Bridging Europe and Asia, Turkey again tests whether Islam can coexist with democracy
ISTANBULWalk down the pedestrian-jammed Istiklal Street in Istanbul's fashionable Beyoglu neighborhood day or night, and you sense the tremendous energy that has been unleashed in Turkey during the past decade. Founded by Italian merchants in Byzantine times, this vibrant district, rising above the northern shore of the Golden Horn, was until recently one of the city's shabbier quarters. But since its conversion into a mostly car-free zone in the late 1990sone of the many shrewd calls made by the city's then Islamist governmentBeyoglu has taken off. The maze of narrow streets branching off the boutique-lined Istiklal buzz with trendy cafes, clubs, and restaurants, while apartments that sell faster than they can be refurbished appreciate at the clip of about 25 percent a year.
If he were alive today, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, would embrace this booming, cosmopolitan neighborhood as the fulfillment of his modernizing dream. And Beyoglu is only contemporary Turkey writ small, a dramatically compressed version of what is happening throughout the rest of the country.
Averaging around a 7 percent GDP growth rate for the past five years, Turkey is flooding the world with exports produced by its "Anatolian Tigers," as the heartland-born (and often religiously conservative) members of the new industrial and commercial elite are called. With inflation and taxes down, and with continuing prosperity expected, what's to complain about?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Grumbling, partisan sniping, and even large public demonstrations have become the order of day ever since Turkey's Supreme Courtnudged by threats of a military coup and a large pro-secularist rally in Istanbulannulled a parliamentary vote that made the candidate from the religiously tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) the likely successor to the presidency. Events surrounding the court's May 1 decision have brought to a head tensions that some analysts say had been building for at least a yeartensions that are bound up with modern Turkey's perennial debate over religion, democracy, and secularism.
Mosque and state. At issue, says an assortment of secularly oriented Turks, including the staunchly Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP), are the efforts of the governing AKP to bring religion into the center of the nation's political and civic life. If unchecked, the critics charge, the AKP would effectively dismantle the mosque-state barriers that Ataturk erected after creating a republic in 1923.
Not surprisingly, AKP leaders object. They deny that they are Islamists or have any designs on creating a religiously governed state. They claim only to be building a clean, open, and vigorously free-market society. If the AKP has an agenda, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly says, it is to prepare Turkey for membership in the European Unionand to do so despite recent rebuffs from Germany and France.
This is one domestic squabble that the whole world is watching, and not only because of the large question mark hovering over Turkey's bid to join the EU. The second-largest provider of troops to NATO after the United States, Turkey offers a much needed alternative to Russia as a passageway for pipelines bringing oil and gas from the Middle East and Central Asia to Europe.