Democratizing Islam in Turkey

If ever the twain of East and West have met, it's in Turkey. On Sunday, they clashed head-on.

In a nation of 65 million that straddles Europe and the Near East, one that juggles Islam and democracy and debates whether women should wear head scarves, voters have propelled to power a new political party rooted in fundamentalist Islam but whose greenest leaves are pro-Western, secular, and above all, uncorrupted by Turkey's unpopular political elite.

The election saw the Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, take two-thirds of the seats in parliament, giving it a chance to rewrite Turkey's Constitution, and roll back the military's backroom influence.

The victory of a reformist party only 14 months old could bring about the biggest changes since Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and forced Muslims to adopt Western ways, like monogamy.

It also sets the stage for Turkey to join the European Union, solve the crisis with Greece over divided Cyprus, serve as a model for other Muslim countries in balancing mosque and state, and offer up clean government to Turks (the party's initials mean "cleanness" and "light").

Those are just some of the new possibilities as a result of AKP's upset victory. Now the harsher realities:

• AKP's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, only recently changed his stripes from Islamist to "Muslim Democrat" (like Europe's Christian Democrats). When he was Istanbul's mayor, he made statements like this – "The world's 1.5 billion Muslims are waiting for the Turkish people to rise up" – which got him banned from office. He needs to let someone else be prime minister and, like his party, still needs to prove the new secular bent isn't just a guise for eventually eroding Turkey's modern ways.

• Despite its big majority in parliament, the party failed to win 65 percent of voters, and inherits an economy in dire straits.

• A US war on Iraq, relying on air bases in Turkey, will test AKP's alleged pro-Western stance.

• To win EU membership, the AKP must greatly improve Turkey's human rights, especially the treatment of Kurds, press, and dissidents. That means pushing the military further back into the barracks.

Europe and the US should welcome this historic shift, and support the AKP's secular policies, especially its promises to the poor. Democracy and Islam can coexist, and the more the twain meet, the better.

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