After many years of regarding Turkey as a reliable member of NATO, a strong ally of the U.S., and almost the only example of successful democracy in the Islamic world, Americans are suddenly confused and worried about this strategically important and economically growing nation. It has been governed for half a decade by the AKP, a party with Islamist roots and some Islamist members. Its opposition parties, its Kemalist establishment (after the Turkish Republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk), and above all its pro-American armed forces all express fears that the nation’s famous “secularism” is being subverted by the government’s creeping Islamicization.
These anxieties have peaked in recent days with the constitutional crisis over the nomination of Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s foreign minister, to the post of Turkish president — an office seen by secularist Turks as a vital political safeguard against the AKP’s electoral advances. The army dropped heavy hints that it might mount a coup if Gul were elected. Massive secularist demonstrations took place in Istanbul (admittedly in a carnival atmosphere rather than an apocalyptic one). When the opposition withdrew from parliament, depriving the AKP of a quorum for Gul’s election, the secularist constitutional court declared that any election would be void. Gul himself prudently withdrew his candidacy, and new parliamentary elections were announced for July.
So the first point to be made is that Turkey is settling a potentially dangerous constitutional crisis in a sensible and stable way — by an election. That settlement was helped by the European Union’s warning that a military coup would render the nation ineligible for EU membership. Alas, it was also hindered by Nicolas Sarkozy’s many statements that Turkey should not be admitted to the EU. Whatever the merit of Sarkozy’s argument — and it represents the opinion of many Europeans — now is not the time to make it. Threatening to exclude Turkey effectively tells the Turkish general staff that it has nothing to lose from a coup. In fact, like Turkey itself, it has a great deal to lose — and no great benefits to secure.
As several cool and intelligent observers — Fareed Zakaria, Claire Berlinski, and The Economist’s correspondent — have pointed out, what is happening in Turkey is not a culture war between Western secularism and jihadist Islamism. The AKP is not an Islamist party on the model of Hamas. It is a socially conservative Muslim party not unlike the German Christian Democrats. During its period in power, it has made no moves toward establishing sharia law. Its strong support for entry into the EU is entirely inconsistent with an Islamist move toward sharia. If anything, the AKP has moved in the opposite direction, recently launching a campaign against honor killings (which is more than the British or U.S. governments have done). A fervent secularist would naturally not vote for the AKP, but he or she has no reasonable grounds for thinking that it wants to impose a theocracy.
Misunderstanding on this point is based on a prior misunderstanding about the nature of Turkish secularism. This is not the separation of church and state on the U.S. model, but the control of Islam and other religions by a ministry of religious affairs — and the imposition in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of a naked public square. This extreme secularism has always needed naked force for its survival, hence the Turkish army’s role as the guardian of the secular constitution. But this is fast becoming an impossible policy in modern Turkey. Both the evolution of democracy and the spread of Islamic piety make it essential for Turkey to develop a more tolerant secularism that will permit the public expression of religious commitment.
Of course, that more tolerant secularism will still need to be protected against both armies and Islamists. Entry into the EU, which has its own rules and regulations on that score, would fill the gap left by the evolution of Turkey’s military into a force that not only protects the constitution but is governed by it. Europe, riven on the issue of Turkey’s EU admission, probably cannot provide the complete assurance that is needed for the time being. So Sarkozy should shut up for that time — and the U.S. should work with Europe to help the Turks overcome their post-election crisis (if there is one).