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Analysis: Turkey's democratic dilemma

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- See if this makes sense: Turkey is Islamic. But not Arab. So it has good relations with Israel.

It has a secular, democratic tradition. But it's currently governed by an Islamic party that supports the United States against Iraq. Wow!

It goes back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. A national hero emerged to pick up the pieces and create the modern Turkish state -- Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- ``Father of the Turks.'' Ataturk turned Turkey to the West. And banned religion from public life.

``He committed the country to secularism, saying that there is only one civilization, Western civilization. Turkey has to find its place in there," said Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Militantly secular

Turkey is militantly secular. The Turkish military -- guardians of Ataturk's legacy -- suppresses any public expression of religion. As recently as 1997, the army pushed an Islamic government out of power for violating the nation's secular traditions. Imagine -- the military intervened to protect democracy!

In a speech in London late last year U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said, "Turkey offers a valuable model for Muslim majority countries striving to realize the goals of freedom, secularism and democracy."

Last November, the voters elected another party with Islamic roots, which immediately set out on a very non-Islamic path -- continuing efforts to join the European Union and siding with the United States against Iraq. Turkey's new Islamic government wants to prove to the military it can be trusted.

`` Now clearly if you're going to Washington, London and Paris, you are saying to the military, 'I'm on the same side that you're on,' " Aliriza said.

Most Turks oppose war

Polls show most Turks oppose war with Iraq and don't want U.S. forces on Turkish soil.

``Of all the countries of which America asked for help in the region, Turkey is the only democracy, which means that here the government simply cannot make a decision and ignore the response of the people," Somer Cagaptat of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told CNN last month

So the Turkish government needs to show it's trying to avoid war. And it's forcing the U.S. to pay a price for Turkish support. Not because the government is Islamic. Because it's democratic.


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