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Turkey Searches its Secular Soul

Prepared by: Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: May 7, 2007

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In the debate over the coexistence of democracy and Islam in the Middle East, Turkey is commonly cited as a tantalizing model of stability, a sound balance of Islam and secular order. The outbreak of massive protests (Turkish Daily News) in response to the Turkish parliament’s support of a moderate Islamist presidential candidate underscore the delicateness of this balance. The demonstrators object (BBC) to an April 27 parliament vote in which a majority of parliamentarians supported Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s foreign minister, to be the country’s next president. Gul's opponents—including the country’s powerful military leadership—consider him to be an Islamist, antithetical to Turkey’s secularist constitution and the legacy of its iconic first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Gul withdrew his candidacy (FT) May 6, but tensions sparked by the episode seem unlikely soon to subside.

Tensions between Turkey’s secularists and moderate Islamists are nothing new, but the parliament vote touched a raw nerve. Multiple waves of protests, which initially broke out almost immediately after the poll, resulted in a police crackdown and over seven hundred arrests (NPR). Following a decision by Turkey’s highest court to annul the parliamentary vote, the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who supports Gul, said he would seek to overhaul (FT) the country’s electoral system and press for early general elections.

The irony is that neither Gul nor his dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) is particularly Islamist, says Morton I. Abramowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. Abramowitz points out that Gul is esteemed in Western circles as a conciliatory policymaker, and says it is “out of the question” that Turkey could become an extremist state, chalking up the current discord to the power of Ataturk’s legacy.

Still, the discord is real, as is the threat that it could undermine Turkey’s recent advancements, particularly in the economic realm. The Economist argues that the best bet for reassuring business leaders following this week’s turmoil might be for the AKP to give up on Gul as a presidential candidate and reschedule general elections for July (the AKP would likely retain its majority, and perhaps even expand it).

As for the country’s nationalist, anti-Islamist generals, a Wall Street Journal editorial argues their threats of a coup could be far more damaging to Turkey’s democracy than a moderate Islamist president. CFR’s Steven A. Cook points out, meanwhile, that European Union officials are partly to blame (IHT) for the secularist belligerence, having empowered Turkey’s military leaders by sending such overtly pessimistic signals about Turkey’s prospects of EU admittance that the generals feel they don’t have much to lose. Regardless of blame, the overwhelming imperative now is to reestablish unity (AP), and Erdogan is in the midst of a desperate push to do just that. A CFR Special Report on U.S.-Turkish relations argues that this stability is equally critical for the United States, which now more than ever is in need of a democratizing ally in the Middle East.

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