Turkey wrestles with Islam's place

Turkey's prime minister must build trust in issues of mosque and state.

Imagine trying to ban a fairly elected ruling party, which won in a landslide only last year. Ludicrous. Yet such an attempt is now before Turkey's highest court on the grounds that secular government should not push Islam on society.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that the court will decide to hear this case, which was brought March 14 by Turkey's chief prosecutor. And if it does, it may favor the prosecutor, who charges the Islamic Party of Justice, or AKP, with subverting the country's secular Constitution. Since the 1970s, the court has shuttered four pro-Islamic parties.

The separation of mosque and state is an existential issue for this NATO member that bridges Europe and the Middle East. Although a mostly Muslim country, modern Turkey is built on the secularist model of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who introduced the Roman alphabet and women's suffrage after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Turkey stands as proof that democracy and Islam can coexist, and do so in a vibrant economy. Were that not of note in the region, Iran's theocracy would not have tried to stem a flood of Iranian visitors to Turkey by limiting Turkish tourism advertising last year.

But the indictment accuses the ruling party of "taking gradual steps" toward a society that "takes religion as its reference."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose mildly Islamist AKP has governed since 2002, denied the charges Sunday, stating that the distance between the AKP and fundamentalism is "like the difference between day and night." He reaffirmed his loyalty to secularism.

The problem is the secularists simply don't believe him. Trust is at the heart of this issue, and Mr. Erdogan must focus on building trust.

Since the AKP came to power, Turkey's per capita GDP has more than doubled and legal reforms have enabled it to begin membership talks with the European Union. But that doesn't remove suspicions of a hidden Islamist agenda. Erdogan's government had to step back from an attempt to criminalize adultery. Last week's indictment cites AKP-led neighborhoods that have banned alcohol.

The biggest complaint, however, is a new law that lifts a ban on women's head scarves in universities – a hugely divisive issue which is also before the high court.

Erdogan may feel no compulsion for trust building. Were an election held today, his party would likely best its vote from last summer. Erdogan has also won nationalist points by pursuing Kurdish terrorists in northern Iraq.

The devout prime minister has erred – not in allowing women to cover their heads if they want to, but in pursuing this freedom without moving just as quickly on democratic reforms that reassure (a complaint from the EU as well).

The EU is pushing for greater freedom of political speech in Turkey and a new constitution that improves rights for ethnic and religious minorities. Erdogan should act soon. He should also assure women that those who don't wear head scarves will be just as protected as those who do.

Turkey is struggling to find the right balance between its secular tradition and an increasingly devout Muslim population. Erdogan can help by taking more steps toward democratic freedom while he tries to secure greater religious freedom for fellow Muslims.

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