- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey. — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a complicated man — a seasoned Islamist politician who understands what it means to challenge the secular principles of Ataturk’s Turkey. Yet during his five-year tenure, Mr. Erdogan made secularism the subject of constant public debate, portraying it as violating the rights of veiled Muslim women.

The country has been desperately lacking in serious discussion about the values of Turkish Islamists and how their understanding and practice of religion has fed fear. The challenge of teaching about Islam is narrowed down to the headscarf worn by Hayrunisa Gul, wife of Foreign Minister and former presidential hopeful Abdullah Gul. Millions of Turks throughout the country — and even in Germany, home to Europe’s largest population of Turkish immigrants — took to the streets to protest any attempt by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to cross the line dividing mosque and state.

Now the Europeans who said Islam and democracy could not harmoniously coexist can cite those crowds as proof, who actually have done all the hard work and struggled to persuade Europe that no clash of religious values exists to prevent Turkey from joining the European Union. The secular Turks admit that Turkey is not ready to be part of Europe today with that fear of darkness coming from inside. Alas it would be betrayal to the larger Muslim population who constantly look up to the West at times of trouble. Yet they don’t appreciate cheap shots about Turkey’s EU destiny. Secular Turks fiercely criticized Dutch parliamentarian Fritz Bolkenstein, who said, “If we are to admit Turkey into the EU then why did we bother to stop the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683?”

The secular Turks who protested do not necessarily doubt whether Islam and democracy can co-exist. But they are concerned about the increasingly visible role in Turkish society of Islamists who define religion by the wearing of headscarves; supporting the separation of the sexes in general and refusing to shake hands with women; banning alcoholic beverages; and shaping the society to more closely adhere to the customs of the Arab world, rather than the Western world. Currently, secular Turkish women have no representation when Mr. Erdogan travels abroad. And they poured to the streets protesting the changing image of Turkey’s women, and the many unknowns that are “veiled” behind it.

The AKP may have agreed to open official accession talks with the EU, but critics believe that party leaders misunderstand the idea of “freedom.” The fight is not over a headscarf, but over embracing modernity as a core component of Turkish society. It is tragic that secularists have failed to enact and stand behind the philosophy of liberal education and broadening the intellectual quest that would allow modernity to function within a Muslim population, ensuring Islam and guaranteeing freedom and liberty while simultaneously promoting advancements in science, technology, arts and literature. That failure haunts Turkey’s future, and the wide gap between urban and rural populations has resulted in a society dividing itself into camps.

Turkey has achieved many milestones, but it has not overcome the fear of reverting to the dark ages — again. But the relationship between freedom and totalitarianism, governed by an interpretation of religion, is not exclusive to Turkey. When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, women gained freedoms that extended far beyond what the burqa represented — in their homes, in schools, and in society — and those freedoms may yet be threatened if the Taliban reconstitutes. Turkish women do not face such extreme domination, but they remain fearful of the Islamist influence.

Reducing the idea of freedom in to a piece of fabric is a failure for both Islamists and secularists; Turks are missing a crucial opportunity to debate their common future. Leaders have allowed the debate about how Muslim women dress to obscure and derail any real discussion about the understanding and practice of Islam and what it means for Turkish society. It’s not about a headscarf. If Iran’s leaders decided that women did not need to wear headscarves, the Islamic regime’s problems would not suddenly end. Debates would continue about the country’s character, what it represents, and how its society should function. This is no time for distractions from the important questions, or for politics as usual. The rightist parties, represented by the Motherland and True Path, have taken a step in that direction and united under a new but legendary name: “the Democrat Party.” The left, led by Republican People’s Party — Ataturk’s party — is determined to stay the course under its ego-centric leader Deniz Baykal. This approach obstructs any ability to unite the people and secure Turkey’s strategic interests. If the Islamists can secure Mr. Baykal’s resignation, it would be a step toward a fresh start. With him in power, the left cannot unite and put together a serious platform.

Mr. Erdogan’s stubbornness in proving that he can put a veiled first lady in Ataturk’s residence not only hurt religious people but also sharpened the divide among Turks. Now the country faces early general elections divided and confused about whom to vote for, and unsure whether the EU and the United States really want an Islamified Turkey.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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