Military leaders throughout history have invoked God or Allah before their decisive battles. In modern Turkey, the army calls on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. When the country’s senior generals issued their now infamous démarche on Friday threatening to block the election of a new president, the Great Man’s name and legacy were called in aid.

The battle the generals were joining – a dispute over the possible elevation of a man with an Islamist past to the presidency, a position whose incumbent has embodied the secular state since it was first occupied by Ataturk himself – was not just decisive. It goes to the heart of Turkey’s view of itself as a modern European nation. The question of whether Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister being proposed as president, is worthy of the post has split the country down the middle in recent days and raised the question of how, or whether, Turkey can reconcile its avowedly secular founding principles – the “Kemalist” ideology set forth by Ataturk – with its democratic practices and the increased visibility of its Muslim identity.

Democracy and secularism, two concepts that seem perfectly complementary in the west, are increasingly at odds in Turkey and the current crisis is the most serious manifestation so far of this clash.

As Turkish politics becomes more populist and representative of the broad mass of a deeply conservative society, this conflict becomes more pressing. It will undoubtedly help set the tone of the forthcoming general election that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, called for early summer in a bid to break the political deadlock over Mr Gul’s presidential candidacy. Mr Gul narrowly failed to win the presidency in the first round of voting by MPs; a second round of voting will be held on Sunday.

As any visitor to Ataturk’s beautifully landscaped and rather bombastic mausoleum in central Ankara can testify, the legacy of the soldier-statesman who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire is a vivid and living thing. To many Turks this columned and solemn memorial, which took 10 years to build and was completed in 1953, represents something sacred. It has become the manifestation in stone of secularism, a kind of cathedral to the country’s unofficial religion.

Of all the principles that animated the Kemalist revolution, the most enduring, important and misunderstood is the notion of secularism. “Secularism is the most defining element of the establishment of the republic,” says Omer Faruk Genckaya, professor of politics at Bilkent University. “It is a kind of religion in Turkey that is as important as Islam.”

The idea of secularism as religion is a paradox, but it helps to explain the singular notion of what Turkish secularism actually means. In mature democratic countries, the secular system means a strict separation of religion and the state, but absolute freedom to worship and hold religious beliefs. In Turkey, secularism goes further and embraces the French idea of laicism (in Turkish, laiklik). Turks are free to worship; even many senior military officers, who often come from humble rural backgrounds, have more or less complete freedom to be devout Muslims so long as they keep it private.

But for the several million Turks who attend mosque every Friday, the sermons they hear are written and vetted by the Department of Religious Affairs, a state institution. The result is that the Turkish state adopts both a hands-off policy towards religious worship, as would a modern liberal democracy, and a suffocating hands-on policy, fuelled by abiding suspicions of imams as obscurantists and counter-revolutionaries, to keep religion out of the political arena.

Omer Taspinar, an academic and commentator, argued in a newspaper column on Monday that the military’s “midnight declaration” reflects this Jacobin view. The military sees itself as the ultimate guardian of the secular ideal and has never hesitated to intervene when it felt things were going wrong, overthrowing four elected governments since 1960. Mr Taspinar compared the army’s attitude towards imams to the anti-clericalism of the French Third Republic. “In many ways, what France went through then is similar to what the Turkish Republic is going through today,” he wrote.

The problem for Turkey, however, is that modern secularism and revolutionary laicism are now in conflict. In France, secularism is equivalent to democracy. In Turkey, it is identified with westernisation and modernity. That is why the country’s secular inhabitants – not just army generals but bureaucrats, diplomats, professionals, academics, students, journalists and many others – cling so passionately to the idea of Turkey as a secular state. As Prof Taspinar wrote, “to become enlightened, nationalist, republican, modern and civilised, Turkish citizens – by definition – had to be secular.”

Ural Akbulut, rector of Middle East Technical University and one of Turkey’s leading Kemalists, puts it thus: “If we didn’t have secularism we wouldn’t have democracy. For Turks, first there is the nation, then secularism, then democracy.”

That is why the phrase “Turkey is secular and will remain secular”, rather than any appeal for more democracy, was the most loudly expressed slogan at last month’s two huge public demonstrations, in Ankara and Istanbul. These marches were to protest what a substantial number of modern people believe to be the creeping Islamisation of Turkish public life by a ruling party that already controls nearly every lever of power, from parliament to town halls, and now wants to secure the presidency.

The demonstrations were among the largest seen in Turkey and were remarkably representative of the wider population, suggesting that the sense of foreboding is not confined to urban centres. “This sort of public manifestation happens when people feel a real danger that the state is changing in ways they don’t want,” says Mustafa Aydin, dean of the department of international relations at TOBB University. “A lot of people are not happy to see someone at the top of the state whose secular and democratic credentials are not 100 per cent.”

The question of how much of a threat the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) actually poses to the secular state, however, is hotly debated. Mr Erdogan, Mr Gul and several senior figures in the party, including Bulent Arinc, the speaker of parliament, were once Islamist activists. Mr Gul was a member of the Welfare party, which formed part of the elected government that was ousted from behind the scenes in 1997 in what Turks have taken to calling a “post-modern coup”. Mr Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, was once imprisoned for making inflammatory Islamist comments in public. Mr Arnic is a deeply conservative man, who suggested last month that Turkey’s next president should be “pious”.

Both the government and the AKP deny that they have any hidden agenda. Mr Gul, who has become a respected figure on the European diplomatic scene as Turkey’s foreign minister, resents the implication that he harbours Islamist leanings today. Mr Erdogan seeks to portray the party’s religious inclinations as similar to those of Christian Democratic parties in Germany. “We are Muslim Democrats,” he has said more than once.

If the AKP has a hidden agenda, some observers say, it is remarkably well concealed after four years of intense scrutiny. Most of its attempts to promote Islamist causes in parliament have been inept failures, most spectacularly Mr Erdogan’s foolish attempt to introduce legislation that would have made adultery a crime. On each occasion, Turkey’s existing institutions, from the presidency to the constitutional court to parliament to the press, have been strong enough to see off the threats to secularism.

Many secularists argue that the real threat to the way of life of the average Turkish citizen comes not from above – from centrally directed government legislation – but from below. While Mr Erdogan has met constitutional hurdles at every turn, local officials in the vast swaths of Turkish public administration controlled by the AKP have no such hindrances. “Local governments are out of control,” Prof Akbulut says, pointing to increased incidence of alcohol bans in towns, to girls being scolded – or worse – for wearing miniskirts, and to segregation of the sexes in public places such as beaches.

Many of Turkey’s 72m people are rural and pious. As the country becomes more democratic in response to internal social developments and external pressure from the European Union, it is very likely that its Muslim identity will become more pronounced.

In this context, it could be argued that the current clash between the government and the military was an accident waiting to happen. Turkish secularism in its modern laicist guise, according to Prof Taspinar, has become antithetical to liberal democracy, which Kemalists believe could lead to an Islamist takeover. It has become “an authoritarian and elitist political doctrine that legitimises a political role for the Turkish military as the guardian of modernisation and progress”.

The idea that liberal democracy will lead to the emasculation of the military and the dilution of the republic’s founding principles, especially secularism, is therefore especially potent.

Some argue it is too soon for Turkey to elevate democracy over secularism, since the latter has not yet been secured. As Prof Akbulut suggests, Turkey has been fighting against radical Islam almost since the founding of the Ottoman Empire and the fight has not yet been won. “It is not very easy for Turkish people to believe that secularism is somehow guaranteed in Turkey after only 80 years,” he says. “Look at Iran. I remember when that was a secular country. Eighty years is a very short time in the life of a country.”

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