Daniel Howden: The world's most important political project

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The Independent Online

The project to create a country that is Muslim, democratic, secular, financially stable and connects the Europe Union with the Middle East makes Turkey possibly the most important political experiment in the world today. And it is on the brink of collapse.

The emergence of a democratically elected government, with its roots in political Islam, in a country where 99 per cent are Muslim, has coincided with enormous political, social and economic progress.

The engine for much of this progress has been the prospect of EU membership. Just as the historical logic of an expanding bloc of rich nations compelled Serbia to arrest war criminals, so it has tempted Turkey to reform.

For six years, a moderate Islamic party has overhauled the legal system and the economy, fostered an expanding middle class and driven the country's bid for entry to the European club. This record has done little to ease the fears of its critics. They perceive a creeping effort to Islamise the country of 70 million and have used parliament, the threat of a coup and now the courts to stop it.

Turkey's generals have been self-styled guardians of secular rule since the establishment of the modern country by Ataturk. For decades, political parties were removed from power on their whim.

The "secular" governments were frequently mired in corruption and beset by financial collapses. Progress stalled, and outside the metropolitan elite, millions of Turks failed to see any secular dividend.

Their unpopularity did what it has also done in Pakistan and Egypt and turned political Islam into a major force. It was from this platform that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made himself the most popular politician in the country. He had to see off court cases and a political ban to take office and has had to return to the polls regularly to reaffirm his mandate. Turkey's chief prosecutor's attempt to outlaw his party is the military's last chance to capitalise on unease in sections of the public at political Islam, and entrench their own power.

The coming crisis will not worry EU countries such as France, Austria and Germany, who have watched Turkey's progress towards joining the EU stall with quiet satisfaction.

They are keenly aware that popular opposition to Turkey's membership – and the flood of immigration it might bring – has been building. Depending on the outcome of this case, Turkey's EU opponents may not need to lift a finger to stop the experiment that offered hope to the entire region. Instead, it will be allowed to suffocate slowly.