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Crisis in Turkey?

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Robin Lustig | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 4 July 2008

Suppose I gave you a choice: you can live either in a secular state, in which religion and politics are kept strictly apart, or you can live in a democracy. But you can't have both - so which would you choose?

Suppose you've had a democratic election. The party that won has traditions rooted in religion - and although it denies any intention of allowing its religious beliefs to impinge on its policies, you're not convinced. Worse than that ... you strongly suspect that its leaders do intend to lull you into a false sense of security and then turn your country, step by step, into a fundamentalist theocracy.

Would you be justified in stopping them, by any means necessary, up to and including military force? After all, your country was founded on secular principles: are they not more important, enshrined as they are in the constitution, than the results of an imperfect electoral process?

Yes, I know I've over-simplified, but these are the questions at the heart of the deepening crisis in Turkey. And how they are resolved could have an immense impact on Europe's relations with its neighbour to the east over the coming decade.

Remember, Turkey wants to join the EU (it already belongs to NATO). But remember also that four times in the past 50 years, the army has stepped in to "protect" the country's secular traditions. Just this week, two senior retired generals were arrested in connection with allegations of a coup plot.

And the ruling AK party is facing a legal challenge to its very existence from the country's chief prosecutor, who wants to ban 71 of its most senior figures from public life for five years, on the grounds that there is a "real and present danger" of it creating an Islamic state. Among the people he wants to ban just happen to be the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the President, Abdullah Gul, whose wife created a furore last year because she prefers to appear in public with her hair covered by a hijab.

So here's some background for you: when Turkey arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, insisted that it must be a secular republic. (Article 2 of the constitution says: "The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law.") Kemalism has become a quasi-religion, a secular faith embraced for decades by the country's intellectual, nationalist and military elite.

But what happens to the democracy bit of the constitution if voters choose to back a party that is rooted in Islamism? The AK party, which has won the last two elections, owes its success in large part to support from Turkey's emerging rural middle class - and it is challenging the long-established political dominance of the urban, secular, liberal elite.

So this isn't just an argument about Islam in politics. It's also a good, old-fashioned power struggle between a deeply entrenched political elite and a new breed of politicians, many of whom are what we would call "modern" Muslims.

An example: when I went to meet an AKP mayor just outside Ankara last year, I was intrigued to find that the two young women working in his outer office both wore their hair uncovered. So did a newly-elected female AKP MP whom I interviewed the day after the election. So don't imagine that AKP women look as if they come from Iran. They don't.

But neither should you under-estimate the importance of the debate now under way in Turkey. The old cliché has it that the country has always stood at a cross-roads between Europe and Asia, and between Christianity and Islam. It now stands at a political cross-roads too.

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