At Large

Turkey at the Crossroads

We will soon learn if democracy and Islam are compatible.

By 4.20.07

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Next month Turkey's pro-secular president Ahmet Necdet Sezer will step down. Not only will his successor likely determine the future of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, but will answer the age-old question whether democracy and Islam are compatible.

Last week about 300,000 Turks sought to make their preference known (if not their votes count) as they marched through the streets of Ankara, waving Turkic flags and holding aloft placards adorned with the stern visage of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of (mostly) modern secular and democratic Turkey.

In a scene unique to this predominately Muslim nation, marchers shouted, "Turkey is secular and will remain secular forever," and "We don't want an imam as president!" When soldiers appeared at the mausoleum of Ataturk for the changing of the guard, many in the crowd shouted, "Turkey is proud of you!"

The aforementioned imam is current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man widely seen as being pro-Islamic. Erdogan has repeatedly denied that as president he would steer Turkey toward Islamic rule, but that is only to be expected in a state where the strongly secular military has keeps a close watch on political Islam. In fact, Erdogan's political party -- misleadingly named the Justice and Development Party -- has deep roots in political Islam, and Erdogan's first steps as premier seemed calculated to re-establish sharia or Islamic law. The prime minister's government was overwhelmingly elected after Erdogan promised to end Turkey's head scarf ban in government offices and schools (Erdogan's wife wears the Islamic head scarf). A majority of Turks favor overturning the ban, although polls paradoxically show that only 9 percent of Turks favor the imposition of sharia law. That hasn't stopped Erdogan's government from its attempts to strengthen religious institutions, as well as criminalize adultery, a step it abandoned after pressure from the EU, and, no doubt, the army.

President Sezer has been seen as a counterweight to Erdogan, using his veto power to stop controversial laws from being enacted. But with Sezer out of office, Erdogan as president, and an Erdogan appointee as prime minister, Turks suspect that Ankara will begin drifting farther from Europe and nearer to Tehran. In fact, the shift has already begun. As Turkish artist Bedri Baykam recently told the BBC, "This government is trying to change every law little by little. It's as though we were trying to join the Iranian Union, not the EU."

Since the 2004 elections the Justice and Development Party has dominated Parliament; therefore a pro-Islamic president seems inevitable. Yet that much authority in the hands of pro-Islamists may prove too much for the military chiefs to bear. The signs are evident. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the military, recently told the Turkish press, "We hope that someone who is loyal to the principles of the republic -- not just in words but in essence -- is elected president." His statement was a thinly disguised warning to Erdogan to step aside.

IT WOULDN'T BE THE first time the Turkish brass meddled in politics. The army staged three coups to oust corrupt and incompetent governments and quell leftist insurrections between 1960-1980. A behind-the-scenes (or post-modern) coup in 1997 forced the pro-Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to step down after one year in office. Indeed, every time Turkey seems to suffer from economic and political stagnation the military marches in. The Turks have come to expect this. Yet the knuckleheads in charge never cease to try the military's patience. As Ataturk's colleague and former president Ismet Inonu warned, "An oppressive regime can never be sure of the army."

For many secular Turks, the army alone retains their trust, a confidence earned when the young Ataturk employed his military building schools, canals, and mosques across the country. This is especially the case for liberal Turks, who are the army's most ardent supporters, the opposite of the case in the West. And with a million men, NATO's second largest army (after the U.S.) is a force to be reckoned with.

A coup would of course smash Turkey's bid to join the EU, but for most Turks a military takeover would be preferable to a Iranian-style Islamic revolution. But then Erdogan has no intention of stoking an Islamic revolution -- rather he prefers to whittle away slowly at the secular society.

For now the army states it will intervene only in the case of a total economic and political meltdown. But that doesn't mean it will remain silent, as Gen. Yasar Buyukanit's recent remarks demonstrated. So apparently democracy and Islam are not incompatible -- as long as a secular million man military calls the shots.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.