ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Turkey's bid to crack down on Islamists by banning their main political party is raising questions about the commitment to democracy on the part of this key NATO ally.
At a time when Turkey is pressing for membership in the European Union (EU), it also further complicates the country's relations with the West.
Ironically, Turkey's Islamist political leader, Necmettin Erbakan, who for many years displayed strong anti-Western feelings, has turned into a staunch supporter of Western values.
"The most suitable regime for human rights and human dignity is Western democracy," he told the Constitutional Court in Ankara last week during his defense against legal action that could lead to the banning of his Refah Party.
Mr. Erbakan has lately embarked on a campaign to gain support from the West in order to save his party from being shut down. At a recent press conference for foreign correspondents, he defended "democracy, human rights, and freedom" as the major Western values that Refah shares.
Asked what made him change his mind about the West, he ignored the question. "The West should ask the so-called pro-Western parties ruling Turkey why they do not respect now the Western values."
With Erbakan's defense, the trial of the Islamic party has now entered its final stage. The verdict is expected late next month.
The legal action started last May, one month before Erbakan's one-year-old coalition government collapsed after intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering and pressures from the military and the secularist establishment in Turkey.
The charges against Refah maintained that the party's intention was to destroy the country's secular system and introduce sharia, or Islamic law. It also indicated that Refah had received funds from some Islamic countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Libya.
The chief prosecutor, Savas Vural, known as a staunch secularist, said, "No party in Turkey and abroad deserves to be shut down as much as Refah does." The prosecution emphasized that Refah had flagrantly violated the constitutional principle of secularism - considered the foundation of modern Turkey. It argued that even in the West, constitutions impose limitations on political activities, such as in Germany, where no Nazi party can be established.
Erbakan rejected all charges and emphasized that political parties already recognized and in existence cannot be banned under any democratic regime.
It remains to be seen how convincing Erbakan's arguments will be considered by the Supreme Court. Opinion is divided in Turkey on what the verdict will be.
One view is that the court will close down the party, considering the evidence on the violation of the Constitution - and the strong pressure from the secular and influential military establishment to oust Refah from politics.
The other view is that the court might find the prosecution's evidence inadequate, and may also feel that banning the party would damage democracy and the country's image abroad. Sources close to the establishment tend to believe that the verdict will be to outlaw Refah and ban its leaders from politics for five years.
But what will be the effect of such a decision? Those in favor of it believe that this could be a severe blow to Refah. Even if the party reemerges under a new name, it will not have the same strength. Moreover, Islamists would conclude that they cannot challenge secularism and change the system.
Some analysts say that since Refah's ousting from government last June and the start of the trial, Erbakan and his party have suffered a loss of popularity.
But many analysts feel that Refah's dissolution would be counterproductive. As Erbakan and other leaders publicly say, Refah could easily reappear under a new name and rapidly grow. Since the current leadership will be barred, new, younger - and more radical - leaders would take over.
The radicalization of the party may provoke the more militant in the Islamist masses, adding to the fear of possible violence.
"No one should take comfort of the fact that Turkey is different from Algeria or Egypt," says Femhi Koru, editor of the daily Zaman. "Suppressing freedom and restricting the system invites violence, as seen in those countries."
Interestingly, many Turkish intellectuals known for their strong anti-Islamist views oppose the idea of outlawing Refah. In fact, many observers note that the success of Refah is due to political discontent and frustrations. Many people have so far supported Refah - which is the best-organized party in Turkey - for those reasons rather than purely its pro-fundamentalist ideology.
There is a growing feeling here that banning Refah would radicalize Islamists and undermine democracy. Moreover, it would damage Turkey's case to be part of the West at a time when the country is striving to join the EU. A decision on Turkey's membership is expected next month.
Said a Western diplomat in Ankara: "If Turkey wants to stay in a democratic league, it should not endanger its political future by banning Refah."