Turkey's secular elites, whose attempts to portray the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leaders as religious extremists continue to fail, have now resorted to a ruse to achieve the desired but elusive results. But because of the determination of those targeted to fight back, analysts believe that the scheme will throw the country into turmoil; indeed it appears to have misfired already, by enhancing the AKP's image as a democratically-elected party. Confrontations between the AKP and the secular elite – including coup attempts – are nothing new. But the stage for the latest one was set on March 31, when the constitutional court decided to hear the indictment filed by the chief public prosecutor against the AKP and its leaders, including prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and president Abdullah Gul.
The prosecutor filed his case on March 14 to ban the AKP and to bar 70 of its officials, including Erdogan, from politics. He made a similar application to ban president Erdogan. His indictment was based on the absurd notion that the party "takes religion as its reference" and is determined to turn the secular state into an Islamic one, thus subverting the strictly secular constitution adopted after Turkey was declared a republic on October 29, 1923.
In his 162-page indictment he cites the AKP's planned relaxation of the ban on headscarves in universities as an example of how it is replacing secularism with Islamic principles. In fact, the plan is to make the wearing of headscarves optional rather than compulsory, and may be read as merely restoring to those who wish to wear them their ‘democratic right', which has been denied to Turkish women for more than 80 years, to do so. Yet the prosecutor then proceeds to accuse the party of "using democracy to reach its goal, which is installing sharia inTurkey."
There are also other weaknesses in the prosecutor's case against the AKP and its leaders. These include the reliance on allegations rather than facts, which are noticeably absent from the indictment, and the citation of ‘anti-secular' statements by Erdogan and Gul that were made orally in the past but written down later. Both men now insist that they support secularism. This has led some legal experts to say that the evidence against them is "anecdotal and unconvincing". But despite all this, the constitutional court has decided unanimously to hear the case against Erdogan and other leaders, and the case against president Gul on the basis of absolute majority. The experts have no doubt that the decision reinforces the suspicion that the case is politically motivated and will be considered "in political terms by a court committed to upholding secularism".
One of those experts, Ergun Ozbudun, professor of constitutional law at Bilkent University, is reported in a newspaper analysis as having said that "years of being dragged into Turkey's culture wars have made the court a political actor, part of the ideological struggle". This is no exaggeration: the court is known to have ordered the closure of more than twenty political parties since Turkey became a "multi-party democracy" in the 1940s. These include two "overtly Islamist predecessors of the AKP", as the analyst put it, which were closed in the 1990s. One of those was the Welfare Party, which was banned ten years ago. The ban followed the decision of the army to force out of office the then prime minister and leader of Welfare, Necmettin Erbakan. Indeed, the court is widely believed to take its orders from the army generals, and is known never to have rejected a petition to close down a party.
Taking into account these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the governments and media in the West that are opposed to the introduction of Islamic rule in Muslim countries nevertheless came out in strong opposition to the prosecutor's indictment, and praised the party's achievements. These include its success in securing popular backing, its respect for secular principles and its plans to introduce the constitutional changes needed to secure Turkey's membership of the European Union and to end the political power of the army generals, who control the secular elite. The party is also praised for providing the best government in Turkey since the second world war, transforming the country's economy and, most surprisingly, for respecting secular principles more than the secular elite and, therefore, being better qualified to prevent "strict Islamists" from taking power.
Such praise for the AKP following its indictment by the prosecutor come from even conservative members of the media, such as the Economist, the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune, and the European Commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso. All agree that banning the AKP is undemocratic and harmful to Turkey's application to join the EU.
An editorial in the Economist on April 5, for instance, heaps praise on the AKP, saying that "it has given Turkey its best government since the war, has modernised the penal code, given new rights to Kurds, other minorities and women." In addition to all this, the AKP "has brought the army under civilian control and presided over a stable, fast-growing economy – a record unmatched by any of its secular predecessors." The editorial also praises the party for securing in 2005 "a prize sought by Turkish governments for over 40 years: membership of the the EU."
Not surprisingly, the editorial has no doubt that Ataturk's secular tradition is the "best way to preserve liberal democracy in a Muslim country". But it asserts that both prime ministerErdogan and president Gul "have explicitly undertaken to stick to it". Accordingly, it dismisses as absurd the contention that "the lifting of a headscarf ban that was strictly enforced only a decade ago" will lead to "sharia law". It adds that the reforms promised by the AKP to prepare Turkey for EU membership "would make the establishment of an Islamic republic impossible."
The IHT (April 18) also agreed that it is wrong to ban a legitimately elected party and that such a ban "would cast a pall over Turkish democracy and make it harder ... for Turkey to gain membership [of the EU]." Manuel Barroso also agrees that banning a democratically elected party will harm Turkey's admission to the EU, asserting on April 10 that Turkey's integration into Europe would offer an alternative to “radical Islam” for Muslims
But despite this support, Turkey is not wanted in the EU. Both Germany and France are opposed to its membership, as Turkish leaders frequently complain. President Nicolas Sarkozy ofFrance candidly says that he will agree to partnership with Turkey but oppose its acceptance as an EU member. Clearly this attitude to a party seen as ‘moderately Islamist' is only part of the West's new diplomatic initiative to prevent “radical Islamists and terrorists” from gaining power.