* The New York Times editorial on Turkey

May 1, 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 last week after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-oriented party nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to be Turkey’s next president. In that position, Mr. Gul would have the power to nominate judges and university deans and to approve or veto nominations to the cabinet and other sensitive government positions. Mr. Gul is a moderate, but his wife is well known for wearing the Islamic head scarf in public, which offends the military’s rigidly unyielding vision of secularism. Army leaders responded to the nomination with an unmistakable threat to overthrow the democratically elected government.

Turkish democracy has outgrown this kind of army tutelage, which has brought it four military coups since 1960. The European Union has rightly denounced this latest threat. But the Bush administration has 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, 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 Mr. Gul.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul need to address these concerns. One useful step would be for Mr. Erdogan’s 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.