- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

Three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it’s worth looking back at how the “strategic partnership” between Turkey and the United States has evolved.

One meeting is crucial: On Dec. 10, 2002, President Bush welcomed Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House for the first time. “We’re impressed by the leadership — your leadership and your party’s strong victory,”

Mr. Bush said. “We thank you very much for your commitment to democracy and freedom.” Mr. Bush has talked a lot about democracy and freedom as part of his post-September 11 plan to keep America safe. But Turkey, having emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, was democratized long ago.

Its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, reshaped this Islamic society to be compatible with the Western world, and made secularism a key part of his “revolution.”

There are two problems with this White House meeting and Mr. Bush’s comments. First, Mr. Erdogan had no official role in the Turkish government. Even though his Justice and Development (AK) Party had just captured two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, Mr. Erdogan was barred from politics. He eventually became prime minister, but first the government had to overturn laws preventing him from serving, and the courts had to lift the ban.

Second, Mr. Bush had absolutely no idea what kind of a leader Mr. Erdogan would be — whether he would actually follow through on what Mr. Bush was giving him credit for, or whether he’d follow a different path that might stray from Ataturk’s vision. During the campaign, Mr. Erdogan called himself close to the mainstream. But two public comments are worth remembering.

In a 1994 speech, Mr. Erdogan said, “For a person who says I am a Muslim, it is not possible to say at the same time I am secularist. You will be either Muslim or secularist. These two cannot exist together.”

In a 1996 interview with the newspaper Milliyet, he said, “Is democracy a means or an end? Here, we definitely differ. We say that democracy is a means, not an end. The Welfare Party [of which he was a member at the time] does not equal religion. But it takes Islam as its frame of reference. We do not want to do or experience anything that goes against our frame of reference.” That “frame of reference” is shari’a, which directly challenges Ataturk’s vision for the country. Therefore it is not surprising that the government appoints thousands of judges who are graduates of Koranic schools. Not that it is surprising that Mr. Erdogan challenges a decision by the European Court of Human Rights against women wearing headscarves. “The court has no right to speak on this issue,” he said. “That right belongs to the ulema (clerics).” It’s also not surprising that, according to a column by Ertugrul Ozkok, a leading writer in the newspaper Hurriyet, AK members are rumored to be saying they’ve conquered the last crucial state institution — the Central Bank.

Today, a segment of the Turkish population argues that Ataturk’s “secular” revolution has gone too far. Obviously, Mr. Erdogan has a lot in common with this population. Therefore, Mr. Bush’s support for Mr. Erdogan in 2002 caused secular and liberal Turks to wonder about his plans for Turkey.

Mr. Bush talks about wanting secularism to thrive in the Muslim world, but he needed an Islamist leader as an ally while waging a war on a Muslim country. Turkey wasn’t a textbook fit; the country still has not ended its long war against Islamist ideologies. Several military coups have occurred in the name of protecting Turkey’s secular regime. Those military interventions were severely criticized by the West as acts against democracy.

But today, the U.S. officials keep distance from Mr. Erdogan, not because parliament refused the U.S. request to open a northern front into Iraq, but because they started to be suspicious that Mr. Erdogan may impose a threat to Turkey’s secular regime. The truth is, he’s just being himself.

It’s puzzling how Mr. Erdogan got a reputation as a “moderate Islamist leader.” It seems that Turkey’s progress toward achieving Ataturk’s goals tends to move two steps backward, one step forward. Yet, Turkey was able to open EU accession talks because it is a secular nation, not because it is a Muslim nation. If Mr. Erdogan were to derail the country from its track to EU membership, he would lose public support.

Today, although many U.S. officials say the relationship between the two countries has “moved on” after the Parliament’s vote, the fact of the matter is that the United States has moved on without Turkey, not without Mr. Erdogan.

Turkey’s experiences with secularism and democracy go a long way toward encouraging Mr. Bush to get it right in Iraq and the Middle East. Ataturk was a Muslim, and the secular democracy he introduced came from within. But he was nonetheless accused of being “anti-religion.” Mr. Bush, a devoted Christian, is accused of waging a “war against Islam.” The real war should be within Islam. But it takes time.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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