- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

The anticipated crisis hugged Turkey tight. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised the country with his decision not to run for president. Many in his Justice and Development Party (AKP) believe he should have been the country’s new leader. He decided that Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul should be the one, but frankly, there is no difference between the two. The AKP is determined to appoint an Islamist as Turkey’s next president.

Nuray Mert, a prominent columnist at Radikal and a strong supporter of allowing women to wear headscarves in governmental institutions and universities, said on a television program, “I feel embarrassed to say what I will be saying now because of my stand on the headscarf issue but because the president’s wife will be wearing a headscarf, [the AKP] has decided to create a crisis. The war of symbols has moved to a higher level.”

Impulsively, the military sent a staunch warning: “Arguments over secularism are becoming a focus during the presidential election process and the Turkish armed forces are following the situation with concern,” a written statement read. “It must not be forgotten that the armed forces are the determined defenders of secularism.” In between, Mr. Gul failed to win a first-round victory Friday in a parliamentary vote. That vote is challenged at the Constitutional Court, which is expected to announce its decision by tomorrow. The tension is building while a record high number of Turks in Istanbul attended a rally on Sunday in support of secular democracy exposing a fault line in Turkish society.

It is, however, essential to evaluate the roots of this problem. The problem, said Turkish Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Yasar Buyukanit in a recent speech, is that there have been reactionaries in Turkey since its founding. Therefore, this is not a new threat. The secularists, represented by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), need to admit that the AKP has gained strength because of their failures to uphold secular principles. With that perspective, even the military could be viewed as the scapegoat of CHP’s failure. How has CHP dealt with the problem in the past?

Beyza Bilgin, a theology professor, reminded me last summer that because of that reactionary threat, the CHP banned all religious courses in primary-secondary and high schools early on. Ataturk is perceived as the reason, but in fact, most of that policy was shaped without his knowledge and put in place after his death, she told me.

Religion was banned from education for nearly three decades in Turkey, so it went underground. And the country’s current problems stem from that decision, because since then, “secularism” has meant “non-religious.” But no one wins by choosing God as an enemy. If they really understood the threat, they should have made religion part of the solution, not the problem. The dismissal of any positive view of contemporary Islam is the core reason of the threat that challenges the secular regime in Turkey today.

Today the CHP is repeating the same mistake. They call the AKP the problem. Yet, they won’t find any solution by solely criticizing the Islamists but by formulating social and political projects that can give people an alternative.

Mrs. Bilgin recalled the first headscarf incident at Ankara University in the 1960s: a student attended courses wearing a headscarf, and her professor asked her to leave the classroom. The next day, tens of girls came to school wearing headscarves. Then, Mrs. Bilgin said, CHP members brought busloads of people to campus to support the covered girls. They never understood that unless religion is part of the solution — modernized and made relatable to the people — winning the battle against radicalism is impossible.

Also, the external and internal challenges raise the stakes for Turkey. The French could elect Nicolas Sarkozy, who is an aggressive opponent of Turkey’s accession to the European Union, as their president. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also opposes Turkey’s EU membership. Turkey is not popular in Europe, and a crisis may be approaching.

Either way, no one knows whether Iraq will end up a single, unified country. If it doesn’t, Turkey has some other challenging decisions to make.

Domestically, some worry that Mr. Erdogan will set more strict policies that will speed the Islamization of the country. Mr. Gul represented the moderate wing of the AKP. Now, as president, he won’t have much say in party affairs.The question remains: What is the alternative? Right now, even if the parliament decides to call an early general election, there’s no real alternative to the AKP’s rising power.

Neither of the opposition parties is capable of persuading people that their social and political policies will bring them prosperity. What’s more, they still don’t understand that until they free the secularists from the idea of opposing religion, they cannot win. Turkey must choose its “identity” — although it will surely face more crises. The military coup, however, should not be even in the cards. The military can neither take care of the economy nor fight against its own people.

Now the people must decide on their future. And though it may bring pain, it is the only way Turkish democracy will become stronger.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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