Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey Debates Its Future

Talks between the government of Turkey and the European Union have stalled over Turkey's refusal to allow Greek-Cypriot ships to dock in its ports. The Turkish government insists that it's still serious about seeking membership of the European Union, despite opinion polls that show support for the idea is falling inside the country. Turkey itself is now gripped by a debate over the country's future direction. And as Correspondent Simon Marks reports from Istanbul, the future of its secularist nature may be at stake.

If you want to catch a glimpse of modern Istanbul, it helps to stay up past midnight. At one nightclub the lights go down and the burlesque floor-show is revealing. Some of the city's most successful businesspeople bring their families and friends here. The show goes on six nights a week... at least it does at the moment.

Club manager Gulsum Sami wonders how long all this can continue. "Turkey has been a democratic country since, I mean, over 80 years. So it is too complicated to change it into an Islamist country. But of course they... this is their dream.”

"They" are the members of the Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won election in 2003. Since then, the country's secularists have worried that the governing Justice and Development Party is intent on turning back the clock to the time before Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey on the constitutionally-guaranteed principle of separation between religion and the state.

Bedri Baykam is one of Turkey's most prominent artists -- he's also politically active defending the country's secular principles. He says, "There is no something called 'soft Islamist government.' "

He accuses the government of rewriting school textbooks to emphasize the role of Islam, campaigning to limit the consumption of alcohol and the enormous number of restaurants that serve it, encouraging young women to wear headscarves or take up the veil, and showing intolerance for nude and erotic artworks, from timeless classics like Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People", to Baykam's own post-modernism. "When you take a frog and put it in boiling water, the frog would jump out and you could not eat it. So what you do is you take a frog and put it in kind of coldish, lukewarm water and you start heating the water very, very slowly. And then the moment the frog realizes what happens, it's too late. This is the example we give for what they're doing to Turkish society".

Defenders of the government take a different view. They argue Turkish society is demanding changes in the way the country is run -- but they maintain the changes are moderate, and not designed to undo Turkey's secularist nature.

Fehmi Koru is a columnist who's close to the government -- he writes for the newspaper "Yeni Safak". "There is no change in Turkey now, and in the time when this government came into power. Some people who are less religiously inclined, expected that this government would make great changes in our way of life. But it hasn't been happening that way, actually"

There is a potential flashpoint ahead. Prime Minister Erdogan may seek the presidency next year - Parliament will choose a new president in April.

And secularists, like retired Istanbul University professor Nur Vergen, are horrified at the prospect of an Islamist becoming the country's head of state. "The civil society of Turkey, which is very unorganized, I recognize, should do everything possible, but everything possible, to prevent not only Mr. Erdogan, but anyone like Mr. Erdogan".

There is another force in Turkey constitutionally charged with defending the country's secular nature: the Army, which intervened politically in 1960, 1971 and again in 1980.

The new chief of the General Staff has made speeches warning of the need to preserve the country's essential character.

And one retired general, Edip Baser, says if needed, the Army will act. "If the Turkish military considers, evaluates that there is no other way, and if the public opinion insists that there is no other way to protect it than [the] army to come in and protect it, in that case, in such case, [the] army certainly should do whatever is necessary."

As the night wore on at the Istanbul nightclub, revelers sang a Turkish version of the 1970s classic "I Will Survive". But whether their lifestyle will survive in Turkey without considerable drama is a hotly-contested issue.