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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Secularism vs. Democratic Islam

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The Muslim world's liveliest democracy has long been a work in progress, but the stakes just got a lot higher for Turkey and the greater Middle East. Turkey's future as a pluralistic, free society is on the line.

Amid a presidential campaign marked by street protests and divisive rhetoric, the powerful military inserted itself into politics late Friday by threatening a coup. The generals and their secularist allies in the civil service and private sector are trying to derail the ruling party's selection for president. On Tuesday, the country's highest court sided with the secularists.

The crisis erupted last week when the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, by virtue of its majority in the parliament, nominated one of its own for the presidency. The job is currently held by a secularist, and the AKP choice would give a party with roots in the Islamist movement control over all branches of government for the first time. Despite the belief of some secularists that the AKP's "secret agenda" is to implant political Islam in Turkey, its five years in power have done more to entrench democracy and free markets than have most previous governments.

The AKP's candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, is a pro-Western moderate who spearheaded Turkey's political and economic reforms and helped secure an invitation to start membership talks with the European Union. But Gul got his political start in the Islamist movement and -- the greatest sin in secular eyes -- his wife wears a headscarf.

The battle came to a head Friday, when Gul failed by a slim margin to get the two-thirds needed to win. Then the military weighed in just before midnight with a statement posted on its web site. "It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces take sides in these debates and is the absolute defender of secularism," the missive read. "When necessary they will display their attitudes and actions very clearly." The message was lost on no Turk.

On Tuesday, the court annulled Friday's vote, ruling in favor of the opposition party that had boycotted the election. The judges, all staunchly secular, ruled that a two-thirds quorum must be present in the legislature for a vote -- even though the constitution says nothing firmly about a quorum and past presidents were elected with less than two-thirds.

Turkey has done well under the political stability and sound economics brought by the AKP since late 2002, and party leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may keep pressing back. As a soft Islamist who has taken a few false steps -- pushing a law banning adultery and cozying up to Hamas -- he has stronger democratic credentials and more legitimacy than the secularists, who fall back on the generals.

The court decision, while unfortunate, could show a way out of the problem. The demonstrations indicate that Erdogan continues to make a large chunk of the Turkish public uneasy. Though Gul is a capable politician, another candidate may calm the public storms without compromising the AKP's right to choose that figure. Down the road, the AKP's oft-mooted ideas about a directly elected president could be part of a broader constitutional overhaul. Erdogan said Tuesday that early parliamentary elections are likely.

The immediate need for anyone concerned about Turkey's future must be to get politics played by the rules and by the civilians. The military made important contributions to Westernization, but its current behavior is a danger to progress. The best thing that can be said about the high court's decision is that early elections are better than tanks in the street. But the damage to Turkey's institutions might have been avoided by sticking to the rules set down in the constitution.

This appeared as an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.