Separating Religion and Government; How to Preserve Secularism in Turkey

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 27, 2006 | Go to article overview

Separating Religion and Government; How to Preserve Secularism in Turkey


Byline: Tulin Daloglu, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recently visited Tehran to gauge whether it would be possible for officials from the United States and Iran to meet face to face in Istanbul. If it happens, it will help to de-escalate the nuclear stalemate, leaving behind the question of regime change in Iran to be the most difficult one to solve.

Mr. Gul's role, including his trip to Washington next week, could represent an opportunity for Turkey to regain some footing that it lost with the Bush administration when it did not support the war in Iraq. It could greatly enhance Turkey's stature if it were able to help broker a normalization in U.S.-Iran relations.

Caution, however, is key. Washington needs to be very careful about how it reaches out to Tehran while using an "Islamist" party as an intermediary. If things are not well orchestrated, Turkey-U.S. relations may take an irrecoverable turn.

Turkey refused to give the United States a northern front into Iraq because of geographical, historical and religious baggage. It shares borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria. It has been able to keep its sovereign land without ever being occupied by a foreign power, and it's the only country in the region that created a secular democracy out of a majority-Muslim population. The Islamic states of the region are engaged in a "hidden war" against Turkey, which, coupled with changes in the culture that make headscarves and the black hijab increasingly standard garb for women, indicate a larger friction between its secular government and political Islam.

Eric Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy and the ambassador to Ankara from 2003 to 2005, displayed a perfect understanding of Turkey's history and current challenges during a speech at the Washington Institute last week. Mr. Edelman discussed the legacies of the founding Turkish leaders Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Ismet Inonu and Turgut Ozal. "[T]he nation's strength remains in its strong founding principles, which still hold true decades later," he said. "Turkey can proudly look back on a great heritage for guidance in today's world: Kemal Ataturk's vision of a modernized Turkey anchored in the West; Ismet Inonu's commitment to carrying out democratization; and Turgut Ozal, whose courageous leadership during critical times made decisions that restored multiparty democracy, opened the economy, and positioned Turkey as a reliable ally committed to working with partners and friends on a shared vision for a better future."

Mr. Edelman also delicately addressed the most crucial vulnerability of Ataturk's government. "In some sense, Ataturk's successors have spent the past 70 years bringing means and ends back into balance," he said. …

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