A wave of anti-government protests has swept across Turkey in recent weeks, and last Sunday more than a million people took to the streets in Izmir. Turkey’s secular military establishment and its political opposition strongly oppose the ruling party’s presidential choice, reigniting a conflict over Turkish identity that has brewed for more than eight decades.
The crisis began last month when Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, head of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, chose Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as his candidate for the presidency. Both men come from a moderate Islamist political background, and their wives wear the headscarf – a potent symbol for many Turks since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a World War I army officer, founded Turkey’s secular republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He gave women the vote and restricted Islamic dress. So those opposing the choice of Mr. Gul say Turkey’s secular identity is at stake.
Turkish journalist Hulya Polat says many Turks cast the political controversy as an issue of secularism vs. Islamism. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Polat says secular Turks – especially women – generally believe Turkey cannot have a First Lady who wears the headscarf because it would be unrepresentative of modern Turkish society. And that’s why the demonstrations are being held, she adds. Late last month (April 29) about a million Turks rallied in Istanbul, chanting, “Neither sharia nor a coup, but real democracy.”
The Turkish military had weighed in two days earlier, issuing a not-so-veiled threat on its website that it was the “absolute defender of secularism,” and when necessary would “display their attitudes and actions very clearly.” Many secularists fear what they call “creeping Islamism,” whereas supporters of the ruling party point out that Turkey – a Muslim country that practices full secular democracy – is a working refutation of the widespread belief that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
Matthias Rueb, Washington correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says that in Europe people on the left and the right have criticized the Turkish military’s interference, which they see as an attempt to undermine political and economic reforms. Ironically, Mr. Rueb says, it is the AKP – and not the secular parties – that has done the most to advance Turkey bid to join the European Union. But, he notes, the current political crisis has seriously damaged Turkey’s hopes for future membership.
Two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Gul failed by a slim margin to get the necessary two-thirds vote in the parliament, which prompted the government to call for early parliamentary elections on July 22. But this week the Republican People’s Party, which is the main opposition party, formed an alliance with the smaller Democratic Left Party, to contest July’s elections.
Another area of political uncertainty is the role of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. This week, a top Turkish prosecutor ordered the main Kurdish political party to expel four members who were convicted of links to separatist Kurdish rebels. Kurdish journalist and human rights lawyer Celil Kaya says the Kurds in Turkey are uneasy because the army has intervened five times in Turkish politics since 1960. And they also worry about military intervention in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.
Despite the heated rhetoric and widespread demonstrations, Turkish journalist Hulya Polat sees no danger of serious unrest or violence and says she expects the current political crisis to be resolved through democratic means. But it remains to be seen how Turkey will balance the twin goals of democracy and secularism.
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