The Religious-Secular Divide and the Battle for Turkey’s Future

The Religious-Secular Divide and the Battle for Turkey’s Future

Suspended between an uncertain Muslim world and a democratic Europe, a battle is brewing between Islamists and secularists in Turkey. Under a sea of red-and-white Turkish flags, tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets in the Black Sea coastal town of Samsun in late May in a series of rallies against the pro-Islamic government led by AKP, which they fear is conspiring to force its religious values on society. "No to Sharia," "Turkey is secular and will remain secular," the protesters, predominantly women and youth, recited in a growing chorus of demonstrations. This latest display of secular strength follows mammoth demonstrations in the country's three largest cities -- Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara -- attracting as many as one and a half million people at each stop.

The acrimonious contest between the republic's pious and its Westernized secularists has reached a fever pitch in the past month over the nomination of Abdullah Gül, Turkey's pro-Islamic foreign minister, for the post of Turkish presidency. This position is the apex of Turkey's sacred secularism, which draws its strength from the country's much-revered founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who inscribed secularism deep into state's political infrastructure. Far from being a mere figurehead, the president has various veto powers to deter any government actions that might be deemed threats to the Kemalist republic. In this capacity, the president performs the duty of selecting and appointing governors, police chiefs, members of the Higher Education Board, university rectors, and senior judicial officials.

As Youseff Ibrahim cautioned in a recent article in the New York Sun, under Turkey's parliamentary system, a pro-Islamic president, collaborating with "an Islamist prime minister and parliament, would create a cabal of irreversible power that could continue changing the face of Turkey." In an effort to salvage Kemalism from the Islamic siege, the Constitutional Court promptly annulled Gül's nomination --leading Gül to subsequently withdraw his candidacy. But according to the secularists, this is only a temporary setback in the party's efforts to "Arabize" Turkey. Indeed, the determined and patient team that Erdogan and Gül are, they have already taken a swing back at the establishment: They called early elections and passed a constitutional amendment to let the Turkish public, rather than the Parliament, elect the future president.

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