- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to representative government,” President Bush said in 2003. “I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free.”

The Muslim Middle East surely would find it difficult to quarrel with Mr. Bush’s point of view if political leaders in Turkey - the country his administration has held up as a model of democracy to the region - agreed with him. “The Muslim majority, too, faces problems regarding religious freedom in Turkey,” Foreign Minister Ali Babacan complained last week at the European Parliament. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed, saying, “No one can deny that there are no problems.”

This criticism of Turkey’s 85-year-old democracy by its elected officials that it allegedly denies its people - whether it be minority or majority - freedom of religion is no doubt propitious for examining.

Since Mr. Babacan talked about the “majority” rather than emphasizing “women” - as the issue of the headscarf has caused a rift between his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition parties - the problem, in his perception, should be much deeper. That said, Mr. Babacan clearly argues that Turkey’s previously elected governments have been inhospitable to Islamic traditions.

The AKP is questioning Turkey’s founding principles. The tension in Turkey’s current political spheres is steeped in that notion; while AKP’s electoral victory has not been challenged, the secular opposition argues that the AKP did not only bring a change in government, but in society.

Turkey’s chief prosecutor claims that the AKP wants to bring Shariah (Islamic law) into widespread practice, and has filed a case in Constitutional Court asking for its closure. It is counter to democratic ideals to respond to a challenge by quashing political parties or banning politicians ” which Turkey has tried to do.

Despite claims to the contrary, Turkey has not yet proven that Islam and democracy can coexist harmoniously. The majority of Turks are Muslim, but its elected officials are claiming that they are denied the right to freely practice their faith. Such claims misrepresent the reality in Turkey; Turkish parliamentarians called Mr. Babacan to explain his statement. Unfortunately, neither secularists nor Islamists are really able to define why they feel threatened by one another - especially in power. Clearly, people won’t stop believing in God just because there is an Islamist mindset that abuses Islam. And the role of secularism in democracy remains critical. Furthermore, unlike what Mr. Erdogan says, an individual can be secular and religious at the same time. Secularism is not only the purview of the state.

Secularism is key to bringing peace to a landscape that is politically divided and violently torn from Ankara to Beirut, Baghdad to Islamabad. Islamists have come to power via democratic elections, pacifying the much-needed secular, moderate voices in the region and denying them the ability to be people of faith as well. Tragically, those moderate voices don’t have any serious political representation. In Baghdad, sectarian violence is a reality. In Beirut, Hezbollah’s takeover guarantees that the agreement reached in Doha won’t last long. In Islamabad, radicalism is at its peak. And the AKP’s foreign policy in Turkey is praised both in Washington and Brussels for finally putting Turkey on better footing with its neighbors in the Muslim Middle East. The fact is, however, Turkish foreign policy is at its worst. It is acting upon desperation.

For example, let us examine the AKP’s close relationship with Syria. Ankara recently has begun to serve as a mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus. Mr. Babacan has announced that Israel is ready to give up Golan Heights. But Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon correctly said that Syria gave up its claims over Aleppo, which remains inside Turkey’s borders, and that the Golan Heights is not as important as Aleppo to the Syrians. Yet Lebanon is important. Damascus is linked to Beirut through Hezbollah. That said, the Lebanese people may have already paid a price for the AKP’s recklessly intimate relationship with the Asad regime. Turkey won’t be able to persuade Syria to break its ties to either Hezbollah or Iran - and that continues to help radicalize the region.

Mr. Bush’s freedom agenda is an inspiration, but executing and implementing it is a serious challenge. At times, the U.S. has chosen to support the wrong players and empowered the wrong individuals. The Bush administration was wrong to support Abdullah Gul’s presidency in Turkey, and the move has created imbalance in society and fostered suspicion and fear among moderates. By creating an image that supports the AKP, Western powers are crushing the secular, moderate voices and going in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to embarrass itself by not creating a true political alternative to the Islamist-rooted AKP government.

The states are failing, and the mess that follows only promises more trouble in the region.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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