May 3, 2007
The long struggle between Turkey's generals - the self-appointed custodians of secularism - and the growing popularity of parties rooted in Islam has taken a dangerous turn. Both sides need to step back from the brink for the sake of Turkey's democracy and its hopes of joining the European Union.
The crisis came to a head after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-oriented party nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to be Turkey's next president, and the Constitutional Court overturned his election to the post by the Parliament. Gul's supporters see the decision as a desperate attempt by Turkey's secular elite to hold on to power.
As president, Gul would have had the power to nominate judges and university deans and to approve or veto nominations to the cabinet and other sensitive government positions.
Gul is a moderate who has kept Islam largely out of public policy during his four years in government. But his wife is known for wearing the Islamic head scarf in public, which offends the military's rigidly unyielding vision of secularism.
Army leaders had responded to his nomination with an unmistakable threat to overthrow the democratically elected government, a threat that must have influenced the Constitutional Court, which itself is part of the secular establishment of Turkey.
Turkish democracy has outgrown this kind of army tutelage, which has brought it four military coups since 1960.
The European Union rightly denounced the latest threat, but the Bush administration equivocated. Washington needs to tell Turkey's generals, through diplomatic and NATO channels, that a military coup would have highly damaging consequences.
While the generals' threats are out of line, some of the fears of Turkey's secularists are real and understandable. Turkish citizens, particularly Turkish women, enjoy legal rights, intellectual freedoms and economic opportunities that are regrettably rare elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Hundreds of thousands of Turks marched this weekend in Istanbul and Ankara to demonstrate their support for secularism and their anxieties about Gul.
Erdogan and Gul have done a good job of keeping their religion separate from their politics while instituting reforms to bring Turkey closer in line with European democratic standards. But given the disquiet that any religious inroads into politics creates in Turkey, they would do well to reassure secular Turks.
One useful step would be for the party to run a more politically and religiously inclusive set of candidates in parliamentary elections, which seem likely later this year.
During the Cold War, Turkey guarded Europe's frontier against Soviet expansionism. Today, it occupies an equally important position as a true Muslim democracy on Europe's frontier with the Islamic world. Washington has a clear interest in helping Turkey keep its democratic balance. It needs to leave Turkey's generals in no doubt where it stands.