Muslim Democracy in Action

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, August 27, 2007

The notion that democracy and Islam are fundamentally incompatible is about to get a resounding rebuke, just at the moment it is threatening to congeal as conventional wisdom in Washington.

Barring a last-minute surprise -- such as a military coup -- a liberal and pro-Western politician named Abdullah Gul will be elected president of Turkey by the country's parliament tomorrow. Gul speaks fluent English and has been a steady if somewhat quiet friend of the United States during more than four years as foreign minister. He also identifies himself as a religious Muslim in a country with an 85-year history of militant secularism. His wife wears a headscarf, which is banned from public offices, universities and -- until now -- the president's Cankaya Palace in Ankara.

A lot of people in Turkey say they're worried that Gul's election will mark the beginning of the end of Western-style modernization in their country. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also has political roots in Islam. The Justice and Development (AK) Party will then control two branches of government, with broad power to enact new laws, appoint judges and university rectors, and, in theory, command the military. Some people in Washington are worried, too -- including partisans of Israel who suspect Erdogan of sympathy for the Palestinian Hamas movement and conservatives who charge him with plotting to undermine Turkey's secular democracy.

The hardening conventional wisdom is that Islamists use democracy only to gain power so as to impose their totalitarian ideology -- that any election they win will be the last one. Yet in the byzantine five-month power struggle that has preceded tomorrow's election, the sides in Turkey have been reversed. The Islamists have stood not only for democracy but also for compromise and moderation. The threat to Turkey's political stability has come from the professed secularists, who have employed street demonstrations and twisted court rulings and pulled off what has come to be known as the world's first Internet coup.

That bizarre event unfolded April 27, when the army -- which has carried out four conventional coups against elected governments since 1960 -- posted a late-night statement on its Web site claiming to detect a "growing threat" to secular government. At that moment Gul's nomination as president was before parliament, but the Supreme Court was considering an improbable legal challenge based on the alleged absence of a quorum. No doubt encouraged by the martial bluster, the court ruled in favor of the opposition plaintiffs, creating an impasse. The generals and Turkey's traditional leftist and nationalist parties assumed that Gul would be forced to retire in favor of a "compromise" candidate cooked up in a back room.

Instead, Erdogan called a general election. By forcing a vote, he invited Turks to consider the record of his party in office, as opposed to the dark scenarios of creeping Islamization sketched by the opposition and the military.

That was a brilliant maneuver. After all, Erdogan's government has been one of the most liberal and modernizing regimes in recent Turkish history. Under Gul's leadership, it pressed for membership talks with the European Union and in the name of winning them enacted a series of legal and human rights reforms. Minority Kurds and women won greater rights; the death penalty was abolished. The economy was liberalized and foreign investment welcomed, touching off a boom that has turned Turkey from a basket case in the International Monetary Fund's emergency ward to an emerging tiger with annual growth rates over 7 percent.

The election results last month must have stunned the generals: The moderate Islamists won nearly 47 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent in the election of 2002, and captured 340 of parliament's 550 seats. The message from voters was crystal clear: Military intervention was unwanted. Millions of Turks like the moderate religiousness of Erdogan and Gul, they like their pro-capitalist and pro-Western policies -- and they don't see any contradiction between them.

Gul's election by parliament now looks like a victory for democracy as well as for the principle that a Muslim political party can be moderate and liberal. You'd think the Bush administration would be ecstatic. Instead, it has looked curiously conflicted since the crisis began. The State Department and White House mostly kept quiet during the events of April, even while European governments publicly urged the military to respect the democratic system. Even after Erdogan's landslide, U.S. officials were endorsing "consensus" on the presidential election -- that is, a candidate other than Gul.

Gul didn't back down, which means that Turkey will have a president who is more friendly to the United States than the vast majority of "secular" Turkish politicians -- or Turks. Shouldn't he be welcomed?

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