Turkey: Islam in a secular society

Published May 27, 2007

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Some Americans say they feel like they are living in a Republican theocracy. They don't like the intrusion of religion into politics or the erosion in church-state separation or presidential candidates who prostrate themselves before religious leaders. They should come to Turkey if they really want to live under a secular government that places freedom from religion ahead of freedom of religion.

Turkey is a country of 70-million people, 99 percent of them Muslim, that practices secular democracy. Five times each day the call to prayer blares from the mosques, and the faithful are free to answer the call. However, there are no faith-based initiatives funded by government, no prayer breakfasts or opening prayers in the Parliament, no political party kowtowing to religious fundamentalists. Here you don't need the ACLU to keep religion out of politics. The government takes care of that, and if it goes wobbly, the Turkish military stands ready to intervene. Religion has its place here, but that place is not in the public domain. Scarfs and other religious dress are banned from public buildings, including schools.

Just as U.S. politics has been roiled in recent decades by the rise of the religious right, Turkey now is facing a political crisis driven by widespread concern, some say paranoia, that the country's ruling political party, the AK, has a hidden Islamic agenda - something its leaders strenuously deny. That fear in recent weeks has sent hundreds of thousands of Turks into the streets of the country's largest cities to defend their secular society. The demonstrators, including many women, hoisted signs saying "No Sharia (Islamic law)" and "No Covered First Lady."

Yes, that's right - the prospect of a Muslim first lady who wears a religious scarf has rattled the secular establishment, including the Turkish military, which recently warned of the threat "Islamic fanatics" pose to Turkey's secular system, a signal that the generals are on alert.

Here's the situation: The ruling AK party put forward Abdullah Gul, the nation's highly regarded foreign minister, as its candidate for president. However, Gul was forced to withdraw after failing to win enough support in Parliament. Now Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan is pushing for a constitutional change in this summer's election to let voters, not Parliament, choose the next president - a change that could revive Gul's candidacy and seriously weaken the political hand of the country's secular establishment.

Gul's candidacy did not sit well with the country's secular elite and the military because, among other things, his wife wears a headscarf. Also, Erodogan and Gul, both devout Muslims, have a background in Islamic politics. Although the AK is not a religious party, it has roots in an Islamist party that was banned in 1997.

Erodogan and Gul insist they have no hidden Islamic agenda, no secret plan to undermine the nation's secular system. They seem to understand that a step in that direction could doom Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union, as could another military coup.

"There is no possibility of introducing Sharia in Turkey, " Gul told Newsweek magazine recently. "We're harmonizing Turkey's laws with the EU's standards in every area. Is this Sharia?"

Speaking to an international gathering of newspaper editors in Istanbul this month, Erodogan said, "I am prime minister of a secular state. If you put secularism against Islam, I am against this. My party is not a religious party."

Turks look to the military to defend the secular republic established by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and four times since 1960 the generals have overthrown governments seen as drifting too close to Islam.

Ataturk saw religion as a major impediment to bringing Turkey into the modern age. "My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teaching of science, " he once said. "Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him to act against the liberty of his fellow men."

The great irony in Turkey's latest political crisis is that the AK party has done more than the opposition parties to fulfil Ataturk's vision. In the four and a half years it has held power, the Erodogan government has passed hundreds of economic and political reforms and strengthened human rights, even abolishing the death penalty. It has delivered steady economic growth, controlled inflation, elevated the status of women and started EU membership talks - a major goal of AK leaders. Turkey has a free press and liberal social policies on par with many European states. It is a member of NATO, but refuses to be Washington's lackey.

Turkey borders Iran, Iraq and Syria, not exactly a friendly neighborhood for a Muslim country that has embraced modernity and Western democratic values. It is everything George W. Bush once envisioned for Iraq before turning it into a disaster area.

Modern Turkey is far from perfect, but its example points the way out of the madness and poverty gripping most of the Muslim world. Instead of using democratic elections to empower religious extremists and terrorists, as other Muslim countries have done, Turkey has shown how to reconcile Islam, secularism and democracy to the benefit of its people.

It would be a tragedy if the present political crisis ends with a military coup that takes Turkey backward instead of forward. The sign carried by one street protester probably speaks for most Turks - "No Sharia, No Coup."