Is Turkey Deviating From Ataturk’s Path? Elections Will Tell

Is Turkey Deviating From Ataturk’s Path? Elections Will Tell

The indisputable father of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, accomplished great deeds in a short period of time. The greatest of these was the ease with which he weaved secularism into the fabric of a Muslim society. With his tantalizing and audacious reforms, he marched post-Ottoman Turkey unwaveringly toward the West and away from its Eastern neighbors. Among other reforms, Ataturk replaced the strict Islamic Shariah law with Swiss civil code, abolished state religion, secularized school curricula, and discouraged the use of the veil among women. Turkey's republican constitution, modeled after the French constitution, enshrined the country's commitment to secularism, referred to as Kemalism.

Today, Turkey's Kemalist secularism is under threat. This year, two events will have a critical effect on the future of Turkey's deeply ingrained secularist tradition. For the first time since 1973, Turks will go to the polls to elect both a president and a parliament that could revolutionize the country's political dynamics. If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declares his candidacy and wins the presidency and his pro-Islamic party AKP (Justice and Development Party) regains parliamentary majority, "Islamists would control all Turkish offices and be positioned to erode secularism and redefine state and society," cautions historian Michael Rubin in the AEI Middle Eastern Outlook. Oktay Eksi, Turkey's respected columnist in the mass-circulation daily Hurriyet, echoes the same theme (in Turkish) in a Feb. 28 post: "Tayyip Erdogan's ascendancy to the presidency would constitute a stupendous blow to [the 80 year old] Turkish Republic, founded by our great Ataturk."

Worries about the future of secularism in Turkey are real. Ten years ago, while mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan's rhetoric bristled with Islamic sentiments. Democracy, he declared at the time, was like an automobile: "You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off." Beaming with pride, and casting his usual unsettling gaze into the TV camera, he also declared, "One cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time. . . . The Muslim world is waiting for the Turkish people to rise up." Then there was the time he was convicted for inciting religious animosity by reciting the following lines in the public arena: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers. . . . This holy army guards my religion." The recital would cost him four months in prison.

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