Since its founding, Turkey has been the Islamic world's most prominent experiment in secular government.
When Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state in the early 20th century, his goal was to create a country fundamentally Western in outlook, both politically and socially. While his goal has been only partially realized, many in Turkey are beginning to question the wisdom of maintaining a secular state at the expense of expanding democratic freedoms and rights. The facts are undeniable: Islamic parties claim the support of an ever-increasing proportion of the electorate, their leaders hold unprecedented popular appeal, and a significant portion of the Turkish population believes that the government should adhere more closely to Islamic principles.
In the first few months of the 2002 presidential campaign, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's moderate AK Party (Islamic Justice and Development Party), jumped into the lead with support from 23 percent of the electorate. Seeing Erdogan's candidacy as a threat to Turkey's secular tradition, the ruling military elite banned him from the election for reading an Islamic poem in public in 1999. Besides being one of the more creative justifications for tampering with an election, the government's decision to ban Erdogan from running for the presidency exposes the troublesome and ever-widening rift between Turkey's secular leadership and its more traditionalist population. In the November 2002 elections, the Turkish people unequivocally endorsed Erdogan's vision for the country, with the AK party winning an outright majority in parliament. Turkey's military leaders are facing a difficult decision: they can either eliminate Islamic political influence by anti-democratic methods, as in Erdogan's case, or th ey can allow the populace to elect an Islamist leadership, thereby jeopardizing Turkey's identity as a secular state. When taken in the context of the current unrest over economic problems, the government's perpetration of human rights abuses against dissidents and ethnic minorities, and the general political infighting in the country, it becomes clear that Turkey is better off letting democracy take its course, even if it means the election of a moderate Islamist president.
Western analysts and the ruling elite worry that an Islamist leader would systematically undermine both Turkey's democratic institutions and its ties with Western countries. These fears are not altogether unjustified. During the late 1970s, myriad Islamic extremist groups vied with the Turkish government for control of the mostly rural eastern part of the country. A clear distinction, however, must be made between the moderate Turkish Islamic parties operating today and these now defunct extremist groups. Erdogan has said that "religion has no part to play in the [AK] party's ideology," and the history of Islamist parties in Turkish politics corroborates his claim. For example, Necmettin Erbakan became prime minister of Turkey in June 1996 when his pro-Islamic Welfare Party won a plurality of seats in the Turkish parliament. Though he did open diplomatic channels with Iraq against US wishes, Erbakan adhered to a fundamentally pro-Western foreign policy. Among other things, he welcomed the addition of US milit ary bases in eastern Turkey to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq and worked to achieve Turkey's admittance into the European Union by implementing a significant reform program. …