In Turkey, a Looming Battle Over Islam

By Claire Berlinski
Sunday, May 6, 2007

ISTANBUL Bulent and Dogu are easygoing young Turks and unlikely authoritarians. Bulent just returned from the hippie trail in Southeast Asia, and Dogu's son is named Cosmos. But when the military recently threatened to settle Turkey's disputed presidential elections, they approved, suggesting just how hard it is to sort Turks into familiar political categories.

"Someone needs to threaten them," Dogu said. "They've gone too far."

By "they," he meant the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has governed Turkey for the past four years under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and which is (depending upon whom you talk to) either the hopeful face of a new moderate Islam or the moderate face of radical Islam's new hope.

By "too far," Dogu meant the AKP had chosen one of its own -- Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul -- to be the next Turkish president. Last Tuesday, Turkey's staunchly secular Constitutional Court agreed, declaring the first round of presidential voting void on the grounds that there was no parliamentary quorum when the vote for Gul took place. Of course there wasn't: The opposition had boycotted the ballot, knowing it didn't have enough votes to win.

"I don't want someone who wears a headscarf in the presidential palace," Dogu said, referring to Gul's wife. "It's okay if it's an Anatolian headscarf. But I don't want them wearing Arab headscarves."

Anatolian Turks wear headscarves because that's what they've always worn, he means to say -- but an Arab headscarf is a political headscarf, and he believes that the AKP won't be satisfied until every woman in Turkey is under one. (Note also the crucial nationalist sentiment: We Turks are not Arabs, who are backward and primitive.)

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, imposed a particularly strict secularism on Turkish society, banning religion from the public sphere. In recent weeks, demonstrators have taken to the streets in massive numbers in support of Kemalist secularism. Westerners watching the footage may be tempted to sigh with approval, imagining this as an outpouring of sympathy with liberal Enlightenment values.

They would be mistaken.

The AKP's opponents say they don't want Turkey turned into another Iran. But it is not clear that the AKP has any intention of doing that. What is clear is that it poses a threat to the power, bureaucratic privileges and economic interests of the secular ruling class, of which a dismaying number are authoritarian ultra-nationalists.

This is not to diminish their concerns about the AKP, whose origins in radical Islam are not a matter of dispute. Erdogan's political mentor was former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who came to power promising to "rescue Turkey from the unbelievers of Europe," wrest power from "imperialists and Zionists," and launch a jihad to recapture Jerusalem. But the AKP says it has outgrown these sentiments and is now fully committed to democracy and a looser version of secularism. It swears it does not seek to impose a fundamentalist tyranny.

I would not have believed them before. But I have lived here for the past two years. There have been no public floggings, no amputations of limbs in the public square, no jihad against Zionists and American imperialists. The government has confined its enthusiasm for Islamic law to the most modest of sops to its Islamic base; its most egregious offense has been a desultory attempt to criminalize adultery that was quickly abandoned.

Meanwhile, Istanbul has become visibly more prosperous. In the past year, three Starbucks stores have opened on Istanbul's largest boulevard, which hardly suggests a curtailment of Satan's Western influence, although it does suggest how many Turks can now afford to spend $5 on a cup of coffee. The billboards still feature half-naked women; the transvestites still swish down the streets. New construction is everywhere. Roads have been repaired. Decaying neighborhoods have been gentrified.


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