In a news item you may have missed beside everything else going on this month, over 300,000 people attended a rally in Ankara, the capitol of Turkey, on April 14. With Turkey's population at 71 million according to the CIA World Factbook, this protest would be equivalent in scale to over a million people protesting in the United States. What ideals could bring so much of a nation together? What were these people in Ankara demonstrating for?
They rallied for secularism.
The rally in Ankara was also a rally against a person who the crowd saw as an enemy of secularism, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has a history of supporting Sharia and was once jailed for giving a speech in which he declared "the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers". While considering the strength of the protest, consider also that Erdogan was elected to the position of Prime Minister with his history already well known.
Turkey, with a secular government, is a Muslim-majority nation almost to the exception of other faiths. Both secularists and fundamentalists can claim heritage in Turkey's past. Before the first World War, what is now Turkey had been the center of Islamic authority for four hundred years. The Ottoman Caliphate which ruled the Middle East was one of the ultimate victims of that war. Under the leadership of Mustafa Ataturk, a military officer known for his victory at Gallipoli, Turkey underwent a cultural revolution similar in scale to that of Japan during the Meiji era. The reforms pushed by Ataturk replaced Sharia with a Western-style civil law, Latinized the language, granted equal rights to women, and guided the people towards a European lifestyle.
Erdogan's rise to power might appear to be a symptom of a worldwide rise in Islamic fundamentalism, but that would be an exaggeration. The situation for his election was already in place. There have been several past Islamist prime ministers of Turkey, a few of whom were extreme enough to have been overthrown by coups d'etat of the secularist armed forces. In the 1990s, the religiously-tinged Welfare Party was disbanded by court order and its leader, former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was sentenced to a year in jail for inciting religious hatred. Still, it must be noted that Erdogan's rise to power is taking place during a period of heightening violence, heightening rhetoric, and divisions rather than neighbourliness between the West and the world of Islam. This will affect the perceptions of the various people and nations for whom Turkey and this culture clash are an interest.
In particular, Turkey's church-and-state situation is going to be considered in Turkey's admission into the European Union. Turkey has been trying to join the European Union and its forerunner organizations, such as the European Economic Community, since the Ankara Agreement in the 1960s This sitution is only one of factors against Turkey's admission. Obviously, there are racial and cultural reasons for keeping Turkey out. Accepting Turkey is seen by the European right as more of an expansion of Asia into Europe than of Europe into Asia. In addition, the fact that Turkey has had a military coup every fifteen years or so raises questions as to the future stability of the nation, as does the off-and-on Kurdish rebellion in Turkey's southeast.
Turkey's adherence to European and Enlightenment values is also called into question by the refusal to admit to the Ottoman government's responsibility for massacring ethnic Armenains to put down a revolt during the 1910s. It is against the law to mention it, as doing so is sometimes prosecuted as insulting the nation. This is disturbingly similar to the situation in the neighbouring human-rights hellhole of Syria, where a civil rights activist was recently sentenced to five years in prison for weakening national morale.
One more strike against Turkey is not any action of the government, but the condition of the people. The worldwide rise of violent extremism in the name of Islam is not bypassing Turkey. This threatens a future of tyrannic misbehaviour bubbling up from the bottom, from the people, rather than coming down from the top. One recent example of this happening already is the brutal killing of three Christian missionaries by a small gang that killed them because they believed it was their duty as Muslims to do so. The state quickly found and cracked down on the group, but if that kind of idea spreads, it can grow beyond the ability of the secular state to control it.
The tensions between secularism and religion have heightened in the past few days as Turkey's parliament begins to choose a President to replace Ahmet Sezer, the former high court justice whose term expires this year. Under the rules, a majority of votes in Parliament would be enough if the first two votes fail to produce a two-thirds majority. Prime Minister Erdogan's recently formed Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, has a majority in Parliament and has chosen party co-founder and current Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, for the position. Under the circumstances, Gul's victory is almost certain. This has brought a worrying response from the Turkish armed forces. It is a bad enough sign that there is a response from the army in a matter of government, and it is worse that the response is barely veiled hostility to Gul's nomination. Naturally, the majority party is not happy about it.
We should keep an eye on Turkey for the next few years. If the Justice and Development Party survives November's upcoming Parliamentary elections, we might see if the concern about fundamentalist government is validated or if it is just scaremongering by Erdogan's and Gul's political opponents. Either case can affect Turkey's position in the world and the future of Middle East politics.