Turkey is in the throes of a constitutional crisis with profound implications for the country and the world. Over the past six years this nation, which throughout the 20th century had a powerful secular tradition, has been governed by a democratically elected Islamic party that is well respected in Europe. But the ruling Justice and Development party, the AKP, is now in trouble. That is because the country’s traditional secularists, backed by Turkey’s powerful military, have begun a series of actions that are little short of a coup against the AKP and its leaders.

The trigger for this conflict was a recent decision by the government to allow Islamic headscarves to be worn by women in public universities. To western observers, that would hardly seem an issue to warrant a big political clash. But in a country with Turkey’s secularist culture, it has caused profound offence among the traditional establishment.

This week, Turkey’s constitutional court began hearing a case brought by the public prosecutor to ban the AKP and forbid its leading figures, including the prime minister, to hold public office. Then on Tuesday, 21 people, including two retired army generals, were arrested in an investigation into an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

The hope must be that this attempt to overthrow the AKP is quickly and thoroughly dismissed. The AKP is a popular and liberal – although conservative – government, one that represents the modern face of Islam. The AKP also reflects the aspirations of the hitherto under-represented Turkish heartland of Anatolia.

On economic policy, it has doubled the income of Turks while investing heavily in the country’s future. Arguably, its decision to allow women to wear headscarves in public universities should not have been top of its agenda. But there is a clear problem of equity if women are denied access to education because of a headscarf ban.

The crisis should also serve as a warning to the European Union. The EU must rethink its faltering degree of engagement with Turkey. If its members had united to offer Turkey a firm and optimistic timetable for accession, instead of constantly raising the bar to entry, it would have kept both the generals and the AKP focused on a European destination. It is because few in Turkey now pin any hope on the EU accession process that the country is on the verge of a “constitutional” coup. The EU must abandon its equivocation and division towards Turkey. But it is very late in the day.

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