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Turkey and Islamism: The Debate

The primary rubbing point between the United States and Turkey right now is not related to radical Islam. Quite the opposite - it is related to the Marxist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish terrorist group which has taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, the AKP) continue to dominate Turkey's political scene, there are rising concerns on both sides of the Atlantic about the rise of Islamism in Turkey.

The two sides of this debate were on feature in two recent op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. The first, Mr. Erdogan's Turkey, Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar, argued that the AKP posed a threat to Turkish democracy, and was slyly and slowly but steadily eroding the country's independent institutions. Rubin argues:

...Over the party's four-year tenure, Mr. Erdogan has spoken of democracy, tolerance and liberalism, but waged a slow and steady assault on the system. He endorsed, for example, the dream of Turkey's secular elite to enter the European Union, but only to embrace reforms diluting the checks and balances of military constitutional enforcement...

The assault on the secular education system has been subtle but effective. Traditionally, students had three choices: enroll at religious academies (so-called Imam Hatips) and enter the clergy; learn a trade at vocational schools; or matriculate at secular high schools, attend university and pursue a career. Mr. Erdogan changed the system: By equating Imam Hatip degrees with high-school degrees, he enabled Islamist students to enter university and qualify for government jobs without ever mastering Western fundamentals. He also sought to bypass checks and balances. After the Higher Education Board composed of university rectors rejected his demands to make universities more welcoming of political Islam, the AKP-dominated parliament proposed to establish 15 new universities. While Mr. Erdogan told diplomats his goal was to promote education, Turkish academics say the move would enable him to handpick rectors and swamp the board with political henchmen...

Such tactics have become commonplace. At Mr. Erdogan's insistence and over the objections of many secularists, the AKP passed legislation to lower the mandatory retirement age of technocrats. This could mean replacement of nearly 4,000 out of 9,000 judges. Turks are suspicious that the AKP seeks to curtail judicial independence. In May 2005, AKP Parliamentary Speaker Bülent Arinç warned that the AKP might abolish the constitutional court if its judges continued to hamper its legislation. Mr. Erdogan's refusal to implement Supreme Court decisions levied against his government underline his contempt for rule of law. Last May, in the heat of the AKP's anti-judiciary rhetoric, an Islamist lawyer protesting the head scarf ban shouted "Allahu Akbar," opened fire in the Supreme Court and murdered a judge. Thousands attended his funeral, chanting pro-secular slogans. Mr. Erdogan was absent from the ceremony.

There have been other subtle changes. Mr. Erdogan has replaced nearly every member of the banking regulatory board with officials from the Islamic banking sector. Accusations of Saudi capital subsidizing AKP are rampant...

Rubin also takes aim at U.S. diplomacy, noting that U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson has publicly taken the side of the AKP against its secular political opponents, describing domestic criticism of Erdogan's Islamist policies as "political cacophony."

Matthew Kaminski, a member of the Journal's editorial board, took the opposite point of view (although without criticizing Rubin by name). Writing in Turkish Tiger: Freedom Thrives Even Under an 'Islamist' Government, Kaminski argues:

...The recent troubling news here, from Kurdish terrorism to the rise of political Islam and anti-Americanism to tensions with Europe, can't take away from Turkey's economic renaissance. New and old industries powered a 7% expansion in 2005, the fourth consecutive year that growth approached double digits; this year, it'll be around 5%. Inflation, an old Turkish non-delight, is under control. Inside the European Union's free-trade area since 1996, Turkey has done especially well with export-driven manufacturing. More than half of Europe's television sets are made here. Investors are taking notice; Citigroup last week bought 20% of the third-largest bank for $3.1 billion. Though the economic gap with Europe remains wide, Turks are spending their way to bourgeois respectability, buying, in the past year, $3.5 billion in imported cars. Consumer loans are up 120% in that time, housing 300%...

The good times have made for a richer civil society. Since the last military-led regime in 1980-83, notes author Hugh Pope, 27 private universities have been founded, mostly courtesy of tycoons like the Koç and Sabanci families. Sabanci University's art gallery last year put on a popular Picasso exhibit, a first in Istanbul; Rodin followed this summer. Associations and lobby groups are mushrooming; they are giving voice to competing interests and providing counterweights to the Islamists in charge, even as opposition parties remain weak. Turkish democracy has never been stronger...

While Turkey continues "talks" with European governments about entering the European Union, that prospect is all but dead. The major governments remain in support, but across Europe the publics are opposed, and their governments are starting to bend. Recently the French parliament passed the first reading of a bill that would make it a crime punishable by prison to deny that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians in the First World War. As this is in fact denied by virtually all Turks, not simply the nationalists, many very mainstream Turkish public figures would be inviting prosecution by travel to France if the bill becomes law. While such a law would serve no practical purpose for France, it would ensure that Turks know they are not welcome.

No, the real issue is whether or not Turkey will maintain its democratic institutions, or else make a U-turn toward history. There is no need to assume a choice between extremes; there is a middle ground in which Turkey could stay outside the EU, but maintain strong economic, military and diplomatic ties with the West, and be a force for peace and a non-threatening current of Islam. Yet that middle ground cannot be assumed, either.

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