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Get out the vote

"Get out the vote" Continued...

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

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.

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