Austin Bay: Can Turkey remain secular?

Factions' struggle for Turkey's political soul continues — and Turkey's self-proclaimed moderate Islamists are winning. The struggle has major implications for the global war on militant Islamist terror groups like al-Qaida.

This past Sunday, a constitutional referendum provided the latest battleground for the ongoing political war between Turkish Islamists and secularists. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a political movement openly favoring Islamist policies, advocated the constitutional changes, and it won in a landslide.

Fifty-eight percent of the country supported the AKP. The most critical changes affect the Turkish judiciary.

The AKP promotes itself as a “moderate” Islamist political party that believes moral values provide a bulwark against political corruption. It regards its opponents as hard-line secularists who run Turkey's “Deep State,” a code word for a nefarious Turkish underworld of corruption, cronyism and manipulation tied to the Turkish military.

The AKP's opposition, centered in the secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP), cast the referendum as another step in the destruction of the secular republic established by Turkey's 20th century political and military genius, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk strongly believed radical Muslims insisting on imposing Shariah (Islamic) law were the greatest long-term threat to Turkish modernization.

The Kemalists, as his political heirs proudly call themselves, label the AKP as a collection of stealth radical Islamists whose moralist balderdash cloaks a plot to create a theological tyranny and feudal police state.

The AKP responds by accusing the secularists of having corrupted Ataturk's progressive legacy.

Turkey's leading political organizations both portray the choice between them as “either us or darkness.” This rhetorical demonization is typical of successful democracies. Ataturk deserves credit for establishing a democratic structure that survived his death in 1938 by 72 years.

Turkey's actual circumstances, however, are much more complex and murky.

Start with the referendum's irony. The constitution had many undemocratic articles and was in fact imposed by the military after a coup in 1980. The European Union ruled that many of these elements did not meet EU membership standards.

Thus the ironic situation of an Islamist political party promoting constitutional changes in order to meet Western European democratic standards. Aligning Turkey with Europe was one of Kemal Ataturk's long-term goals.

Yet the judicial reforms approved this week may be an anti-democratic trap door, for they give the AKP the ability to limit systemic checks and balances on executive power. The AKP can pack the courts. The judiciary has protected the Turkish military.

The AKP distrusts the military because it fears a coup, and with good reason. The military sees itself as the protector of the secular state and a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalist usurpation.

Will the Kemalist democratic structures survive an empowered Islamist AKP?

This is an important question for everyone with an interest in seeing reformed Islamists maintain a secular democratic state and continue the process of economic and political integration with Europe. Everyone in this case is the vast majority of the civilized world because the prosperous existence of such a polity would deal militant Islamist terror groups like al-Qaida a complete ideological and political defeat.

These are high stakes, indeed.

I have tended to be an optimist about the AKP, in part because the CHP governments of the 1990s were so terribly corrupt. In my view, the Kemalist corruption damaged Ataturk's legacy. However, history also justifies Ataturk's concern for the threat to Turkey posed by anti-democratic Islamists.

Today, accusations of corruption tag the AKP, and the AKP's foreign policy gyrations over the last three years do not bode well of stable U.S.-Turkey relations.

After Sunday's election, I had the opportunity to chat with Gerald Robbins, senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute. Robbins' take is dire. “Although the military is now subject to civilian courts and their oversight, the very composition of those courts is fraught with controversy.” The court packing to favor the AKP may well occur.

Turkey Prime Minister and leader of the AKP Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, in Robbin's view “effectively scuttled the secularist-dominated military and judicial power bases under the auspices of greater 'democratization.'” Then Robbins added, “Sept. 12, 2010, might be marked as the day Kemal Ataturk's secularist vision effectively ended, and a new Islamist-influenced era began.”

I told him I hope he is wrong. My gut says he isn't. The last thing Turkey and the world need is a Sultan Erdogan.

Examiner Columnist Austin Bay is nationally syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

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