- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey. — Four years ago, President Bush portrayed the war in Iraq as the latest front in the “global democratic revolution” led by the United States. Today, hardly anyone remains hopeful that Iraq will turn into a pro-Western democracy like Japan or Germany. The idea that “freedom leads to peace” has proven too simplistic in envisioning such a gigantic change for the Middle East. And little attention has been paid to how Iraq’s experience has impacted Turkey, the only democratic neighboring country with a Muslim population.

The chaos in Turkey’s neighborhood threatens its welfare. The war in Iraq has rejuvenated European prejudices toward Muslims, making Turkey’s hard-won accession talks with the European Union a painful ordeal. For the first time in the country’s history, the public is questioning the wisdom of Turkey’s Western alliance. Finally, the presidential and general national elections will both take place this year. And for the first time, a presidential election is seen as a threat to the principals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey.

I sat down with former Turkish president and prime minister Suleyman Demirel, a leading figure in Turkish politics for almost half a century, to discuss these issues.

In Turkey, the parliament chooses the president. The process begins on April 16, and if things go according to plan, the new president will begin on May 17. However, the parliament’s decision could be challenged even after the next president takes office.

“Our election law does not bring fairness in representation,” Mr. Demirel said, “And today’s government represents only 26 percent of the voters in 2002 election.” He recalls a similar dilemma when Turgut Ozal was elected president. “At that time … [h]e was under severe criticism. If he were not to pass away [before his term ended], he would, indeed, have resigned from presidency,” Mr. Demirel told me.

Mr. Demirel suggests that it is time for the Turkish people to elect their president with a majority vote. He noted that in 2000, 49 deputies and nine ministers who are members of the current government today, including Parliament Chairman Bulent Arinc and members of the True Path Party (an opposition party), submitted a bill with 185 signatories calling for the people to elect the president.

For the first time, there is a question about whether the presidency may be used to threaten Ataturk’s Turkey. There is talk inside Ankara’s beltway that nothing prevents Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from becoming the next president. Mr. Demirel doesn’t see Mr. Erdogan derailing the Kemalist revolution — with a sigh, though. “No one can divert Turkey from its European project,” he said.

“The issue is the current government’s loyalists,” the former president said. The Justice and Development Party has the same party base as the Islamist National Vision Party (Milli Gorus). “All political parties that have been founded on the principals of Milli Gorus like National Order, National Salvation, Welfare, Virtue — they are all closed by the Constitutional Court because of their religious stand,” Mr. Demirel said. “Today, the current government has nothing explicitly [that ties them to such ideology]. But because they have the same base, the discussions are inevitably taking place.”

Today, Turkey’s secular system is still challenged by some who believe that God’s law should replace man-made law. Those opponents of secular Turkey claim to be the religious elite, who profess a desire to live in accordance with Islam. Their vision, however, is inspired by the ancient European forms of “totalitarianism” and rejects the idea of separating the spiritual and temporal realms of the faith. Those principles cannot coexist with democracy. Yet, they claim democracy allows them the right to live as they wish.

Turkey chose to adopt Western law, putting aside 230 articles of Shariah law — providing particularly the secularization of “civil” law. “When we say ‘Europe,’ we mean European values,” Mr. Demirel said. “[T]here is no reason for Turkey to go back… [I]n this changing world, some of us long for those old days. [However,] in this free and democratic country, no one should see [those people] as enemies. [Those ideas] were present when the republic was founded, and are still present… [W]hether Turkey becomes a member to the EU in five, 10, 15 years or not at all, it can’t break away from thinking ‘European.’ There are enough citizens of the Turkish Republic to make sure that the project does not die away.”

The war in Iraq, however, refreshes the myth that Muslims are the victims of Western superiority. That is taking a significant toll in Turkey’s identity crisis. Today, a near-majority identifies by religion “first.” And it’s a direct strike to the Kemalist revolution, which replaced a political unity based on religion with one based on nationality.

The leadership does matter. And the stakes for Ataturk’s Turkey are high. Yet as Mr. Demirel sees it, today’s Turkey is much stronger than the days when he became the prime minister for the first timealmost five decades ago.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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