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That old-time religion

The religious right scored a convincing victory Sunday in Turkey. A country that was lost to Islam for most of the 20th century - in the sense that its constitutionally mandated secularism was rigorously policed by the military and the Europeanized elite that was in charge - is making room for religion again. This is democracy, Near East-style, and it's a potentially positive but definitely complicating development.

Led by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, the Justice and Development Party lost a few seats in parliament, but its overall vote total was up and it amounted to a clear endorsement from the voters. Its first big decision will be whether to nominate a devoutly religious candidate for the post of president - traditionally, one of the guarantors of Turkey's secularism.

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The party argues that despite its Islamic roots and the support it gets from those who want to stamp a strong Islamic identity on Turkey, it has already shown that it has no radical plans for the country. Its political opponents aren't sure. The party also argues that despite the growing and intense anti-American and anti-European feeling in the country, it wants good relations with Washington and the European Union. This is no doubt the case, but it's not a simple picture.

Turkey has more than 100,000 soldiers poised on the border with Kurdish Iraq. This is the doing of the military, traditionally America's staunchest ally in Turkey. An invasion of Iraq would have thoroughly unpredictable consequences - none of them likely to be positive.

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The party that is closest to the military in outlook came in a distant second in the election. Does this make the generals less inclined, or more inclined, to launch a destabilizing adventure into northern Iraq? The calculus could go either way. To obtain its goal of eventual admittance to the European Union, Turkey has to show that the military is staying out of politics, but its chances of joining the EU are steadily diminishing, in part because of the resurgence of Islam, so the generals may reach a point where they believe there is little to lose by acting.

If that debacle can be avoided, the evolution of a truly democratic Turkish government, Islamic in outlook but moderate in practice, is clearly better than stifling religious feeling. A first lady in a headscarf in Ankara should be no more alarming than the sight of Laura Bush at a church service in Washington. It would make some Turks very anxious, though, and understandably - strong currents are stirring in the Muslim world, and it's not at all clear where they're heading. But Turkey could become an example, helping to steer these currents toward reasonable and democratic outcomes.



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