New president makes Turkey testing ground

September 02, 2007|By Trudy Rubin

The real test of whether Islam and democracy are compatible is taking place not in Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world but in Turkey.

Right now.

On Tuesday, a devout Muslim named Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a head scarf, was elected president of Turkey by the country's parliament. Turkey is a country where the presidency has traditionally been held by a secular figure, and women in head scarves are banned from government buildings.

Mr. Gul's election has unnerved many secular Turks. He is a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, which is commonly described as having "Islamic roots"; his new post will give the party control over laws, education and the appointment of judges. His rise has provoked deep opposition inside the Turkish military, which has zealously guarded the Turkish secular model that was established by modern Turkey's founder, the legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Shortly after the vote, I spoke to Bulent Gultekin, a top adviser to former Prime Minister Turgut Ozal and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "This is definitely a change, a kind of shock," he said on the phone from Istanbul. "Some people are depressed and concerned, and everyone is watching to see how things will turn out."

Mr. Gul's presidency will provide a fascinating test case of whether democracy can flourish where moderate Islamists hold power.

Mr. Gul started in politics as a member of a hard-line Islamist party banned by Turkey's courts in 1998. But he broke with that party, and with the concept that politics should be based on Islam. As Turkey's foreign minister over the last four years, he pressed for reforms that would enhance his country's bid to join the European Union.

When Justice and Development first nominated Mr. Gul for president in April, Turkey's military strongly objected; the Turkish Supreme Court upheld a technical objection by the parliamentary opposition. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for new elections, and Justice and Development sharply boosted its previous tally to nearly 47 percent of the total. In Turkey's multiparty system, this was a smashing triumph, and the party was able to get a parliamentary endorsement of Mr. Gul.

But did this vote mean the public wanted a religious government? "Absolutely not," said Henry Barkey, chairman of international relations at Lehigh University and a specialist on Turkey. Mr. Barkey said, "Turkey is a conservative country and [Justice and Development] a pro-business, conservative party," comparable to center-right Christian Democratic parties in Europe.

"Economics is the No. 1 reason that people voted" for Mr. Gul's party, Mr. Barkey said. The party's policies have created an economic boom, expanded exports and improved services. Meantime, secular opposition parties have had little positive to offer. Also, Turks of Kurdish origin voted heavily for the party because it has given them more rights.

Would Justice and Development, now that it controls both parliament and the presidency, try to impose more religious constraints on Turkey? Not at all, Mr. Barkey said; "Religiosity doesn't sell televisions." The new, pro-business middle class in the Turkish Anatolian heartland that supported the party may be traditionally religious, but it isn't looking for religious law.

However, many secular Turks still worry about whether Mr. Gul's conversion to moderation is wholehearted. The president has the power to veto laws: Will Mr. Gul give a blank check to legislation sponsored by his party? Secularists also are concerned about coming constitutional changes and fear hard-liners might seek more religious influence on schools.

The Turkish military chief, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, posted an ominous note on the military's Web site Monday, warning of "centers of evil" that "systematically try to corrode the secular nature of the Turkish republic."

This post has sparked speculation about whether the military might intervene, as it has several times since 1960.

Such a move would be tragic - and very, very premature. The process that led to Mr. Gul's selection was wholly democratic. Voters picked Justice and Development not because they want Shariah law but because self-defined secular parties failed to provide a convincing agenda.

Instead of waiting for military intervention to restore their fortunes, those parties should rejuvenate themselves so they can attract more votes.

Mr. Gul has a chance to demonstrate to Turks, and to the West, that Muslim religious values can be incorporated into democratic politics within a secular, constitutionally based system. His party's politics are more pro-Western than much of the secular opposition. The party rejects an Islamist label, describing itself as a conservative party of the center-right.

"This is a test of whether you can have a Muslim-Democratic party," says Mr. Barkey. The State Department and White House, which were cool to the Gul candidacy, should encourage such a political model. The results matter greatly not only to Turkey but also to Europe and to us.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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