- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey.

In the midst of rising political tension in Turkey, journalists, officials and ordinary people in Ankara have repeatedly asked me if the United States will continue to support the Justice and Development Party? Initially, it is difficult to comprehend the logic. Why should the United States favor one party — even if it is the ruling party — over others as it tries to conduct state business?

Senior U.S. officials believe that it is their job to do everything they can to develop the most effective working relationship for the United States to get the right kind of results on Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Caucasus, the Black Sea and all the various things that are of concern to American interests. They express to do the same whatever the government is — in part because that is what they are supposed to do, and in part because Turkey is an ally and they have similar interests. As one official explained, it is not up to the United States to determine Turkey’s internal structure but work with what Turkish people have elected.

Three recent developments prompted Washington to stay out of Turkey’s domestic debates. First, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised the country with his inability to choose a presidential candidate who would not create political turmoil between the Islamists and secularists. Second, millions of people demonstrated in the streets to support the secular regime. The final and the fourth mass gathering was held Sunday in Izmir, where more than a million people attended. Finally, the military strongly warned that it will continue to safeguard the secular democracy.

Yet a number of prominent Turkish columnists have criticized Washington’s distant approach and urged the Bush administration to take a sharper position against the military. The U.S. response “was a clear and strong and repeated reiteration of Turkish constitution, its constitutional processes, its democratic nature of its institutions, its secular republic, accountability to the government,” the Western diplomat explained.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, offered some unexpected praise for the Justice and Development Party. “The government that was elected by the people has actually been a government dedicated to pulling Turkey west toward Europe,” she said. “It has been the policy of that government, even though it is led by leadership from the AK Party, which has Islamic roots. It has been trying to integrate into Europe.” Miss Rice’s statement is true. Turkey officially opened accession talks with the European Union under the AK Party’s watch. But the AK Party also has used foreign policy for domestic reasons — to quiet the criticism of the Turks who are suspicious of their agenda.

The rallies in support of secularism — part of the ongoing Red and White Revolution that started in 1923, the first democratic revolution in a Muslim nation — show that a significant number of Turks are not yet convinced that the AK Party’s agenda is clear. They say they are fighting for the secular democracy’s survival. Therefore, Miss Rice’s ignorance at the Senate hearing that those millions protested the AK Party government will have a lasting impact on Turks as they think about U.S. policy. Many believe that the United States favors AK Party government — a straight challenge to Turkey’s secular regime.

The Turkish media reported that Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul prevented a rally of AK Party supporters from gathering to protest against those who see Mr. Erdogan’s policies as a threat to secularism. Imagine that gathering: women in black hijab and headscarves, and men with Islamic beards. That picture would give the EU one more reason to be leery of accepting Turkey as a member, and would be a detriment to the AK Party. What would they have said at such a rally — that they want Shariah rule?

Evidently, at his first election rally, Mr. Erdogan praised the secular regime and criticized the main opposition party. He could be right about the opposition party, but ordinary Turkish citizens who doubt his sincerity are not here to support the opposition party; they support the secular regime.

The State Department was right when it first decided to keep its distance from all of Turkey’s political party and to praise the republic’s secular democratic principles. Here’s hoping that Condoleezza Rice remembers the millions protesting the AK Party government, as well.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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