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Friday, 20 July 2007

20 July 2007

You know what an email is; and you know what e-commerce is (it’s when you buy a book, a CD, or book a hotel room online). But how about an e-coup?

Here in Turkey, that’s what they say they experienced last April, when the army put a statement on its website. If necessary, said a message from the top brass, they were ready to act to 'protect secularism'.

It didn’t need tanks in the streets or martial music blaring over the TV. The message was clear enough: Islamists, be careful. The army is watching you. Not a coup, but an e-coup (or at least the implied threat of one.)

This, remember, is a country – a member of NATO which also wants to be a member of the EU –where there have been two military coups (1960 and 1980) in less than 50 years. The army has also forced two more governments from power in 1971 and 1997. So when the military warns, Turkey listens.

Can secularism be a religion? Because if it can, it would be the official religion of Turkey. Or perhaps Kemalism is the better term, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. (A couple of days ago, I visited the place in central Anatolia where he started his revolution in 1919.) Kemalism involves reformism, republicanism and populism, as well as secularism, which Ataturk defined as the absence of religious interference in government affairs.

Sorry about the history lesson, but if you want to understand the elections here on Sunday – which arguably are the most important in this nation’s modern history -- you do need to know just a bit about how this country was created out of the ashes of the defeated Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War.

But now let’s fast forward to 2007. Kemalism is still the state religion. But, er, the party in power for the past four and a half years is a party with a strong Islamist tradition. The party leader and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, served four months in jail in 1999 for “inciting religious hatred”. His critics say he is planning to instal Islamism in Turkey by stealth … they quote him as having once said that “democracy is a train taking us to our destination”, by which they say he meant an Islamist state.

So far, there’s not much sign of it happening. But what prompted the army to rattle its sabres in April was a plan to make the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, another man with an Islamist past, president of the republic. (His wife covers her hair with a headscarf, which in the eyes of Turkey’s secularists is definitely a step too far.)

Here, then, is the choice for Turkey’s 40 million or so voters on Sunday. Do they renew Mr Erdogan’s mandate, as a way of saying thank you for nearly five years of stability and economic growth – and perhaps as a way of saying to the army and the country’s traditional political elite: “Your day is done” – or do they withdraw their support because they’re worried that Islam will play a greater role in public life under a renewed Erdogan government?

This is probably the most secular Muslim country in the world. Here in Istanbul, few women wear headscarves. But as I write these words close by the magnificent Aya Sofia, the greatest church in Christendom for 900 years and then a great mosque for another 500 years, I can hear the muezzin loudly calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

So, yes, the cliché is true: Turkey is a land of contradictions. On Sunday, just possibly, voters will have a chance to resolve a few of them.

I’ll be on air from Istanbul tonight (Friday) and again on Monday with the results of the election and what they might mean for Turkey’s future. Then I’m going to be taking a bit of a break – so the next newsletter will be with you on 17 August.

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