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Military sharpens debate in Turkey

A rally Sunday backed a secular Turkey. The military weighed in, warning against Islamization.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2007


Turning part of Istanbul into a sea of red with Turkish flags yesterday, hundreds of thousands of secular Turks protested the possible election of a pro-Islamic president.

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The massive turnout came after vocal warnings from Turkey's most secular institutions – the Army and presidency – that parliamentary approval of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as head of state would undermine the staunchly secular nation forged by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

The political clash between secularists and Islamists has become critical, analysts say, and taps into one of the deepest faultlines of modern Turkish society. The entrance of the military, which ousted an elected Islamic government a decade ago and mounted three coups in decades before that, brought condemnation from the European Union and has intensified debate about having all strategic civilian arms of government under a pro-Islamic party.

"Today is really a defining moment in Turkey," says Nilufer Narli, an expert on political Islam at Bahcehir University. "There is a polarization, a secular-Islamist conflict, but today it is sharper."

Protesters Sunday, shouting that the presidential palace was "closed to imams," echoed a rally in Ankara two weeks ago.

"Some people say this is a crisis, but it is not. If radical Islam comes, it will be a crisis," said Bashar Unal, a textile businessman who brought his father to the rally. "We are Turkey. We do not want to be like Iran."

Mr. Gul's background is steeped in political Islam, but he has often spoken moderately. Nearly a decade ago, when Islamic hard-liners wanted to topple Turkey's secular tradition, Gul told the Monitor he envisioned the "Islamic head scarf and the miniskirt walking hand in hand."

But the military has long moved forcefully to "defend" Turkey against existential threats from encroaching Islam. And in a midnight message Friday, the General Staff told Turks – and the popular Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gul's closest ally of the same party – that it would act.

"It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are a side in this debate and are a staunch defender of secularism," the military statement read. "The Turkish armed forces will display its position and attitudes when it becomes necessary. No one should doubt that."

Vowing to fulfill its "lawful duty" to protect the state, the military said the "Islamic reactionary mentality that is against the Republic [is] expanding in scope."

"It's about time, but they waited too long," said one young man about the military's statement. "The [Islamists] have really crossed a line."

In a vote boycotted by the opposition on Friday, parliament narrowly failed to elect Gul, the sole candidate. President Sezer, who has vetoed Islamic legislation in the past and refused to confirm a string of AKP appointments, warned that since its founding, Turkey's "political regime has never been under this much threat."

A second vote is set for Wednesday. If it fails to produce a two-thirds majority, a third vote will probably succeed on May 9, when only an absolute majority is required. But if the constitutional court annuls the first vote, Turkey could be forced into early parliamentary elections, now slated for November.