At Large

Turkish Toffee Pull

An ugly showdown between church and state averted -- for now.

By 8.15.08

Send to Kindle

Something happened in Turkey that wasn't supposed to. Historically contrary forces governed the day as the nation's eleven-man constitutional court ruled against its own chief prosecutor. In doing so the political lives of the highly respected prime minister and president, as well as their dominant party, were saved -- for the moment.

The issue at hand was the charge that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been pursuing "anti-secular activity" in contravention of the Turkish constitution. The principal evidence of this intent was AKP's successful parliamentary effort to pass a law allowing university girls to wear Islamic headscarves. Though the law was struck down by the constitutional court, the action by the AKP was deemed a threat to the secular base of Turkey's existence. The chief prosecutor referred to it as a stealth imposition of sharia.

As obscure as this charge may be to a non-Turkish observer, the separation of church and state has been the cornerstone of modern Turkey. The judiciary backed by the armed forces has repeatedly forced existing Ankara governments to change their ways or be removed. That was the expectation this time as well. The178- page indictment argued strongly that both the actions and statements of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul and their party were calculated to provide a threat to secular predominance.

WHILE TEN OF THE ELEVEN constitutional court judges voted to condemn the AKP for its anti-secular activity, enough votes could not be gained to order the closing of the party. All that could be agreed was that government funding of the AKP would be cut 50% -- a symbolic wrist slap as the party has many wealthy backers. It was clearly another victory for Erdogan, the prime minister and party leader.

The action of the court effectively placed on probation the strongly Islamic AKP. The armed forces, which had deposed four governments on earlier occasions, remained unexpectedly restrained. This is possibly due to the fact that it is about to have a new chief of general staff in a few weeks. The new head of the armed forces, General Ilker Basbug, is considered a far stronger adversary for the AKP than his predecessor.

PM Erdogan knows the unflappable and NATO-trained Basbug will be able to increase pressure on the civilian government to curtail its Islamic religious orientation simply because of his capability in behind-the-scenes manipulation. In addition to the military there is a strong alignment of the judiciary, academic and urban elites of Ankara and Istanbul in the ongoing contest with the AKP's power base in Anatolia and among the rural voters and Kurdish ethnic minority.

Turkey's entrance into the European Union is desired by both the secular and religious components of Turkey's political life, and that may be one of the things that restrained the politically sensitive constitutional court. That and the ever present fear of a return to the 2001 economic depression that badly jarred Turkey's business community has been a factor in keeping a lid on internal political warfare.

Once again, however, PM Erdogan is moving ahead without consensus in a challenge to his secular protective rivals. He has ordered his group of deputy leaders of the AKP to proceed speedily with a revised national constitution. This could be a gauntlet thrown in the face of the secularists or an opening for a compromise on basic matters of importance to both sides.

THE LAST THING the Middle East region needs is a breakdown in the secular nature of Turkey's governance. The European Union recognizes this and its diplomats, along with those of the United States, hope the new military leadership will be restrained in their political negotiations with the AKP.

For its part, the EU could help things along by being a bit less structurally demanding in its own handling of Turkey's application for accession to what sometimes can be a rather self-important exclusive club. The presence of an EU member among Middle Eastern Islamic nations might be a highly valuable step in moderating the region's broader political interests and orientation.

Turkey is on the brink of achieving the recognition of European secular nations that was the dream and plan of the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Its future in this regard will be a key bridge to the entire Middle Eastern region, drawing it closer to its western neighbors. First, however, the bridge must be built internally between the secular and religious.

Little recognized is the fact that the Turkish Armed Forces is second only as a standing military command in NATO to that of the United States. Its strategic value in the Middle East is immense. Turkey is far more important to the West than the politicians in Brussels and Washington are willing to admit.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.