In his second inaugural address President Bush proclaimed: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Like most Americans we cherish democratic values and believe deeply in our system. But it’s increasingly clear that Bush’s vision for transforming world politics – particularly in the Middle East – has rammed into an enormous roadblock.
The essence of democracy is not majority rule, but tolerance of dissent and respect for minority rights. What happens when elections bring to power intolerant forces that impose their will on others? What happens when ethnic or religious factions feel abused and assert their right to self-rule?
Both issues are highlighted by the current political crisis in Turkey, a firm American ally in a dangerous neighborhood that shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. As a result, the president’s commitment to “democratic movements and institutions” is being put to a severe test.
Turkey is a Muslim country with a long history of secular politics dating back to the inspirational leadership of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. But today, Turkey is ruled by an Islamist party that wants to install one of its own leaders, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, as the nation’s president (who is now chosen by Parliament).
This prospect deeply alarms the country’s secular elite, which fears the imposition of Islamic laws and traditions. Gul’s wife, they note, wears a religious headscarf – exactly the sort of backward, old-world custom Ataturk tried so hard to eradicate from Turkish culture.
Demonstrations against Gul have choked the streets of major cities. Opposition parties blocked his election by boycotting the vote in Parliament, and the courts upheld their maneuver. Turkey’s large and powerful army, which sees itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, has threatened to intervene.
Meanwhile, Gul’s Justice and Development Party is trying to change the law and create a directly elected president, and the foreign minister confidently predicts he’d get 70 percent of the popular vote. “That’s why we have decided to go to the people,” he told the Turkish Press.
So what’s the pro-democratic position here? It’s not at all clear. The Islamist majority certainly has a point when it says “the people” should elect the president. And the army, which threatens to oust a popularly chosen government, is not exactly waving the banner of liberty...