Who is out to subvert the Turkish state? On July 14, Istanbul's top prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin, gave one grave and tantalizing answer. He announced indictments against 86 people, including military officers and prominent journalists, for allegedly "attempting to overthrow the Turkish government by force." The "Ergenekon" coup plotters apparently named their hard-core nationalist group after an idyllic valley evoked in the Turkish people's pre-Islamic founding myth. The prosecution claims they were out to unseat the Islamic-leaning government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by sowing chaos to provide a pretext for the army to step in.
But while a criminal court wades through the 2,455-page indictment and decides whether to hear that case, Turkey's constitutional court is considering a no less explosive trial against the government itself. The country's chief prosecutor has petitioned the court to outlaw the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and ban 71 of its members from politics for five years — including Erdogan. Their alleged crime: trying to destroy secularism and create an Islamic state in Turkey. A decision against the AKP is widely expected in August. That could force Erdogan to step down, and his party to regroup under a new name and leadership to contest fresh elections.
The dueling court cases underscore a quickening ideological clash over Turkey's future. The country's secularist establishment — the army, judiciary and urban élite — wants to preserve its vision of Turkey's modern destiny by keeping religion separate from government. But the AKP, the most successful party in recent Turkish history, is rooted in faith and has risen to power as more conservative and religious Turks find a political voice. On the question of how democracy, Islam and modernity can coexist under the rule of law, the two sides have radically — perhaps irreconcilably — different views.
The legal showdown has rattled investors — one reason why Istanbul's main stock index has fallen 40% this year — and has exacerbated a sense of polarization that pits democratic principles against secular ones. "This is a very dangerous situation," says Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "People who feel their way of life is threatened by the conservative Muslim majority want to stick with secularism rather than full democracy — and they aren't calculating the costs."
Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, but the rising tension is evidence that another zealously guarded set of beliefs also holds sway. The principle of state secularism was introduced in the 1920s by modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to purge the country of what he considered backward influences. But for leading members of the military, judiciary and civil service, Ataturk's dictates became a license to wage war on political Islam. They did so through coups in 1960 and 1971, the "soft coup" of 1997, and several bans on political parties. In the last decade, such interventions seemed unlikely as Turkey integrated with global markets and grew more prosperous. Now, many fear, the instability is back.
Relations between the secularist forces and the AKP, which was first elected to govern in 2002, have always been uneasy. But an extra measure of animosity has existed since April of last year, when the party sought to install one of its members, Abdullah Gul, as Turkey's President. The military objected, but Erdogan called early elections and appointed him anyway. The AKP then passed a constitutional amendment to lift a ban on head scarves in universities. Since many secularists view head scarves as a political symbol of an Islamic lifestyle, that amendment — struck down by the high court last month — became a key exhibit in the case against the AKP.
For Turks like Tuncay Ozkan, a 42-year-old TV executive prominent among the new generation of ardent secularist activists, Erdogan is a "fear king," whose party is "using God when it suits them" to amass power and wealth. "The AKP is like the Pied Piper," says Ozkan, who is in the process of launching a pro-secularist political party and TV station. "Everyone knows what they are really about."
Secularists like Ozkan are convinced the AKP wants to Islamicize Turkish society over time. Since the AKP came to power, its critics contend, senior civil servants have begun demanding that those seeking high-level positions have Muslim credentials. Many Turks report an increase in mahalle (neighborhood) pressure to adhere to conservative norms. Newspaper ads are being Photoshopped to lengthen sleeves and skirts. Rowers on a university team were recently beaten up by unidentified assailants for wearing shorts. Meanwhile, Erdogan has called on women to have at least three children, and his cabinet includes just one woman. Under the AKP, the share of women in the workforce has dropped, from 29% in 2000 to 22% in 2006.
Supporters of the AKP counter that the party doesn't encourage conservative social trends, but merely reflects them in its own policies. They say the AKP is opposed to Shari'a or Islamic law, and point out that its legislative agenda has been far more economically liberal and pro-Western than that of its secularist opponents.
Even many Turks who don't support the AKP view the latest secularist saber-rattling with distaste. "You can't ban the most popular party in the country. It's a joke," says Alpay. "This is not really about the threat to secularism; it is about the military using the threat to sustain its position in the country."
Banning the AKP won't neutralize the attraction its positions hold for millions of Turkish voters. And the mere threat of a ban has already drawn international condemnation, and has contributed to a slowdown in foreign investment as well as a weakening of Turkey's currency. That said, political Islam would indeed pose a future threat to the modern lifestyles of many Turks — and, despite the AKP's protestations, it's not unreasonable to suspect that the party might want to strengthen Islam's role in political life. Still, it's worth keeping such worries from spiraling out of control. After all, if secularists undermine Turkey's democratic institutions in the name of averting a still nebulous risk, their cure may prove far worse than the disease they fear.
6 months ago