A Quiet Prayer for Democracy

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

Over the past five years, president bush has made various efforts to reform the Arab world. They have all stumbled over one enormous obstacle. In the region, the people who win elections are not democrats. They seem to believe in elections (at least as long as they win), but not in the individual rights, laws and traditions that create a genuine liberal democracy. The admin-

istration has pushed for elections in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, only to find that religious fundamentalists have triumphed in most of them. Except in Turkey. In Turkey the popular ruling party, the AK--despite some background with political Islam--has proved to be the most open, modern and liberal political movement in Turkey's history. That extraordinary achievement may now be in peril because of the overreaction of Turkey's secular (and unelected) establishment.

All the political and legal maneuvering aside, the issue at stake is very simple. Does the AK Party have a hidden Islamic agenda that it would implement once its nominee for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, attained that office? I put that question to the urbane Gul, currently the foreign minister, during a phone conversation last week. "No," he said flatly. "But why listen to what I'm saying now? Look at what we have done in government for four and a half years. We have worked harder than any party in Turkey's history to make this country a member of the European Union. We have passed hundreds of laws that have freed up the economy and strengthened human rights. Why would we do this if we were trying to Islamize Turkey?"

I asked him whether he thought Turkey should adopt Sharia, Islamic law, which is a goal of almost all Islamist parties around the world. "No," he replied. "There is no possibility of introducing Sharia in Turkey. We are harmonizing Turkey's laws with the EU's standards in every area. Is this Sharia?"

Gul is right. The secular establishment's suspicions about the AK are

best described by Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyul as "fact-free paranoia." The Army memorandum accusing the AK of Islamic tendencies points as evidence of an Is-lamic agenda to two isolated cases where headmasters allowed students to sing Qur'anic verses and celebrate Muhammad's birthday on Turkey's Republic Day. That's not exactly a sign of an impending theocracy.

The other issue that keeps coming up is the headscarf, which under Turkey's coercive secularism is actually banned in public buildings. Gul's wife wears one, and Turkey's elites are in a tizzy that a man who will occupy Kemal Ataturk's position has a wife in a headscarf. …