What would Ataturk say?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

The news that Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan will not seek the pres­i­dency should have caused some re­lief in Turkey, but the streets of Is­tan­bul were swarmed by as many as 1 mil­lion pro­test­ers on April 29 af­ter the an­nounce­ment that Mr. Er­do­gan’s rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP) would sup­port For­eign Min­is­ter Ab­dul­lah Gul for the job. Al­though widely viewed as more mod­er­ate and less di­vi­sive than Mr. Er­do­gan, Mr. Gul is still seen as a chal­lenge to that highly guarded legacy of Ke­mal Ataturk — Turkey’s sec­u­lar­ism.

That Mr. Gul was not elected in the first round of vot­ing is not sur­pris­ing; a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date must re­ceive twothirds of the vote in par­lia­ment — a mar­gin the AKP is just shy of meet­ing. If Mr. Gul is not elected in the sec­ond round, a third round of vot­ing, which re­quires only a sim­ple ma­jor­ity, should eas­ily move the mod­er­ate Is­lamist into the pres­i­dency. This prospect brought out the huge crowd of pro­test­ers this week­end, which un­der­scores the sharp di­vi­sion in Turk­ish so­ci­ety.

Ten­sion be­tween the Is­lamists and the sec­u­lar­ists stems not so much from spe- cific poli­cies than from the broader ques­tion of na­tional iden­tity. Mr. Gul has promised to ad­here to sec­u­lar prin­ci­ples, but with the pres­i­dent wield­ing a veto (as the cur­rent pres­i­dent has over some of AKP’s more Is­lamist-lean­ing leg­is­la­tion) and ap­point­ing judges, that prom­ise has not al­layed fears, as the re­cent protests show. The changes in Turk­ish pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety, as well as for­eign pol­icy, do not re­ceive the at­ten­tion they war­rant in Wash­ing­ton. Nor does the cen­tral­ity of Turkey to U.S. strate­gic in­ter­ests in the re­gion. (The Wash­ing­ton Times be­gan run­ning a col­umn by Turk­ish jour­nal­ist Tulin Daloglu in Au­gust 2005 be­cause of that deficit.)

The threat of in­ter­ven­tion by the Turk­ish army, which is not with­out prece­dent in Turkey, has also emerged and caused jus­ti­fied alarm. A state­ment re­leased by the army is as blunt as it is omi­nous: “it should not be forgotten that the Turk­ish armed forces is one of the sides in this de­bate and the ab­so­lute de­fender of sec­u­lar­ism,” and that “when nec­es­sary, it will dis­play its stance and at­ti­tudes very clearly.”

Turkey’s di­vi­sion is not sim­ply a mat­ter of do­mes­tic pol­icy. The ques­tion of iden­tity ex­tends to Turkey’s geopo­lit­i­cal role. Turkey has a his­tory of strong al­liances with the United States and of a gen­er­ally pro-West­ern out­look. That at­ti­tude, how­ever, is chang­ing. Pro-West­ern, and specif­i­cally pro-Amer­i­can pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment has de­creased dra­mat­i­cally, in part a re­sponse to the U.S. led in­va­sion of Iraq and what is per­ceived in Turkey as U.S. re­fusal to ad­dress the vi­o­lent Kur­dish sep­a­ratist group, the PKK. Un­der the AKP and Mr. Er­do­gan’s lead­er­ship, Turkey has turned in­creas­ingly to the East, stand­ing more with Mus­lim causes and strength­en­ing ties to ma­jor­ity Mus­lim coun­tries at the ex­pense of its tra­di­tional al­lies. Should AKP con­trol the pres­i­dency and sub­se­quently re­new its ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment, Turk­ish sec­u­lar­ism may not be the only tra­di­tion fac­ing a se­ri­ous threat.

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