A Showdown in Ankara

By Abramowitz, Morton | Newsweek International, June 11, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Showdown in Ankara


Abramowitz, Morton, Newsweek International


Byline: Morton Abramowitz

Turkey suffers a political crisis once a decade or so. The showdown now looming, however, may not end as such confrontations have in the past, with Islam in retreat. The conflict is also highlighting a key question with repercussions throughout the Muslim world and the West: namely, what role should Islam play in political life?

Ten years ago the generals who guard Turkey's secular tradition overthrew a coalition government headed by an Islamic fundamentalist and banned his party. This time, however, the ruling party (known in Turkish as the AKP) is refusing to go gently into the night. True, it has bent in the face of military and judicial pressure by withdrawing the nomination of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the presidency--a revered bastion of secular power. Yet the AKP has also contested the military's diktat by calling a general election. And it's in a strong position to do so: the party already enjoys a majority in Parliament and widespread popularity thanks to five years of effective rule, economic progress and political reform.

Another key difference between this crisis and past ones is that Turkey's economy has (so far) kept humming along; the lira has even risen in value. International markets have ignored the turmoil because of a consensus that no political party can reverse Turkey's reforms and its integration into the global economy.

Yet Turkey itself is increasingly divided. The secular establishment is deathly afraid of losing more power to the AKP, which draws much of its support from poor, pious Muslims. Secularists despise the party, and are sure that, given the opportunity, it would use the state to promote Islam in all aspects of Turkish life.

I was confronted by such attitudes on a recent trip. One friend, a professor, insisted, "You simply miss the increasing pressures that religious elements are impinging on our daily existence." He and others cited a mass of anecdotal evidence: their children are being harassed, liquor is getting harder to come by, religion has become the key to promotion in public institutions, and many parts of Istanbul now look more and more like the Middle East--boys and girls separated in many public places and women covered from head to foot. …

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