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In Turkey, secularists escalate fight against ruling AKP

The country's highest court is weighing whether to allow a motion to shut down the party, saying its Islamic initiatives cross a constitutional line.

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Among the evidence the 162-page motion cites are numerous speeches of Mr. Erdogan's, as well as descriptions of municipal AKP actions, such as banning alcohol sales, and the party's recent successful parliamentary effort to lift a ban on the wearing of head scarves in universities.

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Why AKP's actions rile secularists

Turkey's secularists have long looked at religion as a hindrance to the country's project of modernization and Westernization, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.

"A lot of the attempts of the government and their public statements are aiming to make Turkey an Islamic country rather than a secular country. There are a lot of indications that we are going from a Western-style country to an Islamic state," says Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), which itself had once been shut down.

"We would prefer to compete with our political rivals in elections, but Turkey is a country where the law prevails. All political parties should respect the rules of the Constitution," he adds.

But some criticize the secularists of using the law to suit their political purposes. "This case may be seen as a political attempt by the state [secularist] elites to remove a democratically elected government from power," says Zuhtu Arslan, a constitutional law expert who has advised the government on the drafting of a new constitution.

"I don't think there is strong evidence to support the idea that the AKP party has become a center for activities against secularism," he says. "But this is a political case, not purely a legal one, so you cannot say the party will not be dissolved because the evidence is too weak."

Some even go so far as to call it a "judicial coup" – an alternative to calling in the military after the AKP won 47 percent of the vote in last summer's parliamentary election, despite efforts by its rivals to characterize it as trying to undermine Turkey's secular foundations.

The party was also able to get Mr. Gul, one of its founders, elected president by parliament, despite an effort by the powerful military to derail his candidacy.

"There is a struggle between the old elites and the new," says Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science at Ankara University.

"The state and the state bureaucracy, the old elites, are trying to protect their turf. They are losing ground. Even the judiciary, in this case, has become politicized," he says.

Erdogan and other AKP leaders have already promised to introduce constitutional reforms that would limit the judiciary's ability to close parties and that would allow the party to evade closure. Experts, though, believe that any constitutional reforms passed by the AKP would be challenged by its secularist opponents in parliament, setting the stage for continuing legal and political tensions.