by Austin Bay
September 14, 2010
The struggle for Turkey's political soul continues -- and
Turkey's self-proclaimed moderate Islamists are winning. The struggle has major
implications for the global war on militant Islamist terror groups like
This past Sunday, a constitutional referendum provided the
latest battleground for the ongoing political war between Turkish Islamists and
secularists. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a political
movement openly favoring Islamist policies, advocated the constitutional
changes, and it won in a landslide. Fifty-eight percent of the country
supported the AKP. The most critical changes affect the Turkish judiciary.
The AKP promotes itself as a "moderate" Islamist
political party that believes moral values provide a bulwark against political
corruption. It regards its opponents as hard-line secularists who run Turkey's
"Deep State," a code word for a nefarious Turkish underworld of
corruption, cronyism and manipulation tied to the Turkish military.
The AKP's opposition, centered in the secularist Republican
Peoples Party (CHP), cast the referendum as another step in the destruction of
the secular republic established by Turkey's 20th century political and
military genius, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk strongly believed radical Muslims
insisting on imposing Shariah (Islamic) law were the greatest long-term threat
to Turkish modernization. The Kemalists, as his political heirs proudly call
themselves, label the AKP as a collection of stealth radical Islamists whose
moralist balderdash cloaks a plot to create a theological tyranny and feudal
The AKP responds by accusing the secularists of having
corrupted Ataturk's progressive legacy.
Turkey's leading political organizations both portray the
choice between them as "either us or darkness." This rhetorical
demonization is typical of successful democracies. Ataturk deserves credit for
establishing a democratic structure that survived his death in 1938 by 72
Turkey's actual circumstances, however, are much more
complex and murky. Start with the referendum's irony. The constitution had many
undemocratic articles and was in fact imposed by the military after a coup in
1980. The European Union ruled that many of these elements did not meet EU
membership standards. Thus the ironic situation of an Islamist political party
promoting constitutional changes in order to meet Western European democratic
standards. Aligning Turkey with Europe was one of Kemal Ataturk's long-term
Yet the judicial reforms approved this week may be an
anti-democratic trap door, for they give the AKP the ability to limit systemic
checks and balances on executive power. The AKP can pack the courts. The
judiciary has protected the Turkish military. The AKP distrusts the military
because it fears a coup, and with good reason. The military sees itself as the
protector of the secular state and a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalist
Will the Kemalist democratic structures survive an empowered
This is an important question for everyone with an interest
in seeing reformed Islamists maintain a secular democratic state and continue
the process of economic and political integration with Europe. Everyone in this
case is the vast majority of the civilized world because the prosperous
existence of such a polity would deal militant Islamist terror groups like
al-Qaida a complete ideological and political defeat.
These are high stakes, indeed.
I have tended to be an optimist about the AKP, in part
because the CHP governments of the 1990s were so terribly corrupt. In my view,
the Kemalist corruption damaged Ataturk's legacy. However, history also
justifies Ataturk's concern for the threat to Turkey posed by anti-democratic
Islamists. Today, accusations of corruption tag the AKP, and the AKP's foreign
policy gyrations over the last three years do not bode well of stable
After Sunday's election, I had the opportunity to chat with
Gerald Robbins, senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute. Robbins'
take is dire. "Although the military is now subject to civilian courts and
their oversight, the very composition of those courts is fraught with
controversy." The court packing to favor the AKP may well occur.
Turkey Prime Minister and leader of the AKP Recep Tayyip
Erdogan has, in Robbin's view "effectively scuttled the
secularist-dominated military and judicial power bases under the auspices of
greater 'democratization.'" Then Robbins added, "Sept. 12, 2010,
might be marked as the day Kemal Ataturk's secularist vision effectively ended,
and a new Islamist-influenced era began."
I told him I hope he is wrong. My gut says he isn't. The
last thing Turkey and the world need is a Sultan Erdogan.