Islam on the ballot: Turkey's test

A presidential bid revealed the fault line between secular nationalism and conservative Islamic views.

For a nation that spans two continents – Europe and Asia – and two worlds – the secular and the religious – Turkey is accustomed to tectonic tensions over its identity. But the recent political temblor over the disputed presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister with an Islamist past, revealed just how critical the democratic fault line is between Turkey's secular core and its Muslim masses.

Recently, the Turkish Army continued its tradition of weighing in on the side of secularism by warning against Mr. Gul's candidacy. Secular-minded protesters echoed that sentiment in demonstrations in Istanbul. After failing the second time to gain approval in parliament, Gul withdrew his candidacy Sunday. But his replacement is likely to face the same dynamic in elections scheduled for July 22. Nevertheless, Gul's political party, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains popular, especially among Turks who live in rural areas.

Turkey's anxious European and Arab neighbors will be watching the election results closely. If carried out carefully, they could go far toward healing the split and steering Turkey on a course of moderation and possible future membership in the elite club of European democracies, the European Union (EU).

Although the West may regard democracy and secularism as essentially two halves of a whole, this isn't necessarily the case in Turkey. Since the pre-World War I Ottoman Empire was swept away, national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's military victories and profound social and economic reforms set Turkey on a decidedly secular and Westernizing, modernizing path.

But this secular nationalism has become mixed with deeply conservative Islamic views in the vast rural hinterland, outside the rapidly growing and modernizing cities, stronghold of Turkey's secular-minded urbanites.

It's essential to keep in mind that Turkey's armed forces, especially its senior chiefs, are a key player, if not the key player in today's drama, as well as in past crises. Turks remember four regime changes when the Army crushed elected Islamist politicians.

A 1960 Army coup involved the brutal execution of prime minister Adnan Menderes and two of his senior ministers, and imprisonment of many Menderes followers. Army pressure removed governments considered to be anti-Kemalist in 1971 and 1980. In 1997, the ousted prime minister was Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist-minded technocrat.

There are two other crucial points about the Turkish armed forces. One is that they have clung to Turkey's NATO membership and US supply and training relationships, despite governmental opposition to American policies, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq or US congressional condemnation of Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974, which resulted in a brief embargo of US arms to Turkey.

The other point is a critical difference between the Turkish military brass and other contemporary, politically minded armies: Turkish Army chiefs, once they effected regime change, have never clung to power for long. Unlike Greek colonels who seized power and ended parliamentary demo­cracy between 1967 and 1974 in the name of slogans such as "A Greece of Christian Greeks," the Turkish military avoids antidemocratic slogans. It stresses keeping religion out of politics.

There's also an important difference between the Turkish military and armies in neighboring Arab states. Military rulers such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser or Syria's Hafez Assad were unable permanently to impose the secular reforms they advocated.

Islamist opposition to Mr. Nasser, including his attempted murder by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, was suppressed by executions and imprisonments. An Islamist rising against Mr. Assad in the Syrian city of Hama was brutally crushed by the Syrian military, with the loss of at least 15,000 lives.

EU spokesmen have voiced warnings that Turkish Army interference in democratic processes could further endanger Turkey's already shaky prospects for entering the EU. The US State Department has issued somewhat more muted, cautionary statements about preference for civilian control of the military.

At present, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – Gul's chief backer – and his AK Party associates advocate amending the Turkish Constitution so that presidents would be elected by popular vote instead of by successive parliamentary polls, as at present. If the vote for president went to the people, Gul has said he would still run as the AK Party candidate.

The question many Turks and their friends abroad now ask is what might the Army and its Kemalist-minded civilian allies do if Gul and other AK candidates win popular elections to regain control of parliament, elect a president, or both? An answer to this would show the world whether Turkey has truly become a mature democracy, true to the traditions of Mr. Ataturk, its revered founding father.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East for more than 40 years. His latest book is "An Alliance Against Babylon: The US, Israel and Iraq."

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