Oriental experts are asking themselves whether there is a secret government agenda to impose Islamic law in Turkey. But are the secularists merely stirring up fears about political Islam to win more power? In a debate fueled by suspicion and acrimony, there are no clear-cut answers. But given Turkey’s geographical location, it is hardly surprising that the nation is susceptible to the threat of radical Islam being imported across its south-eastern borders.
When the modern Turkish republic was born in 1923, its founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk pushed through, what was arguably the most radical program of secularization ever attempted in any Muslim society, before or since. Although himself a distinguished general, Atatürk was in many ways ahead of some leaders in the democratic West. For example, women won the right to vote in Turkey already back in 1934, well before female suffrage came to France in 1944 or Italy 1946! Having introduced Latin Alphabet, instead of Arabic and replaced the Muslim Sharia with a modern code composed of Swiss and Italian law – Turkey became a secular republic replacing centuries, under strict caliphate rule.
No wonder that Western optimists regard Turkey as a model for other Muslim societies – a pro-Western state, practicing multi-party democracy, which has turned its back on Muslim radicalism. But is all this about to change and might secular Turkey to return into the Islamic fold? Sofar, in spite of the recent mass demonstrations, in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets, few expect a scenario, in which Turkey turns its back on the West and aligns itself with Islamic governments such as the one in neighboring Iran. Turkey has a strong secular tradition, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government – for all its Islamic credentials – has bound its reputation to the bid for the coveted entry into the European Union.
But analysts warn, that the Turks are culturally and historically Muslim, living in a predominantly Muslim region and this turbulent environment, which is currently undergoing capacious changes, may not by-pass Turkey’s society after all. The country is already polarized between, on the one hand, pious and sometimes politically active Muslims and, on the other, the secular urban elite, which includes the powerful military establishment, the so-called “Guardian of Atatürk’s” secular legacy. In fact, Turkey’s armed forces have already ousted four governments since 1960, but only a single one against an Islamic party. But the military leadership, under its present commander-in-chief General Mehmet Yasar Büyükanit, 67, suspect the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 54, being a moderate Islamist in radical disguise. Erdogan, a semi-professional footballer in his younger days, became the leader of Turkey’s Islamic Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP). He was jailed for four months in 1999 on a charge of inciting religious hatred after reciting an Islamic poem with the line: “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, believers our soldiers.” But as prime minister, since March 2003, the charismatic Erdogan has cultivated a moderate image, carefully avoiding confrontation with the secular establishment. Having officially disavowed the hardline Islamic views of his past, Erdogan made great efforts in trying to recast himself as a pro-Western conservative.
But the Turkish secularists have bitter memories of the country’s first fundamentalist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, whom they forced from power in 1997 after only one year in office. But what provoked the latest massive public protests and the veiled threat of military intervention, was the monopolization of political power by one particular party. Prime Minister Erdogan and especially his close ally and presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül alarmed secularists who thought an Islamic-rooted government in control of Parliament, the prime minister’s office and finally the presidency would no longer face checks and balances on the nation’s authority. Sofar, the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former chief justice and a firm defender of secularist principles of the Republic, has managed in blocking many Islamic party suspicious government bills and appointments, with his veto.
Abdullah Gül, 58, himself a devout of the Muslim faith, has nevertheless established a good reputation as a moderate in the West. Elected prime minister in 2002 for a short period, Gül became foreign minister in Erdogan’s new government a year later. In spite of his Islamic orientation, Gül became the key player in attempts to receive an Turkey’s accession to the European Union.
But strangely as it might appear in the post 9/11 era, the West, usually deeply mistrustful of anything remotely suggesting Islamism, has praised Turkey’s Gül as a “great reformer” and “reliable partner.” However, in Turkey itself, the secular elites are vehemently opposed to Gül’s potential nomination for presidency, who they claim will take the country back to a darker age. “Turkey will not be another Iran, we don’t want Sharia,” protesters chanted out in nationwide mass rallies. Thus, no wonder that feelings between Turkey’s Islamic politicians and its secularists ran high throughout the country and in Istanbul alone more than a million Turks have flooded the streets to protest Gül’s candidacy. Exacerbating the rift were reports of Gul’s wife, Hayrunisa, wearing an Islamic headscarf, a garment that secularists say, would sully the presidential palace. The Gül family moving into the presidential palace is intolerable to the secularists. Some of their leaders went as far as to, describe the Islamist’s aiming to elect a “sultan,” a reference to the authoritarian leaders of the Ottoman Caliphate period, who based their legitimacy partly on their role as the “guardians of Islam”.
Oriental scholars caution, that while Erdogan and his political followers seem to disapprove any violence in the name of Islam, there would be a very thin line between violent Islam and “Muslim democracy” when the latter becomes the dominant ideology among an unstable, unpredictable and young populace, which in Turkey, as in other Mid- Eastern Muslim nations presents an already a dangerously dominant demographic factor. But the West, still adhering to its obstinate but already, widely disproven ideologies of a democratization process in the Muslim world, are more worried about the Turkish military’s intrusion into politics than about the ruling party’s Islamic agenda. The European Union warned Turkey’s military, last week to stay out of politics after the General Staff said it was watching the parliamentary election of a new president with concern. “It is important that the military leaves the remit of democracy to the democratically elected government and this is a test case if the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularism,” declared a senior EU offcial.
Thus it seems hardly surprising that, under the prevailing attitude, the Turkish military establishment is now feeling extremely threatened. The president, as head of the National Security Council, has the power to mobilize troops and he also appoints the commander of the general staff. Indeed, Gül’s election would have given AK all three key levers of Turkish politics: the presidency, a prime minister and speaker of parliament, which is alarming secularists already fearing that Erdogan’s party would indulge a hidden Islamist agenda.
But such is the Turkish paradox: The opponents of Islam are not necessarily forces of progress, and many are critical of or even antagonistic to the West. The protestors in Istanbul were not just chanting “Down with the government,” but also “No to America, no to the EU.” A major reason for this growing antagonism is the somewhat strange Israel-Turkey strategic entente.
There have been signs of discontent over this delicate issue. Soon after Turkey and Israel concluded their first major military agreement in 1996, allowing for the transfer and sale of arms and military technology between the two countries, a Turkish pharmacist named Ibrahim Gümrükçüoglu, attempted to murder Turkish president Süleyman Demirel. Surprisingly, sofar the relationship has not even cooled down by the access of Erdogan’s Islamic party to power and withstood several regional crisis, including last year’s summer war in Lebanon. But a worst-case scenario could resemble the same way Iranian-Israeli relations, formerly close, became totally antagonistic after the 1979 Khomeini revolution.
The danger of an radical Islamic Turkey may not be apprehended at first, due to the leadership’s attitude signaling a moderate Islam. But Atatürk had already realized that there was no such a thing as a “moderate Islam” and therefore created a modern, strictly secular Turkey. At his time, Postwar Islam was already substantially weakened by the colonialists- but with the rising specter of a “Political Islam” , which is shrewdly exploiting President Bush’s ‘democratization process’ throughout the Middle East- times are changing fast and not favorably for the western strategic aims. Once the Turkish Islamists will have matters fully under grip, things may still go from bad to worse. Examples are already most recent: the Shiite fundamentalism in Iraq, vs Sunni extremists enhancing al Qaeda influence, the rise of Hamas to power by democratic means, in a Palestinian secular society- a similar situation may occur in Egypt with a rising Muslim Brotherhood. Even an Alawite ruled secular Syria could revert into an Islamic state, if it’s neighbor, Turkey becomes an Islamic nation, causes sufficient impatience by Sunni to oust the dominating Alawite minority rule. One can ony imagine what will happen then in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan!
For Western strategic interest in that turbulent region, the stakes of the threat in Turkey going the way of Iran are enormous. Should Turkey become an Islamic republic, no Iranian containment policy could succeed and any solution, still possible to pacify Iraq would become severely jeopardized. Turkey would leave NATO and possibly even join the 2006 formed Syrian-Iranian defense pact. Undoubtedly, it would strengthen the anti-Israeli bloc of Islamic nations, increasing the alarming dangers of a regional anti-western oriented conflict.
As it seems, only Turkey’s present Chief of Staff General Yasar Büyükani, who served several terms in various NATO Intelligence assignments and his armed forces, will remain a crucial Bulwark in blocking this dangerous trend before it is too late.