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Saving Turkey's democracy

In a fierce legal battle, Islamists and secularists are undermining the very system that can help them.

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Think of Turkey and the lively Grand Bazaar of Istanbul comes to mind, or the massive dome of Hagia Sophia. But its political fame is as the world's longest-lived democracy in a Muslim country – an example that Islam and civil liberties can coexist. Now that democracy faces a severe test.

Turkey's two most powerful political forces – Islamists, who head the government, and secularists, who run the military, courts, and bureaucracy – are engaged in a fierce battle for dominance in this NATO country. Their arena is the highly politicized legal system.

A judicial duel may not sound very dangerous. But to the degree that this duel harms the very democratic principles that allow both groups to thrive in the first place, the consequences could be grave.

Completely ignoring last year's elections that returned the mildly Islamist ruling party, the AKP, to power with more popular support than ever, secularists are trying to overthrow the AKP in a constitutional court whose judges sympathize with the secularist cause.

Last week, the state's chief prosecutor argued that the AKP should be outlawed because it violates the constitution's strict separation of mosque and state – the legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The trigger for the case was the AKP's recent lifting of the ban on women's Islamic head scarves at universities. It was a small but hugely symbolic attempt at greater religious freedom, but last month, the constitutional court rejected it.

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