If Turks have to choose, democracy is more important than secularism
At A time when Muslim fundamentalism seems to be on the rise all around the world, the sight of somewhere between half a million and a million people marching through Istanbul in defence of secularism is a remarkable one. But then Turkey is a remarkable place. As a mainly Muslim country that practises full secular democracy, it is a working refutation of the widespread belief that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
That's not the only reason why Turkey matters. It is a big and strategically important country, has the largest army in NATO after America's, offers a crucial energy route into Europe that avoids Russia and is the source of much of the water in the Middle East. If the negotiations under way for its entry into the European Union succeed, it will be the EU's biggest country by population. But the reason that the world's eyes are fixed on it this week is the possibility that the army might intervene to limit Islam's role in government (see article). For if Turkey cannot reconcile Islam and democracy, who can?
Over the years Turkish democracy has shown itself to be vibrant yet fragile. A string of military coups and interventions stand as testimony to the army's self-appointed role as the guardian of Kemal Ataturk's secular republic. The most recent instance came a mere ten years ago—the so-called post-modern coup that led to the ousting of a previous moderate Islamist government.
On April 27th the army suggested that it might do the same again. Just before midnight, after a day of inconclusive parliamentary voting for a new president, the army's general staff posted a declaration on its website that attacked the nomination of Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister, for the presidency, and hinted none too subtly at a possible coup against the mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister who nominated Mr Gul. On May 1st the constitutional court annulled the first round of parliamentary voting for the president, saying not enough members were present. Mr Erdogan promptly said he would call a snap parliamentary election. Street protests, first in Ankara and then in Istanbul, have heightened tension. The cities' coffee houses are buzzing with conspiracy theories.
Given the fractious state of the main opposition parties, and his government's record over the past four years, pollsters expect Mr Erdogan to win another thumping majority. He may then choose to stick with Mr Gul for the presidency, or he may look for another candidate. But he is unlikely to pick one who meets the objections of the army and the secularists.
Turkey's secularists have always mistrusted the AK Party, which has Islamist roots and in government has sometimes toyed with moderate Islamist measures. They especially dislike Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan because their wives sport the Muslim headscarf, which in Ataturk's republic is banned in public buildings. They fret at the prospect of such people controlling not only the government and parliament, as now, but the presidency as well. They fear that once the AK Party has got that triple crown, it will show its true colours—and that they will be rather greener. Given that a fundamental reading of Islamic texts sees no distinction between religion and the state, and that fundamentalism is spreading in the Muslim world, it is understandable that people should entertain such fears.
Yet they do not justify a military intervention such as that of April 27th. However desirable it may be to preserve Ataturk's secular legacy, that cannot come at the expense of overriding the normal process of democracy—even if that process produces bad, ineffective, corrupt or mildly Islamist governments. Algeria, where 150,000 people died in a civil war after an election which Islamists won was annulled in 1992, holds a sharp lesson about what can happen when soldiers suppress popular will. Of course, Turkey is not Algeria; but armies everywhere should beware of subverting elections. It is up to voters, not soldiers, to punish governments—and they will now have the opportunity to do so in Turkey.
They may not want to. Mr Erdogan's government has been Turkey's most successful in half a century. After years of macroeconomic instability, growth has been steady and strong, inflation has been controlled and foreign investment has shot up. Even more impressive are the judicial and constitutional reforms that the AK government has pushed through. Corruption remains a blemish, but there is no sign of the government trying to overturn Turkey's secular order. The record amply justifies Mr Erdogan's biggest achievement: to persuade the EU to open membership talks, over 40 years after a much less impressive Turkey first expressed its wish to join.
Who cares what Europe thinks?
Unfortunately, the EU's enthusiasm for Turkish entry, never high, has visibly waned. Were Nicolas Sarkozy to win the French presidency on May 6th, that would be another setback to Turkey's ambitions: he is categorically against the notion of it ever joining the EU.
In practice there is no chance of Turkey actually signing on the dotted line for another decade. But the perception in the country that so many current members are against it matters, for it reduces the EU's influence. Were the prospects of EU membership obviously brighter, the army would not have intervened as brutally. As it is, the EU's mild condemnation was shrugged off in Ankara, especially when the Americans said nothing at all. Their influence in Turkey is also much diminished, mainly because the war in Iraq has inflamed anti-American feeling.
Given the West's declining influence on their country's actions, Turks themselves must resolve their political crisis. The best way to do that would be to reject the army's intervention by re-electing the AK Party. The secularists' fears of the creeping Islamisation are understandable; but the AK Party's record does not justify it, and military intervention is no way to avert it. For the sake of the state they are trying to protect, Turkey's soldiers should stay out of politics.
Posted May 03, 2007, Economist