Turkey's 21st-century Ataturk?

Turkey's prime minister has a chance to move his country to a new era of religious tolerance.

Turkey is proving that Islam and democracy can coexist – so far. On July 22, elections that could have turned nasty, didn't. And Turkey's Islamic ruling party was returned to power in parliament with even greater support. Nonetheless, the issue of mosque and state still towers like a minaret.

Just this spring, it threatened to tear Turkey apart. The ruling party nominated a devout Muslim, the foreign minister, to be president, but street protests erupted over the fact that his wife wears a head scarf – which is forbidden in public buildings under the constitution. The military hinted at a coup.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads the mildly Islamic party of Justice and Development, or AKP, wisely avoided a potential government collapse by instead calling early parliamentary elections. Now he's back in power with a stronger AKP than ever – this time with nearly 47 percent of Turks behind it, up from 34 percent in 2002.

Religion aside, it's not hard to see why the AKP did well. Under its rule, the economy has grown by an average 7 percent a year, chronic inflation has been tamed, and foreign investment is at an all-time high. For the first time since the 1950s, Turks are no longer leaving the country in droves for jobs in Europe.

And speaking of Europe, the AKP has doggedly pursued European Union membership, adopting legal and military reforms. It's also made overtures to the minority Kurds, and Mr. Erdogan looks to be exploring a diplomatic solution to attacks from Kurd terrorists in Iraq.

But of course, it's not possible to put religion aside. More than half the country did not vote for the AKP. Many fear it has a secret agenda to gradually Islamicize modern-day Turkey. They're already writing the obituary of the country founded by the remarkable Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a secularist in a Muslim world, who introduced the Roman alphabet and women's suffrage.

Erdogan has tried to calm these fears by emphasizing a moderate AKP. His election-day remarks were sensitive and reassuring. "Our joy cannot be, and should not be, the sorrow for those who do not think like us," he said. He underscored the "common values" uniting Turks in a "democratic, secular, and law-based social state."

But it is actions, not words, that will win over skeptics. Erdogan's first chance at that will be the unfinished business of the presidential nomination. He's hinted at compromise, and he would be wise to select someone acceptable to the secularists.

Despite having just had an election sparked by a dispute over Islam, Turks did not hear a serious discussion of the role of religion and state. The opposition stooped to fear-mongering about fundamentalists, and Erdogan avoided the subject – or denied the label.

This public discussion, however, must occur. More Turks are identifying themselves as observant Muslims (nearly 50 percent do so). Many want more rights – not just head scarves in official buildings, but equal treatment for those who attend religious schools.

This week Erdogan said, "It will be our basic priority to attain and surpass the level of modern civilization pointed at by hero ... Ataturk."

It is his challenge to found the next Turkey, one that equally respects the interests of secularists and Muslims.

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