Turkish case revives secular vs. Islam debate

Court will hear arguments on whether to shutter Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party.

Turkey's highest court decided unanimously to hear a closure case this week against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for "anti-secular activities," heralding months of political uncertainty and casting more doubt on Turkey's chances to join the European Union.

Scorned by critics as a "judicial coup" aimed at damaging a party with Islamist roots that won a landslide victory in polls last summer, the Constitutional Court decided this week also to rule on a ban of 71 AKP members, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.

Analysts say the dramatic steps yield multiple interpretations. They expose the weaknesses of Turkish democracy, which in turn weaken the country's bid for EU membership. They are also the latest chapter in the battle between a hard-line secular elite that consider Turkey's tradition of fierce secularism under threat and the popular AKP that has been making religious changes in the name of increasing freedoms. And raised anew are existential questions about the role of Islam in modern Turkey.

The AKP is fighting back with a series of constitutional changes to make party closure more difficult, after recent steps that have included controversially ending the decade-old ban on head scarves for women at universities.

"It may look like it's about democracy versus an establishment, but in fact it is about two groups fighting over who can take control of the state," says Fadi Hakura, an analyst at Chatham House in London. "It is a power struggle, tinged with a religious ideology in the background."

Whatever the result, the court's decision "has already hurt chances of Turkey's entry into the EU," says Mr. Hakura, "because it indicates very clearly to the skeptics of Turkish accession [in Europe] that Turkey is incapable of adapting to European standards, European norms of democracy and human rights, and that its politics are more akin to those of the Middle East than those of Europe."

The AKP effort to make Mr. Gul president a year ago prompted a series of massive anti-AKP rallies. Then came a warning from the Turkish military, which, as the country's historic "guarantor of secularism," has mounted a string of coups since the 1960s and is meant to give itself over to civilian rule in line with EU requirement. The crisis climaxed in an election last July, in which the AKP won with 47 percent of the vote.

Turkish newspapers Thursday reported that several passages of the 162-page indictment put forward by the Supreme Court of Appeals chief prosecutor had been taken directly from books published by Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party. The document also refers to news stories about AKP activities that were later proven false, the media noted.

Decrying a potential "dictatorship of fascist judges," columnist Bulent Kenes of the English-language Today's Zaman newspaper wrote: "The current judicial mechanism is sacred, unaccountable, unquestionable and uncriticizable according to this unbridled but influential minority, which controls it and which fears the public like a ghost."

But analysts say several AKP measures are raising red flags for some Turks, who voted in favor of the party's proven ability to bring economic stability and its EU outlook, but not for more Islam-flavored rule. "Closure of a party with popular support creates a crisis of democracy, but here the question is whether the party has violated the principles of secularism and democracy," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

Many subtle changes have been taking place that Mr. Narli says mark a new "emphasis on strong religious morality" in Turkey. They stretch from schoolbooks that have turned Pinocchio into a praying Muslim to ending the ban on head scarves, which is cast by the AKP as enhancing individual freedom of choice.

"In the past, university students were indifferent to the head-scarf issue [and] many in fact said it must be free and girls should have the freedom to wear the head scarf," says Narli. "But after the tension and polarization created [by the government], now the students ... are politicized and worried that freeing the head scarf will give freedom to some people to put pressure on others" to wear it.

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