mixed signals

Posted on May 21, 2007

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It’s hard for the secularists in Turkey not to be suspicious of the ruling party Justice and Development (AK) Party’s intentions.

Accused of having an Islamist agenda, it seems that secularists’ fears are unfortunately confirmed once again – this time with a ban on bikini ads.

In Istanbul, swimwear manufacturers say they were denied the right to put up advertisements of women in bikinis, and had to ask for permission, although there was never a need for that, the Guardian reports. The city’s urban planning department had reportedly told advertisers the advertisements were immoral, not up to European Union standards and could cause accidents.

Why the ban has been enacted when the dust has yet to settle on the furor over the conservative Muslim government’s attempts to vote one of its own, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, into Turkish’s presidency, is incomprehensible.

Coming so soon after the AK Party was forced to back down on pushing one of its candidates to the position of presidency, and having to call early elections, the latest episode adds fuel to suspicious secularists’ accusations of creeping Islamization in fiercely-secular Turkey.

In the past few weeks, millions of Turks had taken to the streets in protests, declaring their determination to uphold the secular principles of modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and insisting that the country will not become a land of Islamic shariah rule.

At the same time, the bikini ad ban will strengthen the arguments of those against the entry of Turkey into the European Union. They will conveniently say that Turkey’s traditions are too foreign from European norms and the secular Muslim country just does not fit the definition of “European”. The enthusiasm and will for membership talks for Turkey’s entry into the EU is likely to wane even further.

Turkey isn’t helped by the recent election of French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who has insisted on shutting Turkey out from the EU while promising to return France’s involvement in the EU into the forefront.

It’s unfortunate that while the AK Party-led Turkish government have enacted over 800 rules that bring the country more in line with European standards and made reforms such as removing the death penalty to make its chances of ascension talks with the EU more viable, it suffers from momentary lapses like the high-profile bikini ads ban.

By all accounts, the Turkish government has been largely successful at proving that it is different from the corrupt and inept secular governments that had come before. Turkey has also enjoyed stable growth in the past five years under the AK Party. But it has to stay vigilant against lapses and not give its enemies any room for criticism or worse, its army the excuse to intervene.

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