The assassination of Turkish judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin has set off a firestorm in the Turkish capital of Ankara. Members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were loudly booed by the crowd, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan did not attend the funeral. However, Turkish generals were cheered.
Turkey has been a strongly secular country since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the reforms of Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. On several occasions, the Turkish military has felt forced to step in and act to prevent governments from undermining the democratic tradition in Turkey. In 1998 the Turkish military asked then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to resign due to his position on religion in Turkey. Erbakan did stand down, and his Welfare Party was banned from Turkish politics. However, Prime Minister Erdogan was a member of the Welfare Party.
Erdogan himself is problematic for many in Turkey. In 1998, he was arrested for inciting religious hatred and served a ten-month sentence. He had a history of supporting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Turkish newspapers showed pictures of him with Afghan warlord Gelbuddin Hekmatyar. The anger of the Turkish people towards Erdogan expressed at the funeral comes directly from the sentiment that Erdogan would lead Turkey away from their secular principles and towards an Islamic government.
It is probably a good sign that the Turkish people are rejecting Islamism, and while Turkish anti-Americanism is a problem, especially with the Turkish mass media’s insatiable desire for anti-American fantasies such as Iraq: Valley of the Wolves and Metal Storm – stories with a distinctly anti-American bent. US/Turkish relations may be somewhat strained, but the Turkish government and military understand the value of our shared interests and won’t take things too far.
Erdogan’s government is almost certainly in trouble. The military may end up asking him to resign once more and new elections may be called – and unless the situation spirals into a coup that eventuality may not be so bad. At the very least, Erdogan is going to have to start showing his secularist credentials through some serious actions such as enforcing Turkey’s ban on Islamic headscarves.
Turkey is in some ways a model for Iraq – the Turks have proved that an Muslim country can maintain democracy over the long term, even if it isn’t as stable as other countries. The fact that we’re seeing protests for secularism and democracy indicate how well these concepts have become part of the Turkish national character. Turkey is hardly a model democracy, but it is vastly more democratic than most Muslim states in the region, and its example can be a guide to its neighbor to the southeast.
UPDATE: Michael Rubin has more on the situation there. He’s right, we’re very lucky that this is a pro-democracy movement and not the other way around. Atutürk’s secularism remains alive and well 80 years later…