Cliff May

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – Why aren’t more moderate Muslims protesting against Islamism? Actually, hundreds of thousands have been doing exactly that -- marching in the streets of Turkey’s major cities to insist on strict separation of mosque and state.

To be sure, Turkey is unique. Though its population is 99 percent Muslim, its modern traditions are solidly secular. In recent days, millions of Turks have been as excited as “American Idol” fans over one of the country’s most popular singers, Kenan Dogulu, winning fourth place in the Eurovision song contest. (Accompanied by scantily clad backup singers, Dogulu wowed audiences with his version of “Shake it Up Shekerim.”)

At Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, where I attended a more sedate gathering last week, an international forum on “The Role of Leadership in International Relations,” the Turkish flag, red with a Muslim crescent and star, is displayed alongside both American and Israeli flags. Can you imagine seeing that in Cairo or Jordan? Can you imagine seeing that at Oxford, the Sorbonne – or Harvard, for that matter?

Turkey straddles the borders between the West and the Middle East. A bridge literally connects the European and Asian sections of Istanbul. Turkey belongs to NATO: Its army is larger than that of any other member of the military alliance except for the U.S. Its economy has become the 16th largest in the world.

The modern Turkish state arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany defeated in World War I. Turkey’s George Washington, the war hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (he led the Turks against the British at Gallipoli), continues to be revered – his sayings inscribed in public places, photos of him gracing not just government buildings but also private shops, restaurants and homes.

At the heart of the Kemalist vision is secular republicanism. But Islamism – the fusion of religion and political power – also has its adherents. Their numbers appear to be growing.

Turkey’s current government is dominated by an Islamist party: the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Erdogan’s recent nomination of another member of the AKP for the presidency – which would give the party control of all branches of government for the first time – has distressed, frightened and angered secular Turks, whose political parties, though no doubt representing a larger percentage of the population, have been too fractious to form effective coalitions.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.