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Countries eyeing membership in the European Union do not usually come to the brink of a military coup. Yet that is precisely where Turkey found itself on April 27 of this year, after weeks of a pitched battle between the country's generals and the ruling Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP).
The AKP, a conservative populist movement with Islamic roots, had announced its decision to nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, a well-respected, jovial politician and the architect of the AKP's ambitious drive to get Turkey into the EU, to the largely ceremonial but prestigious post of president. The media and the business community welcomed the choice as a conciliatory sign; they were relieved that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the more mercurial and polarizing prime minister, would not be running. But the staunchly secularist military and the Republican People's Party (known as the CHP), a center-left opposition party, were not happy. To them, the presidency was the last bastion of secularism, and Gül, who once flirted with political Islam and whose wife wears a headscarf, posed an existential threat to the republic.
The CHP, along with other parties, boycotted the first round of the parliamentary election, held on April 27, and the vote proved inconclusive. There was little doubt that the AKP would eventually prevail, however, since in a third round, if it came to that, a simple majority would do. But that day, the CHP also challenged the whole process before the constitutional court, asking that the election be annulled on the dubious grounds that the legislature had lacked the necessary two-thirds quorum to vote. That night, all eyes were therefore on the court. And just as television pundits were debating how long it would take to issue a decision, sudden news from the military struck the country like lightning.
The generals had just staged the country's first "e-coup," as a dumbfounded Turkish press called it, by posting on the Turkish military's official Web site a warning that "if necessary, the Turkish Armed Forces will not hesitate to make their position and stance abundantly clear as the absolute defenders of secularism." Given Turkey's history -- the country has known four military interventions since 1960 -- the note was a thinly veiled threat that a more conventional coup might be in the offing.
The next day, the AKP condemned the military's attempt to influence the judiciary, but within 48 hours, the constitutional court decided that parliament did lack the quorum needed to hold elections for president. A coup was avoided, and a semblance of democracy maintained. With parliament now unable to select anyone at all, early general elections were called for July 22. Turkey was on edge during the following three months. Political polarization over the country's deeply rooted identity problems worsened amid concerns that the military might once again step in. Millions took to the streets in anti-AKP demonstrations, some orchestrated by retired generals. But Prime Minister Erdogan refused to be intimidated. During his campaign, he appealed to the pragmatic and democratic instincts of the Turkish people, asking them to consider his political and economic record rather than the sinister scenarios of creeping Islamization put forward by his opponents. The AKP government had doubled the country's per capita income, significantly improved its democratic record, and begun accession negotiations with the EU -- even the most zealous secularists would struggle to find an Islamist agenda behind all this.
Thus, the AKP's landslide victory in July -- it won 47 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent in 2002, when it first came to power -- was less a victory for Islam over secularism than a victory for the new democratic, pro-market, and globally integrated Turkey over the old authoritarian, statist, and introverted one. As many Turkish journalists wrote in its wake, the July 22 election represented "the people's memorandum" -- a rebuke to the generals' online memorandum of April 27. The AKP crowned its victory by electing Gül to the presidency in August. Since then, Gül has sought to ease the fears of his critics by declaring that he will abide by the secular principles of the republic and continue to steer Turkey toward the EU. Yet the top brass refused to salute him during his first official engagement and stayed away from his oath-taking ceremony. The military's shadow still looms large over Turkish democracy.
To be sure, alarmism about Islamization will continue to dominate the narrative of secularists in Turkey and the narrative in some Western circles for some time. But much of this anxiety is misplaced, for it overlooks both the radical and illiberal nature of Turkish secularism and the pragmatism of Turkey's reformed Islamists. It also overlooks an ironic role reversal: just as the AKP and its supporters have become more pro-Western and pro-globalization, the military and the Kemalist establishment have become more insular and more nationalist, and resentful of the EU and the United States.
The real challenge for Turkey will be to maintain a working democracy by keeping the military out of politics. This is a tall order, but the future of the most promising democratic experiment in the Muslim world is at stake. Turkey has simply come too far in its democratic journey to be consumed by problems that hark back to its founding years and to revert to the old days of military intervention.
A TORN COUNTRY
Turkey remains, as the political scientist Samuel Huntington once put it, a "torn country." It straddles the geographic and cultural borders of Europe and Asia without fully belonging to the civilization of either continent. Its relations with Europe, especially, have been fraught. Long seen as a military and religious threat, the Ottoman Empire played a crucial role in consolidating Europe's Christian identity. But in the late nineteenth century, as the empire's grandeur declined, Istanbul launched one of the earliest westernization projects in history. Having suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of European armies and having grudgingly recognized the superiority of Western military technique, the Ottoman military was the first institution to modernize. Its troops adopted European weapons, and its academies Western sciences and educational methods. Its top cadres became Europe's greatest emulators.
A more radical form of westernization came on the eve of World War I under the Young Turks and after the war under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatürk), the founder, in 1923, of the Turkish republic. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Kemalists, mostly military men who had been exposed to Western-style positivist education in Ottoman military academies, adopted a top-down project of radical modernization for the new Turkey. In an ambitious drive to import European civilization wholesale, the republic disposed of the caliphate, the Arabic alphabet, Islamic education, and the Sufi brotherhoods. It adopted Western legal codes from Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, together with the Latin alphabet and the Western calendar, Western holidays, and Western measuring systems. The country's official history and language were reworked. A new education system glorified pre-Islamic Turkic civilizations at the expense of the country's more recent Ottoman past, and many Arabic and Persian words were purged to create an "authentically" Turkish vocabulary. In the name of secularism, even the Arabic azan, the Islamic call to prayer, was translated into modern Turkish. The traditional Ottoman headgear, known as a fez, was banned. Women were prohibited from wearing the Islamic veil in public. And Western clothing became the new compulsory dress code for men.
Despite such ambitious reforms, however, Kemalist securalism barely infiltrated Turkish society at large. The rural and pious masses of Anatolia remained largely unaffected by the cultural reengineering taking place in Ankara; it was the military, the government bureaucracy, and the urban bourgeoisie who adapted most readily to Kemalism's thorough westernization. Winning hearts and minds in the countryside would have required the use of traditional and religious symbols, but those were anathema to the Turkish republic's founding fathers. In short order, the cultural gap between the Kemalist center and the Anatolian periphery had become insurmountable. As a CHP slogan from the 1920s put it, the Turkish government seemed to rule "For the People, Despite the People."
A CIVILIZING MISSION
Partly as a result, Kemalism promoted two ideologies that continue to divide Turkish society today. The first was radical secularism. The Kemalists' "civilizing mission," as it might be called, was strongly influenced by the French Revolution, its Jacobin leanings, and especially the French anticlerical tradition of laïcité, a particularly aggressive form of state-enforced secularism. In both France and Turkey, religion became a symbol of counterrevolution and opposition to the republic. Militantly committed to assuming progressive roles against reactionary enemies, the proponents of both French laïcité and its Kemalist equivalent, laiklik, were keen on taking religion out of the public sphere. For them, laiklik was the dividing line between enlightened and obscurantist, progressive and conservative, modern and traditional.
Laiklik readily grafted itself onto a long-standing tradition of state hegemony over religion, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman sultans had often enacted laws outside the realm of Islamic sharia, based on political rather than religious principles. When Islam and the Ottoman Empire's raison d'état clashed, the sultans favored the state. Likewise, the Kemalists maintained firm control over Islam because they saw religion as a political threat and Islam, in particular, as a cause of social, cultural, political, and economic decline. Having realized, however, that eradicating Islam altogether was not a realistic option, they tried to promote a "civilized" version of it. Instead of formally separating state and religion (as France did in 1905), modern Turkey monopolized religious functions and incorporated religious personnel into the state bureaucracy. To this day, the government-controlled Directorate of Religious Affairs supervises and regulates Islam throughout Turkey, appoints and pays the country's imams, and issues standardized sermons to be read out in thousands of mosques each Friday.
The second divisive ideology promoted by Kemalism was assimilationist nationalism. Modern Turkey pursued an active policy of assimilation of its Muslim minorities. "Turkishness" came to be defined as a common national, linguistic, and territorial identity. Taking France as its model again, the Kemalist regime rejected the concept of multiculturalism; no communal structure would stand between the republic and its citizens. Unlike the Ottoman elites, the Kemalists rejected multiethnic and multinational cosmopolitanism and banned Armenians, Greeks, and Jews from holding government jobs. Thus, ironically, the "secular" Turkish republic turned out to be less tolerant toward its non-Muslim minorities than the "Islamic" Ottoman Empire had been, partly because Turkishness was associated with being Muslim.
Predictably, assimilationist nationalism faced violent opposition from religious conservatives and ethnic Kurds, especially in the semiautonomous Kurdish provinces of southeastern Turkey, which had had little exposure to centralization even during Ottoman times. In fact, Kemalist supremacy was finally established only after the military suppressed more than a dozen Kurdish Islamic uprisings in the 1920s. These major rebellions traumatized the young republic's military leaders and created their suspicion of all things Kurdish and Islamic, which abides to this day. They also convinced the generals that from then on they would have to act as the custodians of secularism and nationalism.
After Atatürk's death, in 1938, Ismet Inönü, another military hero turned statesman, assumed the presidency. He kept Turkey out of World War II, but soon after the conflict ended, the Soviet Union's territorial ambitions became clear, and Turkey urgently wanted to join the free world. Before long, Turkey had become NATO's southern bulwark against the Soviet Union, and its credentials as an ally of the West were undisputed. In a Cold War world dominated by nuclear threats and a delicate balance of power, thorny questions concerning Turkey's military interventions, human rights standards, and Muslim identity were rarely raised. Turkey fell neatly into the bipolar configuration of the Cold War; realpolitik dictated its inclusion in "the West."
On the other hand, the Cold War also forced Turkey to enter the age of democracy. The prospect of joining NATO and qualifying for U.S. assistance under the Marshall Plan encouraged Inönü to hold multiparty elections. Furthermore, as communism emerged as the new major threat, Kemalist secularism and nationalism slowly lost their political relevance. So did Islam and Kurdish nationalism, the twin threats of the 1930s, at least on the surface. The new fault line dividing Turkey seemed to be ideological -- an opposition between the right and the left -- rather than religious or ethnic. Kurdish and Muslim dissent did not fully vanish, of course, but it was transformed. Kurdish discontent was redefined in terms of a class struggle, and it found a home in Turkey's fledgling socialist movement; political Islam joined forces with conservative anticommunist political parties.
Despite democratization, one thing hardly changed during the Cold War: Turkey remained politically unstable, and each time the Turkish General Staff thought the republic was in danger, it intervened, like a deus ex machina. It ousted civilian governments three times during the Cold War -- in 1960, 1971, and 1980 -- on each occasion staying in power only long enough to restore law and order. The 1960 coup ousted the Democrat Party, a conservative movement representing the Anatolian periphery that had easily won all the free elections held between 1950 and 1960. The deposed prime minister, Adnan Menderes, was sentenced to death for "subversion against the constitutional order."
The interventions of 1971 and 1980, for their part, had strong anti-leftist tendencies, and that of 1980, in particular, brutally crushed Kurdish and leftist dissent -- with counterproductive results. Instances of torture and killings in the Diyarbakir military prison between 1980 and 1983 helped plant the seeds of Kurdish ethnic separatism in Turkey's southeastern region. In 1984, a formerly Maoist Kurdish movement with a strong regional following, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), launched a separatist terrorist insurgency. The military junta's methods against the left between 1980 and 1983 proved equally ill advised. To depoliticize the left-leaning youth, the generals encouraged the practice of state-controlled Islam: they expanded the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, increased the number of Islamic high schools throughout the country, and introduced compulsory courses on religion in primary and middle schools. And in an attempt to create a united Turkish-Islamic front against communism, they tried to win over Muslim constituencies by granting them more rights; for instance, they struck a law prohibiting graduates of Islamic high schools from studying subjects other than theology at universities. But by doing so, the military inadvertently boosted the number of youths sympathetic to political Islam -- and these young Islamists began to express their views openly when the Cold War ended. The Turkish military had twice shot itself in the foot.
By the 1990s, it seemed as if the Turkish republic was back in the 1920s and 1930s, once again facing the twin challenges that had defined its founding years, political Islam and Kurdish dissent. And despite a radically different international context, Ankara's response took a classic Kemalist form: an authoritarian determination to reject any cultural or political compromise. The result was the lost decade of the 1990s -- a decade of war with Kurdish separatists, polarization between secularists and Islamists, economic turmoil, and systemic corruption.
The Kurdish crisis was particularly badly timed: it came just as Turkey needed to demonstrate its democratic credentials to the EU, which had seemed skeptical since Turkey first applied for membership, in 1963. The Turkish military's conflict with the Kurds cost the country dearly. Between 1984 and 1999, the internal struggle killed 40,000 people and consumed, in military expenditures alone, an estimated $120 billion. It seemed to quash all hope that the country might democratize soon. Also, to Ankara's dismay, the EU saw the conflict as the legitimate rebellion of an ethnic group whose cultural and political rights were being denied by an authoritarian regime.
THE ISLAMIC REVIVAL
In the meantime, the influence of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party rose, worsening the Kemalists' sense of insecurity. In 1994, at the height of both an acute financial crisis and the military struggle against Kurdish separatists, the Welfare Party shocked the secularist establishment by winning local elections nationwide and capturing control of Turkey's two largest metropolitan areas, Istanbul and Ankara: the capital would now be run by an Islamist mayor. Just a year later, another Welfare Party victory, this time in parliamentary elections, put an Islamist-led coalition in charge of the entire country.
The secularist establishment began to worry that the new Islamist-led government would adopt an overtly Islamic agenda and authoritarian manners. They feared it would suppress the secularist opposition, lift the headscarf ban, and challenge Turkey's alliances with Western states. In fact, the Welfare Party and Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan hardly broke from mainstream Turkish political practices. The party did try to plant its sympathizers in the ministries it controlled, but so had many previous governments. Still, the secularist press rang the alarm, warning of an imminent Islamist revolution. On February 28, 1997, the military -- in a concerted effort with civil-society organizations and the secularist press -- forced Erbakan and his party out of power.
This bloodless coup had major, if unintended, consequences. It paved the way for serious soul-searching among Turkey's Islamists, eventually causing a generational and ideological rift within their movement. The Welfare Party's pragmatic young leaders, such as Erdogan and Gül, recognized the red lines of Turkish secularism. (Erdogan, then the mayor of Istanbul, learned the lesson the hard way: he spent four months in jail in 1999 for reciting a poem with Islamic undertones.) And the secularist backlash against the Welfare Party futher convinced moderate Islamist politicians of the benefits of liberal democracy. After having participated in democratic politics for over three decades, they had already learned to temper their views in order to gain electoral legitimacy; by the late 1990s, political Islam was well integrated into the mainstream political system. When, in 2001, Erdogan created the AKP from the ashes of the recently dissolved Welfare Party, it was as a moderate conservative party.
Meanwhile, capitalism and private-sector-driven economic development helped a new religiously conservative base to emerge. The gradual political, social, and economic opening of Turkey under Prime Minister Turgut Özal during the 1980s had created an entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie in the heartland of Anatolia. These middle-class Muslims were globally integrated in terms of business but socially and culturally more insular than the elites in Istanbul and Ankara. In time, these small and medium-sized business groups -- the "Anatolian tigers," as political economists called them -- created their own financial networks and challenged the supremacy of the large industrial conglomerates based in Istanbul. By the turn of the millennium, the support of these businesspeople ended up proving crucial in helping the AKP shed its Islamist past and rebrand itself as a pro-market and pro-Western conservative democratic party.
At roughly the same time, EU leaders finally certified Turkey's "full eligibility" for EU membership, giving the AKP yet another boost. Turkey's candidacy was on track, and Erdogan, who understood that political liberalization would consolidate the AKP's power base, wisely placed the EU's guidelines for democratization at the top of the AKP's agenda. In so doing, he achieved two crucial objectives. First, he earned the support of Turkey's business community, liberal intellectuals, and pragmatic middle class. Second, and perhaps more important, he won political legitimacy in the eyes of the staunchly secularist military; the EU, after all, had been the ultimate prize in Atatürk's vision of a truly westernized Turkey. By distancing itself from political Islam and embracing democratic and liberal positions -- as well as condemning corruption -- the AKP also appealed to Turkey's impoverished underclass. The strategy paid off: in 2002, the party won the parliamentary elections.
The AKP government soon passed an impressive series of reforms to harmonize Turkey's judicial system, civil-military relations, and human rights practices with European norms. Thanks to its formidable grass-roots network, the AKP was able to provide much-needed social and economic services: it made health care and housing credits more accessible, distributed food, increased grants for students, improved the infrastructure of poorer urban districts, and made the promotion of minority rights for Kurds and non-Muslims a priority. Its efforts were not confined to democratization. Following guidelines from the International Monetary Fund's stabilization program, the party also managed to get the Turkish economy back on track after the economic crisis of 2001. Between 2002 and 2007, the Turkish economy grew by an average of 7.5 percent. Lower inflation and lower interest rates led to a major increase in domestic consumption, and thanks to a disciplined privatization program, the Turkish economy began to attract unprecedented amounts of foreign direct investment. The average per capita income nearly doubled, from $2,800 in 2001 to around $5,000 in 2007, exceeding those of some new EU members.
THE HIDDEN AGENDA
Yet even as the AKP moved closer to a more liberal order, the Kemalist segments of Turkish society grew increasingly suspicious that it had a hidden agenda. They feared that the AKP was exploiting the EU membership process to diminish the military's political role and eventually do away with Turkey's Kemalist legacy. They balked, for instance, at AKP measures to increase the ratio of civilians to military officers on the National Security Council, elect a civilian to head the NSC's secretariat, remove military representatives on the boards of the Council of Higher Education and the Radio and Television High Council, and grant Kurds broadcasting and cultural rights.
Another major bone of contention was Prime Minister Erdogan's willingness to compromise on the question of Cyprus. The AKP strongly supported a UN plan to reunify the island; the military adamantly opposed it. Since the deadlock over Cyprus was an important obstacle to Turkey's EU membership prospects, the issue polarized Turkish politics, creating pro-EU and anti-EU camps. The independent magazine Nokta recently revealed that a military coup over the issue of Cyprus was barely averted in 2004, due to divisions among the Turkish General Staff's top brass. In retrospect, the AKP seems to have been extremely lucky that the chief of the Turkish General Staff between 2002 and 2006 was Hilmi Özkök, a general deeply committed to civilian supremacy over the military; he is said to have restrained hard-liners in his camp.
Today, even the most ardent secularists within the military know they cannot successfully stage a coup against the AKP on the grounds that it has become too pro-Western; thus, their rallying cry has become the party's alleged agenda to slowly Islamize Turkey. The AKP has never hidden its desire to lift the ban on wearing headscarves in universities and end discriminatory measures against graduates of Islamic high schools (such as special criteria for their university entry examinations). And with more than 50 percent of Turkish women covering their heads, the party could easily get more confrontational without alienating too much of the electorate. But the AKP's leaders prefer to promote reform by building a national consensus around these issues rather than by challenging the secularist establishment head-on. Nevertheless, the secularists remain wary. They often point out Erdogan's brief attempt to criminalize adultery in 2004, his appointment of religious conservatives to bureaucratic positions, or attempts by the AKP to persuade certain municipalities to discourage the sale of alcohol.
The secularists and the Turkish military certainly have the right to be vigilant about Islamization. They may legitimately feel uneasy now that the AKP dominates the presidency as well as the legislative and executive branches. But one hopes that the July 22 elections have also made them understand that they will not strengthen their case by derailing the democratic process or bending constitutional law. The major increase in the AKP's popularity since 2002 confirmed that although Turks continue to respect the military, they prefer to see the generals in the military barracks rather than hovering by the ballot boxes.
It is now up to the generals to show maturity and restraint. Some hard-liners within the military may believe that it is the Kemalist tradition of strict secularism that has moderated Turkish Islam. And perhaps it has, to some extent. But they should remember that democracy and capitalism have done more to tame political Islam. And they should be mindful that radical secularism could eventually breed radical Islam. That Turkey has so far avoided such a predicament is no reason for pushing the limits of secularism. The experience of the Arab world clearly shows that authoritarianism only fuels extremism; in the absence of democracy, mosques become the only outlet for dissent, and Islam the only voice of resistance against tyranny. If the Turkish military goes too far in trying to repress moderate Islam, it will risk spawning a more radical version.
THE OCCIDENT EXPRESS
Under normal circumstances, one factor that might appease the secularist paranoia in Turkey would be the European leanings of the AKP, which has done much more than any other Turkish government to improve Turkey's chances of joining the EU. Lately, however, Turkey's European journey has looked increasingly problematic. Full-membership negotiations between Ankara and Brussels started in December 2005 but have been partially suspended recently because of the unresolved Cyprus issue. Pessimism prevails in both Turkey and Europe. The EU is suffering from enlargement fatigue, and since the French and the Dutch rejected the EU draft constitution in 2005, it is now much harder for European politicians to ignore public opinion. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, are reluctant to offer Turkey full membership. Partly as a result, according to polls, only 40 percent of Turks are now enthusiastic about accession, down from 75 percent in 2005. Although a majority of Turks still want to see their country become a proud member of the EU, an even larger majority believe the EU will never fully embrace Turkey, mainly because of its Muslim identity.
As the Turkish public grows frustrated with the EU's leaders, so it does with its own. The AKP's Muslim constituency was shocked by the European Court of Human Rights' 2005 decision to uphold a ban on Islamic headscarves in Turkish universities, on the grounds that it was necessary to "preserve the secular character of educational institutions." They had supported the EU process in the hope that, as the AKP promised, it would promote religious freedom in Turkey. Furthermore, the failure of the AKP's Cyprus policy to end the economic and political isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey, has left the party open to the charge that it has sold out Turkish interests to please the EU.
Thanks to the July election, Turkey's quest for EU membership will remain on track. Having suffered the most from the illiberal tendencies of the Turkish political system, the former Islamists continue to see the EU as their best hope for moving the country toward democracy and economic prosperity. But there are limits to what the AKP's pro-EU stance can accomplish, particularly at a time when the EU is sending Turkey mixed signals. The rising tide of Turkish nationalism, which brought the far-right Nationalist Movement Party back into parliament with 14 percent of the vote and gave the Euroskeptical CHP 20 percent, will also make it difficult for the AKP to create a national consensus on the EU.
Turkey's relations with the United States are faring no better, despite 50 years of a successful strategic partnership. The Turkish parliament's refusal to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish territory to launch an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 shocked Washington. And now the Turks deeply resent the effect that the war in Iraq has had on Kurdish separatism. Turkey's long-standing fear that independence-minded Kurdish nationalists would dominate northern Iraq -- thereby setting a dangerous example for Turkey's own 15 million Kurds -- has become a reality. Since the PKK has found a new safe haven in Iraq and resumed its attack on Turkish territories over the last two years, Turkish resentment of the United States is at an all-time high. The Bush administration's post-9/11 counterterrorist rhetoric has unwittingly added to the tensions: Washington's insistence that the advent of a moderate form of Islam in Turkey could be a model for the Middle East has been music to the ears of the AKP but an insult to the Kemalist secularists.
These external tensions also matter because they are heightening differences between the AKP and the secularist establishment in curious ways. The pressing domestic problem facing Turkey today is not Islamization, as both the Kemalist establishment and some anti-Islamic Western groups fear, but a growing nationalist frustration with Europe and the United States. An interesting paradox is emerging. The conservative AKP government, despite being a party with Islamic roots, has done much more than the previous secular governments to improve Turkey's chances of joining the EU. But even as these former Islamists have become enthusiastically pro-Western and pro-globalization, the Kemalist establishment is increasingly turning inward. In fact, today, retired generals are leading Turkey's neo-nationalist, anti-NATO, and anti-Western revival partly by advocating a pro-Russian and pro-Asian foreign policy orientation as an alternative. Herein lies Turkey's "Kemalist paradox": an ideology designed to westernize the country is now increasingly turning anti-EU and anti-American because the Kemalists consider the EU and Washington to be the main supporters of Kurdish nationalism -- in their eyes, an existential threat to the republic.
TAKING THE RIGHT SIDE
However Turkey's domestic politics evolve, they are likely to be shaped at least in part by Turkey's relations with the West; thus, the United States has an important role to play. In the past, Washington tacitly approved military coups in Turkey, especially anti-leftist putsches during the Cold War. Given the recent realignment of the Turkish political spectrum, one might have expected Washington to support the pro-Western and pro-democracy AKP against the military's e-coup of April 27. But unlike the EU, which immediately condemned the military's interference, Washington initially refused "to take sides," as Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried put it. Despite the Bush administration's continued lip service to the "freedom and democracy" agenda, State Department officials initially went so far as to defend the Turkish military's "constitutional duties" to protect secularism. It was only five days after the e-coup, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finally declared the United States' support for democracy in Turkey, that Washington's position fell in line with the EU's.
This high-wire act was probably the result of Washington's fear that a real coup might be in the making; unwilling to risk its relationship with the generals, Washington hedged. Another motivation for accommodating the Turkish General Staff may have been to keep Turkish forces out of Iraqi Kurdistan, currently the only stable part of Iraq. Washington deemed maintaining good communication channels with the Turkish generals to be in the United States' national interest, even if doing so inevitably came at the expense of Turkish democracy.
This is an unprincipled and misguided approach. Unambiguous support for Turkey's democratic process against any military intervention would serve U.S. interests much better. After all, there is little chance that a nationalist, Kemalist military junta would listen to U.S. concerns about the Kurdish question and northern Iraq. Moreover, Washington would be hard-pressed to find on Turkey's current political scene a better ally than the AKP to push for domestic democratic reforms and a pro-Western foreign policy. And having recently won overwhelming support from Turkey's Kurdish population, the AKP is likely to make new overtures to mainstream Kurds while fighting separatist terrorism. This would be a welcome development since it could catalyze a positive chain reaction: granting amnesty to Kurdish militants willing to lay down their arms, for example, could improve Turkey's democratic image in Europe.
The United States and the EU, for their part, should do much more to help Turkish democracy. Washington could start by addressing the PKK question more effectively, which would help prevent the militarization of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. Even a symbolic crackdown on PKK camps in northern Iraq would go a long way toward improving U.S.-Turkish relations. Alternatively, Washington could ask its Kurdish friends in Iraq to address the PKK question more effectively themselves, as a goodwill gesture to their Turkish neighbor. And the EU should show more flexibility on the Cyprus question in order to keep Turkey on track to reform. Opening trade relations with the Turkish part of Cyprus, for instance, could end the current deadlock in EU-Turkish relations.
The stakes are high. Not only is Turkey the most advanced democracy in the Muslim world, but it also shares borders with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It abuts Armenia and Georgia in the Caucasus and serves as an energy corridor through which the vast oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia pass to the West. A democratic and Western-oriented Turkey under the AKP's leadership would act as a stabilizing influence on Iraq, remain a valuable actor in Afghanistan, and set an example for the rest of the Muslim world. A resentful, authoritarian, and nationalist Turkey would be the opposite in every respect. More broadly, the success of Turkey's experiment in synthesizing Islam, secularism, and liberal democracy would be a rebuke to the "clash of civilizations" argument.
The July 22 election was a victory for Turkish democracy and a step in the right direction. It is now up to the AKP to show that it deserved such massive support -- and to the United States and Europe to help Turkey's positive transformation along.