[With differences in text from the NY Sun version]
My visit to Istanbul this week comes in the midst of the greatest challenge to the Turkish secular republic since its creation in 1923.
Founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, the republic came into existence at about the high-water mark of Western confidence, when it appeared that European ways would become the global template. Atatürk imposed a dizzying array of changes, including European laws, the Latin alphabet, the Gregorian calendar, personal last names, hats instead of fezzes, monogamy, Sunday as the day of rest, a ban on dervishes, the legal right to drink alcohol, and Turkish as a liturgical language.
Many reforms took root; going back to the Arabic script or discarding last names is inconceivable. That said, the country has generally reverted to Islamic ways. Increased religious instruction in the schools and more state-funded mosques are complemented by more women taking on head-scarves.
Several factors account for this development: the predictable reaction against Atatürk's excesses; Turkey's greater democratization, which gave the masses a chance to express themselves; the higher demographic rate of Anatolians, generally cooler to Atatürk's changes; and the Islamist surge that began in the mid-1970s.
This surge translated into a substantial Islamic representation in the Grand National Assembly, beginning as a single seat in the 1960s and then – aided by Turkish electoral peculiarities – reaching a nearly two-thirds majority today. Islamic parties have twice controlled the prime ministry, in 1996-97 and since 2002. The first time, Necmettin Erbakan's headstrong personality and overt Islamist program prompted the military, guardian of Atatürk's traditions, to oust him from power within a year.
After Erbakan's collapse, a former lieutenant, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, founded Justice and Development (or AKP), now the governing party. Learning from the 1996-97 fiasco, Erdoğan and his team took a much more cautious approach to Islamization. Also, they displayed competence at governing, handling well the economy, the European Union, Cyprus, and other matters.
But last month Erdoğan reached too far in picking Abdullah Gül, his close associate, to run for the republic's presidency. In a fast-paced sequence of events, Gül failed to get the necessary votes, the Constitutional Court voided the election, millions of secularists took to the streets, the military hinted of a coup, and Erdoğan dissolved parliament. Both it and a new president will soon be voted on.
Questions abound: Can the AKP again win a majority of seats? Failing that, can it form a ruling coalition? Will it succeed in installing one of its own as president?
More fundamentally, what are the AKP leadership's intentions? Did it, having witnessed Erbakan's fate, retain a secret Islamist program and simply learn to disguise its Islamist goals? Or did it actually give up on those goals and accept secularism?
These questions of intent can only be answered speculatively. Judging whether the AKP has a hidden agenda, I concluded after a trip to Turkey in mid-2005, resembles a "sophisticated intellectual puzzle," with persuasive evidence in both directions. That remains the case, I find on this visit two years later. There's just more data to process and interpret.
Each Turk must judge the AKP for himself, as must key foreign governments. If the polls show Turkish voters still quite undecided, foreign leaders have opted in Erdoğan's favor. The Council of Europe condemned military intervention and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has gone further, praising the AKP for "pulling Turkey west toward Europe" and specifically endorsed its efforts to make Turkey's laws conform to Europe's in the areas of individual and religious freedom.
But her statement ignores AKP efforts to apply the Islamic law by criminalizing adultery and creating alcohol-free zones, not to speak of its privileging Islamic courts over secular courts, its reliance on dirty money, and its bias against religious minorities as well as the persecution of political opponents. Further, European Union membership offers the AKP a huge side-benefit: by reducing the political role of Turkey's arch-secular military leadership, paradoxically, it eases the way to apply Islamic laws. Would the AKP's caution outlast its neutering the officer corps? Finally, Secretary Rice ignores AKP-induced tensions in U.S.-Turkish relations.
But her superficial analysis has one inadvertent benefit: given Turkey's fervid anti-Americanism these days, American support for the AKP might actually cause it to lose votes. Such cynical humor aside, Washington should stop bolstering the AKP and instead side with its natural allies, the secularists.