Worries About Turkey Are 'Fact-Free Paranoia'

Over the past five years, President Bush has made various efforts to reform the Arab world. They have all stumbled over one enormous obstacle. In the region, the people who win elections are not democrats. They seem to believe in elections (at least as long as they win), but not in the individual rights, laws and traditions that create a genuine liberal democracy. The administration has pushed for elections in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, only to find that religious fundamentalists have triumphed in most of them. Except in Turkey. In Turkey the popular ruling party, the AK—despite some background with political Islam—has proved to be the most open, modern and liberal political movement in Turkey's history. That extraordinary achievement may now be in peril because of the overreaction of Turkey's secular (and unelected) establishment.

All the political and legal maneuvering aside, the issue at stake is very simple. Does the AK Party have a hidden Islamic agenda that it would implement once its nominee for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, attained that office? I put that question to the urbane Gul, currently the foreign minister, during a phone conversation last week. "No," he said flatly. "But why listen to what I'm saying now? Look at what we have done in government for four and a half years. We have worked harder than any party in Turkey's history to make this country a member of the European Union. We have passed hundreds of laws that have freed up the economy and strengthened human rights. Why would we do this if we were trying to Islamize Turkey?"

I asked him whether he thought Turkey should adopt Sharia, Islamic law, which is a goal of almost all Islamist parties around the world. "No," he replied. "There is no possibility of introducing Sharia in Turkey. We are harmonizing Turkey's laws with the EU's standards in every area. Is this Sharia?"

Gul is right. The secular establishment's suspicions about the AK are best described by Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyul as "fact-free paranoia." The Army memorandum accusing the AK of Islamic tendencies points as evidence of an Islamic agenda to two isolated cases where headmasters allowed students to sing Qur'anic verses and celebrate Muhammad's birthday on Turkey's Republic Day. That's not exactly a sign of an impending theocracy.

The other issue that keeps coming up is the headscarf, which under Turkey's coercive secularism is actually banned in public buildings. Gul's wife wears one, and Turkey's elites are in a tizzy that a man who will occupy Kemal Ataturk's position has a wife in a headscarf. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's daughters felt similarly and went to Indiana University, where they had the freedom to wear whatever they wanted—unlike in Turkey.

"I have no intention of forcing or even asking anyone to wear a headscarf," Gul explained. "It's a matter of personal choice. Not all the women in my family wear them. If I don't ask my family to do it, why would I ask others? In fact, were I to try to force Turks to wear headscarves, there would be a negative reaction from my own family."

The crucial player now will be the Turkish armed forces, which have deposed four governments over the past five decades. I asked Gul what he thought their attitude was going to be as events unfolded. "I have talked with the Army chiefs several times in the last week," he said. "I am sure that they will respect the democratic process. [Interfering with it] is not any part of the Army's role in a modern democracy. But I understand that they have concerns, and we will work things out together. As a Turk I am proud of the armed forces. And as foreign minister I have had excellent dealings with them."

I asked Gul whether Islam and democracy were compatible. "Of course," he said. "Turkey is a Muslim country. But that doesn't mean we should mix Islam and politics. It would be bad for both." Rejecting any comparison between the AK and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, he said, "We are not an Islamic party. Religion is a matter for individuals, not politics. The Turkish Constitution speaks of a secular state, and we agree with that.

"I don't like Islamic political parties," Gul added. "But as Muslim societies democratize, you will see greater religious expression everywhere in society. It is a consequence of democracy. People in Muslim countries are devout, socially conservative ... You cannot fight against this. You have to understand it and allow some expression of this belief."

The European Union and Condoleezza Rice have warned Turkey's generals to respect the democratic process. My guess is that they will, and not only because of outside pressure. Over the past five years, Turkey has gone through a quiet revolution and is now an increasingly genuine liberal democracy. The secular demonstrators against the AK held up signs that said NO SHARIA, NO COUP. That is what most Turks seem to want. They will not accept being treated like denizens of a banana republic.

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