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Friday, 8 November, 2002, 19:49 GMT
Analysis: Turkey's testing times
Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan - a new breed of Muslim democrat?
The BBC's Roger Hardy

It's being called the Turkish experiment.

A Muslim party, elected by a convincing margin, is out to show it can govern a modern, democratic, secular state.

If the experiment succeeds, will it prove that Islam and democracy are compatible, and so provide a model for the rest of the Muslim world?

Turkish woman votes
Erdogan's party stormed to power

The issue of Islam and democracy has been hotly debated ever since a worldwide Islamic revival got under way in the 1970s.

Efforts to introduce Islamic government - in Iran, Sudan and under the Taleban regime in Afghanistan - have scarcely been glittering successes.

Muslim leaders have generally shown themselves to be no more democratic than their secular predecessors.

Democracy fears

Islamists have taken the example of Algeria as proof that the region's secular autocrats will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent an Islamic party winning power through the ballot box.

A decade ago, the Algerian military cancelled elections which the FIS, or Islamic Salvation Front, was poised to win, triggering a bloody conflict which continues to this day.

Many of the region's rulers draw a very different lesson from the Algerian example - that if free elections open the door to militant Islamists, then democracy is a luxury they cannot afford.

Plenty of people in the West feel the same way, even if they pay lip service to democracy as a universal value.

The Turkish exception

So can Turkey buck the trend? Is there something special about Turkey enabling it to avoid or overcome the problems which political Islam has posed in the Arab world and Iran?

In some ways, Turkey is different. Turkish Islam has many faces, from the whirling dervish of the tourist's guidebook to the smiling figure of Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party and victor in Sunday's elections, who could easily pass for a smartly dressed bank manager.

US fighter plane at Incirlik airbase
Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim member of Nato

The modern, politicised forms of Islam - made familiar by the FIS in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - are only part of the picture in Turkey.

One of the strongest forms of grass-roots Islam is that of the Sufi brotherhoods, which are still influential - and far removed from the radical Islamism of Iran or the Taleban.

The other distinguishing feature of Turkey is its degree of integration with the West over the last 80 years.

It is the only Muslim member of Nato, it is a close ally of the United States - and it is anxious to be accepted as a candidate for membership of the European Union.

This pro-Western orientation is a direct result of the choices made by the founding father of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who in the 1920s and 1930s forcefully modernised the country along Western, secular lines.

Can Erdogan succeed?

The strength of Ataturk's legacy has meant that the balance of forces in Turkish politics has consistently favoured the secularists.

Kemal Ataturk
Ataturk established a secular Turkey

The Islamists emerged as a political force in the 1970s, as they did elsewhere in the Muslim world, but their influence was limited by two decisive factors.

One was that most Turks are fairly relaxed about religion.

Opinion polls show they regard themselves as Muslim, but tend to see this as a private rather than public matter.

Secondly, the Islamists were up against the powerful military, who act as guardians of Ataturk's secular nationalism.

Tension between the two came to a head in 1997, when the generals forced from power Necmettin Erbakan, the country's first Islamist prime minister, after only a year in office.

Party's challenge

So can Tayyip Erdogan reassure the doubters, especially in the military, that he really is a democrat who accepts secularism?

He has big hurdles to jump over, not least the country's deep-seated economic crisis - which was surely the voters' main concern in last Sunday's elections.

But if any country can show that Islam and democracy are compatible, it may be Turkey.

Much hangs on the success or failure of the Turkish experiment.

Turkey's election

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07 Nov 02 | Europe
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