In the big wide world, democratic Muslim Turkey serves as an essential bridge between Islam and the West. Turkey has brokered talks between Israel and Syria, and between the US and Iran. It's aiming to join the European Union. But now it needs to do some serious bridge-building at home.
This NATO country of 71 million people has its geographic toe in Europe and its heel next to some of the hottest trouble spots in the Middle and Near East. For months, though, it's been running pell-mell toward its own Muslim-Western chasm. Thankfully, last week's surprise decision by Turkey's highest court pulled it back.
The constitutional court decided not to ban the popular governing party, the AKP, which is mildly Islamist. But 10 of its 11 judges did find the party to be "a center of antisecular activity" and stripped it of half of its state funding.
Essentially, the court has put Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his party on probation. No more creep of Islam into the public sphere, such as allowing women to wear head scarves at public university – a measure the court struck down earlier this year. The court was holding fast to Turkey's secularist tradition, its separation of mosque and state, as established by modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The no-ban decision further deepened Turkish democracy. Twenty-four parties have been banned in the past, but by refraining this time, the court was recognizing the voice of voters. Impressed with the AKP's strong economic record, charismatic leader, and populist message, Turks overwhelmingly returned the party to power in elections last year. Finally, it seems, Turkey has advanced beyond military – and judicial – coups.
Yet the court's ruling leaves the tension between Islam and secularism in public life as taut as ever.
The contrasts are apparent on the street – women in tank tops next to those in black veils. And it's apparent in the law, which allows abortion but bans the prime minister's wife from a military facility because she wears a head scarf. Last year, mass protests broke out over the Islam-secular divide.
This tension has been building for years, as Turkish Muslims have become more devout. It will take years to work out. But the prime minister can now help his country begin to move past this polarization.
Perhaps the single most important step Mr. Erdogan can take is to refocus on EU accession talks. Through its membership requirements, the EU is a powerful reforming tool – economically, as Turkey has already discovered, but also in human rights and freedoms. Further progress there could protect Turkish religious – and secular – expression.
The EU, too, can more solidly support Turkey's long-term membership bid and reform efforts. It should remember that European standards have allowed Christian Democratic parties to thrive in public life. Why not Muslim ones?
Other steps need to be taken. For instance, a new Turkish Constitution of proper checks and balances can span the trust gap with something stronger than the will of the divided groups themselves.
If Erdogan reaches out to all Turks and begins to narrow the Islam-secular gap at home, Turkey can be that much better as a bridge-builder in the world.