Monday, 28 July 2008

Turkey's moment of truth

The terrible bombings in Istanbul are a reminder of the threats that face Turkey. Reports suggest that Kurdish terrorists may be responsible on this occasion. But Turkey also faces a deeper threat to its future this week, as the constitutional court considers banning the governing AKP party and its leaders over their decision to allow head scarves at universities.

There is much to admire in Kemal Ataturk's secularist philosophy. It opened Turkey to new ideas and a greater tolerance for western ideas. It gave a greater equality to women than in many European countries. But Turkish secularism has itself become a rigidly conservative form of intolerance. The AKP, in its first term in power, did rather more than adopt a more pious Islamist approach: they opened up the economy and, arguably, did more to advance women's rights than any other government in recent years. It is true that they have become more defiant in their second term, with the head scarf decision and the promotion of a moderate Islamist as president. But they fought and won an election making clear they intended to do so.

This is why it is so intolerable that the intolerant 'guardians' of secularism should feel able to flout the democratic will of Turks. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone believe that the AKP are a vanguard of Saudi Wahabbism or extremist Islam. It hasn't helped the AKP's credibility that European Union membership has been effectively blocked by France and others. But this week the EU could make clear that if Turkey's 'guardians' of secularism mount a constitutional coup, then Turkey has no chance of EU membership; while, at the same time, being much clearer about the rewards that await a country that continues along a democratic and economically liberalising path. This week is a moment of truth for Turkey.

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