Leading article: Sound the alarm bells for Turkey

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The Independent Online
The fall of Turkey's conservative government yesterday should set alarm bells ringing in the West. It is not that the country is about to be delivered into the hands of the Islamist Welfare Party, though that is possible. What should concern Turkey's friends in the West is how badly the established parties have bungled things, for it is that which has given the religious party its entree.

Turkey is avowedly a secular state, though in practice the links between mosque and state are strong. But as a modern nation, rooted in the modernising ethic of the Kemalist revolution, it has made an effort to subordinate religion to the needs of the state. The Welfare Party stands in opposition to that tradition.

It is not just Turkey where the attempt to divorce government from religion is under threat. India, too, is a secular state, where the aim has been to bridge the sectarian divides that run through a sub-continent. That is not a vision to which the Hindu Nationalist BJP subscribes: it wants to enshrine the defence and assertion of Hindu values. In Israel, too, the smaller religious parties did well at the recent elections.

There is a plausible argument that sees the very idea of the secular state as being under threat, divorcing as it does the practical business of government from the defence of strongly felt local cultural and spiritual values. Samuel Huntington, the American academic and former national security official, has argued that religious cleavages will constitute the next great international battle lines, replacing the ideological split of the Cold War years. It is superficially attractive, as a saloon-bar version of international affairs. Fundamentalism is on the rise, Islam is a threat, and hence it is time to go back to the barricades again.

This is a useful idea if you're trying to sell a book, or revive the international arms industry, or launch a crusade; but it wilfully misunderstands the dynamics of the countries where religion is on the rise. There is no single force for fundamentalism, nor any necessary confrontation building between Christian and Islamic states.

There are, undoubtedly, many factors pressing electorates to abandon the established parties of government, and to seek salvation in more traditional credos. The past decade has seen surging pressure for free trade, open markets, and an end to traditional power structures. The globalisation of industry, financial markets, and media has little time for local sensibilities. These pressures have been particularly keenly felt in those nations that stand on the brink of entry into the developed world, where rapid industrialisation has dislocated fragile social and economic structures.

The established political parties in many of these countries are rotten to the core. India's Congress Party crumbled at the polls because its moral authority and probity had already disintegrated. Turkey's left is divided and weak; its right- and centre-right parties have proved incapable of maintaining a coalition government, and a whiff of corruption hangs over Ankara. With friends like this, secular liberal democracy has little need of enemies.

Secular liberal democracy is an ideal to be defended. Those who want to undermine it should be fought, tooth and nail, because they threaten tolerance, social progress and (in many cases) freedom. But that should not blind us to the fact that, very often, they succeed because the forces that are defending the secular state are culpable of worse stupidities, sometimes in the name of nothing more praiseworthy than personal gain.

Necmettin Erbakan, 70, who leads the Welfare Party, is not a particularly savoury character, to say the least, with his ridiculous idea of an anti- Turkish Zionist and capitalist plot. The religious vote in Turkey is probably no more than 10 per cent. But the Welfare Party won 22 per cent of the vote in the December 1995 elections. Its success, like that of the far right, owes more to the weakness of the centre than to any great longing in Turkey for an anti-Western revolution. Welfare does a good job in local government; many of its supporters are far from being anti-Western zealots; and it did, after all, come first in the elections. That is why Turkey's secular elite is ready to make cautious overtures to the Welfare Party, aware of both the party's popularity, and the growing difficulties of forming a government any other way.

Does it matter to us? Only 10 seconds' reflection on the history of European warfare over the past couple of hundred years leads to an understanding of Turkey's crucial geographical position, and the ethnic and ideological mix that results from that location. The stability of Turkey is vital for the West, and for Europe in particular. There is unrest all around: to the west in the Balkans, to the north in the former Soviet Union, to the east in the Caucasus, and to the south in Iraq, Iran and Syria. But the country's strategic importance, and knee-jerk rejection of Islam, should not blind the West to the inadequacies of its present leadership.

Mesut Yilmaz, the Prime Minister, and Tansu Ciller, Turkey's glamorous former prime minister and darling of the international conference circuit, have dismally failed to put together a coalition government so far, because of the enormous personal animosity that each feels for the other. Let them fight; let Welfare try its hand at forming a government. If it shows signs of trying to steer the country onto an anti-Western path, then the alarm bells must be sounded. But, surprisingly, the biggest present cause for concern is the miserable inadequacy of the secular mainstream, not Islamic reaction.