Features
Erdogan (r) and Gull pose a threat to secularists.

Get out the vote

Islam | Turkey's upcoming election will be a test for democracy in the Muslim world

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

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.

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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.

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