Can secular Turkey survive democracy?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI, a former Dutch legislator and women's activist who now lives in the U.S., recently published her memoir, "Infidel."

SECULAR AND LIBERAL Turks have had a rude awakening from years of deep slumber. Kemal Ataturk’s heritage is about to be destroyed — not by an invading power but from within, by fellow Turks who yearn for an Islamic state.

Ever since Ataturk, Turkey has been divided into those who want to run state affairs on Islamic principles and those who want to keep Allah’s will from the public space.

The proponents of Islam in government, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development Party, have been remarkably successful. They have exploited the fact that you can use democratic means to erode democracy, employing a powerful strategy.

Three pillars of that strategy are worth discussion.

The first is Dawa, a tactic inspired by Islam’s founder, Muhammad. Dawa means to preach Islam as a way of life, including a way of government, perpetually and with conviction. Every convert is obligated to preach Islam to others, creating a grass-roots movement.

The secularists in Turkey underestimated this pillar and thus neglected competing with the Islamists for the hearts and minds of the electorate. Polls suggest that 70% of voters might still elect Gul president if Erdogan succeeds in changing the constitution so that the president can be elected directly. Any protest from the secularists against this evident popular will sounds irrational and undemocratic.

The second pillar is the improvement of the economy. No one can deny that when the secular parties were in power, the Turkish economy was in tatters. Since Erdogan took office, growth has been strong, with inflation down and foreign investment high.

The third pillar is taking control of two types of institutions in a democracy: those designed to educate civilians (education and media) and those designed to keep law and order (police, justice and the secret service).

After an initial attempt at Islamic revolution failed in 1997, when the military engineered a “soft coup” against elected Islamists, Erdogan and his party understood that gradualism would yield more lasting power. They surely realize that Islamizing Turkey entirely is possible only if they gain control of the army and the Constitutional Court, the two institutions that have helped preserve Turkey’s secular state.

The recent Constitutional Court ruling annulling the nomination of Gul for the presidency, after the military warned that it is the guardian of secularism, is only a temporary setback for the Islamists. Erdogan and Gul have another trick up their sleeves.

If they show the same restraint and patience that have brought them this far, they may achieve their aim by continuing to court membership in the European Union. Well-meaning but naive European leaders were manipulated by the ruling Islamists into saying that Turkey’s army should be placed under civil control, like all armies in EU member states.

In hindsight, Turkey’s secular liberals have only themselves to blame. They underestimated the power of Dawa, they failed at growing the economy and they have not realized that members of the EU have been manipulated.

An important trait of liberalism, however, is the opportunity to learn by trial and error. Turkish secular liberals must start their own grass-roots movement, one with the message of individual freedom. They must restore the confidence of the electorate in entrusting Turkey’s economy to them, and they must reconquer the institutions of education, information, police and justice.

They must also make EU leaders understand and respect the fact that the army and the Constitutional Court — besides defending the country and the constitution — are also, and maybe even more important, designed to protect Turkish democracy from Islam.

Bringing back true secularism does not mean just any secularism. It means secularism that protects individual freedoms and rights, not the ultra-nationalist kind that breeds an environment in which Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is a bestseller, the Armenian genocide is denied and minorities are persecuted. Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor, was murdered by such a nationalist.

It is this mix of virulent nationalism and predatory Islam in Turkey that makes the challenge for Turkish secular liberals greater than for any other liberal movement today.