When Osama bin Laden aired his grievances in a taped speech after 9/11, he confused many by his reference to an 80-year-old catastrophe. Historians knew he was talking about the end of the Muslim Ottoman Empire's reign and the beginning of Western dominance. It also marked the birth of the only Muslim nation in history with a secular government: Turkey.
Now the secular nature of this unique nation is in jeopardy, according to the millions of Turks who rallied in the cities of Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir this past month. Brandishing giant posters of their secular icon, Ataturk, protesters cried out against what they believe to be an Islamic agenda by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Although the nation has prospered under the leadership of AKP during the past five years, an attempt by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to maneuver his man into the soon-to-be-vacant presidential seat ignited a storm of protest. Balance of power could be jeopardized with two devout Muslims running the country, opponents say. The military threatened to intervene and the secular-leaning Constitutional Court also weighed in, ruling that the parliament had not reached a quorum in the vote to affirm Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul because of a boycott by two parties. Gul was forced to drop his bid for the presidency.
In an effort to end the deadlock, parliamentary elections have been moved up from November to July 22, causing a flurry of vacation cancellations as politicians frantically plaster their faces and slogans across the nation's billboards and ad spaces. Opposition parties-threatening to unite against the AKP-have made their slogan clear: The AKP could use the democratic process to erode democracy. But AKP supporters say ultra-secularism poses more danger than Islamism and tout the party's economic success.
Turkey is a unique nation of strategic significance. Not only is it situated in the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, it also stands out as a beacon of democracy and modernity. While many neighboring countries in the Middle East believe faith and politics should merge, Turkey has gone to great lengths to ensure the opposite.
In 1923 military hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defied Ottoman Muslim traditions and established a secular state modeled after those in Europe and the prosperous West. He outlawed the fez and burqa, put an end to the Muslim Caliphate (believed to be the unifying factor among the Muslim community), gave women equal rights, and changed the alphabet from Arabic to Roman.
For the most part, his plan worked. Turkey quickly progressed to economic and social standards on par with Europe. Literacy improved from 10 percent in 1923 to 87 percent in 2005 and Turkey became a major player in the global marketplace.
For that progress Turkey is a "success story" among Muslim nations, according to Hillel Fradkin, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Islamic Studies. Turkey, he said, is a "model for making progress which very few of the others have been able to make." Its democratic government, prosperous economy, and integration into the global and modern world have propelled it ahead of its neighbors. "It would be a tremendous misfortune for itself and for the prospects of the Muslim world if it went in the other direction," Fradkin said.
But in an ironic twist of predictions, many of the recent strides toward democratic milestones and prosperity have come with an Islamic-anchored party in power. Erdogan's government-elected in 2002-has passed more than 800 democratic reforms, improved foreign investment, and increased economic growth by about 7 percent in the last few years. Recent polls suggest 70 percent of Turks would vote for Gul-the AKP's sole presidential nominee-if Erdogan had succeeded in passing a bill calling for the direct election of the president. Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer-a staunch promoter of secularism and former president of the Constitutional Court-vetoed the legislation, sending it back to parliament for reconsideration.
But vocal dissidents have concerns about where the party might eventually lead the nation. Formed as an offshoot of parties previously dissolved by the Turkish court system, the AKP and its leadership have a history of Islamist rhetoric. During a speech made while mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan proclaimed that "democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you get off." The Middle East Media Research Center lists more than two dozen Islamist statements by Erdogan, although most were made prior to the party's ascension to power in 2002.
A track record of trying to fill the upper echelons of government, education, and the justice system with Islamic conservatives has lent further credence to secularist worries. The outgoing president blocked many of those attempts, but an AKP crony alongside Erdogan could create a stream of Islamists in powerful positions.
Not everyone is leery of AKP's agenda. Many-including Jeremiah Mattix, a missionary in southeast Turkey-believe the party has sincerely transformed itself and has realized success in delivering what the population wants: "At first many were afraid that this was kind of an ultra-religious party and that it would negatively affect us. Well, not really. In fact, they've almost bent over backwards to help us so they wouldn't receive that kind of name or be perceived as being anti-Christian or anti-democratic." He believes a militant or nationalistic party in power might be worse and claims the recent slaying of three missionaries in Malatya, Turkey, was as much motivated by nationalistic fervor as it was Islamic extremism.
Jeff Wearden, an English teacher in Turkey who has had two of Erdogan's nieces in his classes, says he does not believe the AKP has a hidden agenda. He likens the division in Turkish politics to the rift in the United States between secularists and people of faith. He says there are very few "true Islamists" in Turkey and claims the educational system is an indicator of the nature of Turkey's Muslims, where religious high schools resemble parochial schools more than the madrassas in Pakistan where jihad is taught.
Turkey's bid to enter the European Union (EU) has been another popularity boost for the AKP. Although some accuse the party of using the bid for the sole purpose of gaining approval among secularists, others applaud the initiative.
A supporter of Turkey's acceptance into the EU, Fradkin believes Europe will eventually deny Turkey's admittance based not only on its composition (99 percent Muslim) but also on its size (a population of 70 million). However, he says the process itself has been beneficial for the nation. "What they've needed from the EU they are getting in the form of talks," Fradkin said. "It's pushed them in the direction of democratic reform, liberalization, and so forth."
Mattix concurs, noting the strides made in a region where six or seven years ago there were no legal means for church planting. His church in Diyarbakir was originally built as a residence but later allowed to organize as an association (although it is still not declared a Christian church) in part "because of EU pressure that has focused on the southeast in particular and forced the courts to really take notice of our situation and do us justice. They've allowed us to legalize our church-as legal as it gets."
Father Justo Lacunza Balda of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Vatican City said the nation has a ways to go before meeting European standards. "I think there are a lot of questions that need to be resolved," he said, listing among others the composition of the government, the rights of women, the issue of the veil, and the treatment of minorities.
Turkey's track record on minorities is less than pristine, with government-sanctioned oppression against Kurds improving only since the EU bid began, and evangelical Christians struggling to dodge accusations of radical behavior.
Further complicating matters is Turkey's military, which has proved to be a powerful instrument-but an undemocratic one, according to some analysts-in ensuring the nation's secular identity. It has removed four elected governments during the past 50 years, the most recent being the "soft coup" of 1997. The ousted party was deemed undemocratic at its core and dissolved the following year with the approval of the European Court of Human Rights.
Now military leaders are closely watching the AKP, which has maintained a relatively low profile in recent months-even halting any plans to hold rallies in its support. Image is everything for the teetering party, and a crowd of veiled women and Islamic-clad men could undo all it's worked for in the party's bid for both European and secularist approval.
But the party will have to do more than avoid rallies to convince AKP critics that its Islamic roots no longer reflect its true colors, as millions of Turks wonder if their secular nation can survive democracy. "No one really knows" which way the party will go if elected, admits Fradkin. "I've met a couple of them [AKP politicians], and although you can never be absolutely sure, I was impressed by their sincerity." Such guesswork is small comfort in this part of the world.
Religion and the state
Timeline of events in Turkey
2001: Turkey's National Security Council issues a ruling that groups missionary activity with communist and Islamic terrorism as national threats.
2002: Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party, the AKP (Party of Justice and Development), gains power, but a prior charge of inciting religious hatred prevents him from holding political office; the law is quickly changed and he is soon named prime minister.
2006: Catholic priest Andrea Santoro is murdered in Trabzon by a Muslim youth.
Jan. 19: Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was convicted in 2005 of insulting Turkish identity, is murdered in Istanbul.
April 18: Three Christian men are brutally tortured and murdered in Malatya.
April 27: Turkey's parliament nominates Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the presidency.
April 29: About 700,000 people demonstrate in Istanbul against Gul.
April 30: In a televised speech, Erdogan warns, "We must be careful not to harm the climate of stability we have reached."
May 1: Police clash with leftist demonstrators in Istanbul; 700 people are arrested.
May 2: Erdogan's call to move parliamentary elections to July 22 is approved.
May 6: Gul withdraws his candidacy for presidency.
May 25: President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoes constitutional reforms to allow for the head of state to be elected by the people rather than the legislature.
May 29: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew says Turkey's Christians should enjoy the same rights as Muslims: "We do not only want the freedom to celebrate our faith within our churches, but also the recognition of all civil rights, just as our fellow Muslims in Turkey."
-compiled by Kristin Chapman
In the aftermath of the horrific murders of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey, several pastors began publicly questioning the accounts of extensive torture being circulated across the web and in Turkish media outlets ("No turning back," May 5, 2007). The men were not tortured to the extent some claim, they said, and initial media accounts were likely crafted to scare Christians across the nation. Email campaigns concerning the murders quickly spread both true and false accounts.
"In the beginning, many people really wanted to get the news out to the world quickly, but unfortunately, they grabbed the sensationalized stories from the media and just passed it along. Later the media itself actually changed a lot of those stories," Jeremiah Mattix said.
Mattix is a missionary serving with a church in Diyarbakir and frequently fellowshipped with Tilmann Geske, Necati Aydin, and Ugur Uksel (left, from top). The three men were in close contact with their accused murderers and were led to believe the young Muslims were interested in the Christian faith.
Mattix claims that the body he saw did not show signs of extensive torture and that fellow pastors who examined the bodies of Geske and Aydin saw only a few knife wounds, not the hundreds reported in the press: "Did they do it on purpose? It's hard to tell. Did the doctor exaggerate that first report on purpose or was the government behind it? Was it a personal thing or was it the media that misunderstood the facts and then passed them on?"
Details surrounding the murders are still sketchy since official autopsy and police reports have not yet been released to the public. And where misinformation and not enough details have been part of the underlying problem, too much information has been the latest source of frustration for local believers. According to Compass Direct, Turkish newspapers recently leaked portions of secret police interrogations and the name and location of a Christian who was supposedly next in line on the killers' hit list. The newspapers also listed several wild claims about the three slain men, presenting them as facts and furthering fears of a vast Christian conspiracy in Turkey.
The pastors of Izmir Protestant Church recently retracted the detailed and widely circulated account of the men's torture from the church website, explaining that not all of the men "were tortured to the extent initially reported." But they have kept the descriptive testimony of Dr. Murat Ugras, whose assessment of Uksel's wounds attests to the likelihood of more torture rather than less: "He had more stab wounds than we could count. That torture had been intended was very apparent. His buttocks, his testicles, his rectum, and his lower and middle back were chopped with dozens of knife stabs. His fingers were repeatedly sliced to the bone lengthwise." The church leaders WORLD communicated with did not see Uksel's body and could not verify or refute the report because his body was immediately taken by relatives for burial.
Mattix has endeavored to publicize what he believes is a more accurate version of events but says he doesn't want believers in Turkey to lose sight of the sacrifice of these men and the potential for the church to be emboldened by their martyrdom.
"The whole incident is being pulled in the wrong direction. People are arguing about the details and exaggerations and missing the big point: We have three brothers who were killed for their faith and were willing to die for it."