Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Turkey: A president at the junction of secularism and Islam

reposted from The Independent

Leading article: A president at the junction of secularism and Islam

Published: 29 August 2007

The election of Abdullah Gul as President of Turkey closes a stormy chapter in Turkish politics in the most satisfactory possible way. An accomplished diplomat who as foreign minister negotiated the terms of Turkey's accession into the European Union, Mr Gul was by far the strongest candidate. He won the parliamentary vote by a convincing majority in the third and final round.

That Mr Gul faced obstacles to his election, and nonetheless prevailed, testifies not only to the strength of his determination, but to the robustness of Turkey's institutions. In April, at the first time of asking, Mr Gul was blocked by the secular opposition parties which saw his Islamic background as a threat to the state. The stalemate, which was reinforced by street demonstrations, was broken by the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called an early general election. His Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, won a new mandate with an increased majority. Mr Gul renewed his candidacy, and has now won.

This was a textbook example of how Turkey's political system is supposed to function – through democratic elections and parliamentary votes. Yet there were fears, inside and outside the country, that it might not prove equal to the task. The particular concern was that Turkey's influential military might be tempted to intervene, mounting a coup in the name of saving the secular state. While the shadowy hand of the military might be discerned behind the protests against Mr Gul, the top brass kept their distance as the election campaign took its course.

Why the military declined to intervene is a matter for speculation. Certainly, it would have spelt the end, in the medium-term at least, of Turkey's EU ambitions. But the military is no supporter of EU membership and is widely believed to use its influence to thwart progress. So has Turkey's democracy reached the point at which civilian rule is secure? Or did Mr Gul's assurances that he would defend the secular constitution win the day? Whatever the truth, the result makes history. For the first time since Kemal Ataturk created the secular republic in 1923, Turkey has elected a politician from an Islamic background as its head of state.

That Mr Gul secured his majority only after the third round of voting shows how carefully he must still tread. But this result should exert a salutary constraint. There will be many in Turkey who still harbour misgivings about Mr Gul's credentials. He has to prove that he is as good as his word. Most of the signs at this early stage, though, are positive. Mr Gul is a cosmopolitan figure with a solid track record in politics. He will represent Turkey convincingly at home and abroad. That his wife wears an Islamic headscarf is neither here nor there; as he says, such matters should be left to personal choice. There is no risk to the modern Turkish state from the headscarf; the risk develops when choice is politicised.

The election of Mr Gul, who so demonstratively spans the country's Islamic and secular sides, could be the best possible guarantee of Turkey's future as a secular state. That a practising Muslim can attain the highest office should persuade religious Turks that they have a place in this society. If Mr Gul also manages to be punctilious about preserving the secular nature of state institutions, he will reassure the military and those many Turks who equate secularism with modernity.

But success or failure will dictate not only the future of Turkey. As President, Mr Gul will have the chance to show that Islam can co-exist with democracy and modern statehood. This will be a prerequisite for eventual Turkish membership of the EU. But it will offer a model for other countries facing one of the great challenges of this century.

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