Saturday, July 21, 2007

Turkey; The struggle for a country's soul

Pressures from the various forces in Turkish society have been building for some time now. Despite its economically liberal and modernising record in office, the ruling AK Party has been probing the staunchly secularist constitution.

21 July 2007 19:31

Leading article:
Published: 21 July 2007

The AKP put forward the devoutly religious foreign minister Abdullah Gul for the post of president earlier this year. And it has mooted a relaxation of the ban on headscarves in government buildings.

As a result of this, hard-line secularists have been growing restive. Their supporters came out in force to demonstrate against Mr Gul's appointment, forcing the government to back down. The nationalist establishment has been flexing its muscles too, pressing for the prosecution of those who have "insulted Turkishness". The murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul by a young man with links to the army also raises disturbing questions about the military's commitment to the rule of law. Meanwhile, the Kurdish minority in the south east has been stirring. The autocratic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened an invasion of the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq if Kurdish guerrilla attacks within Turkey's borders do not cease.

Sadly, tomorrow's elections are unlikely to help to resolve Turkey's inner contradictions. The AKP is likely to retain power with a reduced majority. But a question mark remains over the identity of the new candidate the party will nominate for the presidency. If it puts forward another candidate with a background in political Islam, another constitutional crisis could be in store. Growing Kurdish autonomy in Iraq presents a destabilising threat too, as it is likely to intensify separatist sentiment among Turkish Kurds. We can only hope that the likely increase in Kurdish representation in parliament will boost the search for a political settlement. The behaviour of the European Union will be crucial too. If there is more scorn poured on Turkey's EU membership application by European capitals, the forces of hard-line nationalism in the country will inevitably grow stronger.

All the signs are that we are in the early stages of a struggle for Turkey's soul. It is a struggle with implications for democracy, Islam and secularism around the world. It will shape the future of the European Union and the Middle East. Whether we realise it or not, we all have a strong interest in the outcome.

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