- "sick man on the Bosporus" -- is a thing of the past. Foreign investment is booming and exports are at record levels. The AKP has pushed through hundreds of reforms and has led Turkey into negotiations for EU membership.
Nevertheless, the AKP has failed to defuse a smoldering suspicion among secularists that the party has a hidden Islamist agenda. The choice of the devout Muslim Abdullah Gül, whose wife always wears a headscarf, has reinforced concerns over "where the AKP truly wants to take the country," says Sinan Ülgen, a economic advisor.
But may of Gül's opponents seem convinced that the AKP is not acting in the interest of the state. They are the ultra-secularists, whom columnist Mustafa Akyol calls "anti-liberal."
This is the Turkish paradox: The opponents of Islam are not necessarily forces of progress, and many are critical of or even antagonistic to the West. The protestors in Istanbul were not just chanting "Down with the government," but also "No to America, no to the EU."
Türkan Saylan, a retired dermatologist and professor, is one of the leaders of the protests against Gül. She is the president of an organization called the Foundation for Modern Life, one of dozens of groups that extol the principles of modern Turkey's founder, Atatürk. A 71-year-old who wears her short hair dyed bright red, Saylan calls herself a "Kemalist feminist." "We are Atatürk's soldiers," she says.
For Saylan, the idea of a couple like the Güls moving into the presidential palace is intolerable. "This office is so important. For us, it is almost as if Atatürk were still in charge there. A presidential couple must be absolutely secular and democratic, and must embody a modern lifestyle." Though opposed to coups and martial law, Saylan does not condemn the recent military intervention. If the army recognizes a threat to secularism, she believes, it is practically obligated to make the public aware of it.
But the evidence of a "fundamentalist threat" cited by opponents of Erdogan and Gül is slim. For example, Cumhuriyet, a leftist national paper founded under Atatürk, dredged up a quote from a 12-year-old article in the British Guardian, in which Gül allegedly said, "The republic is finished. We want to change the secular system." Gül vehemently denies having said this, and uses simple logic to defend his position. "If we had a hidden agenda," he frequently asks foreign journalists, "why should we commit ourselves to EU membership?"
Headscarves worn by AKP women are a central symbol of the secularists' uneasiness. Tempo, a liberal Turkish magazine, recently printed a cover story titled "The Headscarf Republic" and included photographs of the wives of leading AKP politicians wearing the headscarf: Emine Erdogan and Hayrünnisa Gül, as well as the wives of the finance minister, speaker of the parliament, and the ministers of economics and tourism.
Gül's wife Hayrünnisa even filed a complaint against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights, because the country's ban on headscarves prevented her from attending university. But she decided to withdraw the complaint in order not to compromise her husband.
It did bother a slim majority of Turks -- according to opinion polls -- that a woman who wore a headscarf, Hayrünnisa Gül, was in line to move into the presidential palace. "This is not my culture," wrote Hürriyet columnist Yalçin Dogan, after being seated with women in headscarves at a government reception.
Many secular Turks think the AKP will open the door to a creeping Islamicization. Conservative Islamic clothing has come into fashion, including modest full-body bathing suits. Islamic publishing houses have allowed religious paragraphs to find their way into schoolbooks. The army has cited events where schoolgirls appeared on a national holiday wearing headscarves (in violation of official bans) and singing religious songs.
But the AKP's political achievements have been obvious. "This party has brought Turkey closer to Western organizations and standards than every secular government in the recent past," says sociologist Ergil.
"So far the AKP has done nothing in violation of the secular constitution," says political scientist Binnaz Toprak, herself a secularist. It has failed with a number of highly controversial pieces of proposed legislation, such as a law that would criminalize adultery. "Turkish secularism is not in jeopardy," says Toprak, "it is firmly in place."
A Turkish version of Germany's Christian Democrats?
Both Gül and Erdogan started out in Necmettin Erbakan's Islamist Welfare Party, but later joined an uprising of reformers against him. In 2001 the pair founded the AKP, a reformed secular alternative for devout Muslims. Its party platform makes no mention of political Islam. Referring to his opponents, Erdogan said last week, "They say that Turkey is secular and will remain secular -- and we say exactly the same thing."
He defines his politics as "democratic conservatism" intended for a social group "that wants a concept of modernity, does not reject tradition and does not disregard the spiritual importance of life." The AKP is a pro-business party, which explains why it gets the vote of the generally liberal business community. Suat Kiniklioglu, who heads the German Marshall Fund's office in Ankara, even believes that the AKP could become something like the Turkish version of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The AKP isn't blameless in the current crisis. Gül's failed presidential bid has polarized the nation, and AKP leaders could have compromised with a generally colorless candidate for president, Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül. But the AKP has popular support, which is why it's pushing (with some success) for constitutional amendments to allow a popular presidential vote later this year. Gül hasn't ruled out running in such an election, and he told the Financial Times last week that he believed a full 70 percent of the general public supported him.
The military now feels threatened. The president, as head of the National Security Council, has the power to mobilize troops. He also appoints the commander of the general staff. Unlike any previous government, the AKP has attempted to bring the military under political control -- which has brought enthusiastic praise from the EU. "We need a stable Turkey," said Javier Solana just last week, supporting Gül before his failed second-round presidential bid, "a Turkey that continues to provide assistance when it comes to cooperation with its neighbours Iraq and Iran, and with regard to a solution to the Middle East."