Allure of Islam Signals a Shift Within Turkey

November 28, 2006


Source: The New York Times

ANKARA, Turkey — A short 24 hours before a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to this Muslim country, its prime minister finally agreed to meet him publicly. The venue: the airport, on the Turkish leader’s way out of town.

A pedestrian street in Istanbul, where women in miniskirts and head scarves mingle. Turkey’s traditional secularism is under pressure.

The elaborate, last-minute choreography pointed to the deep divide that has festered within Turkish society since the foundation of the modern state. Should Turkey face eastward, toward its Muslim neighbors, or westward, toward Europe?

In the past five years, Muslims here have repeatedly felt betrayed by the West. The United States began holding Muslims without charge at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; it invaded Iraq and abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Turkey’s hopes of entering the European Union have dimmed. The pope made a speech citing criticism of Islam.

Turkey — a democratic Muslim country with a rigidly secular state — is at a pivot point. It is trying to navigate between the forces that want to pull it closer to Islam and the institutions that safeguard its secularism. Turkey’s pro-Islamic government is constrained by rules dictating secularism established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founder.