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.
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.
One woman at the protest predicted chaos if Gul were elected. "People are fed up – this is the end of the road for [the Islamists]. People just don't trust them," says the woman, a professional who brought her mother and danced to the music while waving a Turkish flag.
But political language about threats to the motherland have been exaggerated at times by politicians seeking to breed fear of Islamic rule that has grown from grassroots efforts to help the poor. Secular elites have not provided alternatives.
Professor Narli says that "there is an Islamization of society, but when I look at people with Islamic backgrounds and Islamists, they are changing." "In the past, they were more uniform in the way they dressed, in the way they behaved.... But today I see diversity.
"They try to adopt modern and Western trends [and] try to make a new synthesis," adds Narli. "What they want is a ... contemporary life. They don't want to cover themselves ... [or] face pressure."
The government pushed back against the General Staff on Saturday. It was "inconceivable in a democratic state based on the rule of law" for the military to trump civilian rule, said Justice Minister Cemil Cicek.
The European Union, which has looked with a degree of favor on AKP reforms and economic growth, added its voice Saturday. Gul has pushed Turkey's EU candidacy hard. But part of the EU program is firm civilian control over the military –a requirement that has riled the generals.
"This is a test case if the ... armed forces respect democratic secularism and the democratic arrangement of civil-military relations," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn in Brussels.
The secular standard was laid down decades ago by Ataturk. When a British journalist asked him about his own faith, Ataturk answered: "I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea."Islamic politics began moving into the social fabric in the 1970s, surged after Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, and was then shepherded – always with grassroots activists and social help programs – by Necmettin Erbakan. His Welfare Party – with members Erdogan and Gul –came to power in 1996. But after one year of uncompromising rhetoric that promised future Islamic domination of Turkey, whether the path was "sweet or bloody," Mr. Erbakan was forced out by the military.
In 1998, Welfare was outlawed, but some of its remnants formed the more moderate AKP.
"Other parties believe the state is holy, but we don't believe that," Gul told the Monitor in 1996. "Turkey is 99 percent Muslim and so I reflect the values of my people. US senators do the same thing. But if we [Islam-minded officials] are pressed into a corner, then of course we will change our feelings."The Army, Gul said then, "will get used to us." But it did not. "They are not the secular elite‚ they are anti-religious," Gul complained in an interview in 1998. "They want to create another religion, which is atheism. It's the secular people who are not tolerant, and they want to impose their lifestyle here."