Turkey's army and the west's hypocrisy

A spontaneous demonstration in favour of secularism in Turkey was hailed as a beacon of hope but the

It was, without doubt, an impressive demonstration of people power, in a country on the edge of Europe that seeks to become a part of it. Almost a million Turks marched in Istanbul to show support for their secular republic. In an age when many in liberal, secular democracies in the west fear what they perceive as the relentless rise of militant political Islam, the sight of a spontaneous and authentic demonstration in a Muslim country was hailed as a beacon of hope. If only things were so simple. It would make a great script for a Hollywood movie.

The reality is more complicated. The demonstration was not in response to the imminent election of an Islamist government sworn to enact conservative religious laws. It was in response to the last-minute nomination of a venerated politician, Abdullah Gü, to the largely ceremonial role of president. The protest forced him to step down. Gü, who had been the country's foreign minister and played a significant role in Turkey's negotiations over membership of the European Union, had always had his eyes set on being prime minister. But the incumbent prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, put Gü's name forward as a presidential candidate.

What was so wrong with that? Gü belongs to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a Muslim democratic party, but it is a million miles from what we would normally understand as "Islamist": guided by clerics, aiming to enact and enforce religious laws. This is not what the AKP is about, and certainly not a reflection of Gü's career. Analysts in Turkey and the EU have praised the government of which he was a senior member for enacting the most liberal reforms Turkey has experienced, in both the economic and the social spheres. However, Turkey is a country with shifting identities; Muslim and European, part of the Middle East yet one of Israel's strongest military allies, Kurdish and Turkish, democratic yet beholden to the military. These contradictory voices cannot project fully in a monolithic system where there is one identity - secularism - and one arbiter of political power - the army.

Impressive as the demonstration in Istanbul was, it was the voice of the country's urban and middle-class elite.

Gü's party represents a dying political trend in Muslim countries worldwide. Like similar parties in Algeria, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt, the AKP is capitalising on disaffection with political systems that have monopolised power, whether it is the army in Turkey and Pakistan, or family dynasties such as the Assads in Syria and the Mubaraks in Egypt. The emergence of these political parties that appeal to professional and democratic Muslims has been perceived as a threat to stability, and they have been prevented repeatedly from competing fairly in elections - through vote-rigging, military intervention, imprisonment and intimidation.

The annulment of the polls that brought the Islamic Salvation Front to power in Algeria in the mid-1990s by the intervention of the army is a warning of what happens when moderate, democratically elected Muslim parties are prevented from taking office. By the most conservative estimates, the ensuing decade-long civil war left at least 60,000 people dead.

There is a nauseating hypocrisy to the way liberals in the west have applauded the army's intervention in Turkey. This is the same army that the left has criticised for decades for its policies towards the Kurds; the same army it has condemned for its unwillingness to admit to the Armenian genocide or permit it to be discussed. The west may be reassured by the army's actions, but divisions within Turkey will deepen, and with this crackdown, another country joins the list of those where moderate Muslims have no voice.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?