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Saturday, 23 February 2008

In they march

This is the photo that is splashed across the front of nearly every Turkish newspaper this morning. Released on the Turkish Armed Forces website, it shows troops marching over the snowy border into Iraq. There are reported to be another ten thousand of them.

Newspapers outside Turkey have been covering it too. This morning's Independent called it "the new invasion of Iraq ... it threatens to destabilise the country's only peaceful region". It is indeed, as The Times says, Turkey's biggest incursion into the country for more than a decade. And as Radikal points out, the operation is taking place under "assurances" from Ankara and "understanding" from the rest of the world. No major political leader - not even the Iraqi president, himself a Kurd - has called this an illegal invasion.

Details of what is happening remain sketchy. The terrain is mountainous, temperatures are subzero, and the constant exchange of fire means there are no independent reporters in the region. All we have is what the Turkish army and sources close to the PKK tell us and, perhaps predictably, the information conflicts. The Turks say five of its troops have been killed in action, the PKK puts that figure at twenty. The Turks say they've killed 24 fighters, the PKK says it has no losses. Who to believe?

Alone in its opposition to the incursion was Birgün, which carried the headline "No! - to war, to conditions of war, to the noise of war". It says the land operation will "affect our side of the border more than it does the other. The powers of peace and democracy are wary for young lives and the spirirt of living among one another." There is, in this, a message that is conceded even by Turkish generals: Turkey's Kurdish problem cannot be solved purely by military means.

Murat Yetkin writes in today's Radikal that the time is right to take measures "other than military steps, to take political, legal and economic steps to combat those conditions that create the PKK." Iraqi president Jalal Talabani was invited yesterday to Ankara, he says, with this in mind. This diplomacy is perhaps more important than the strikes.

Turkey has so far been playing this effectively, and by the book. The current operation is expected to last a fortnight; there might be more to follow in the coming months. But it is vital not to lose perspective, and ensure that any solution is a lasting one. Diplomacy and reform is the way to do it.

Monday, 18 February 2008

A moment of hope for Cyprus

On a day when the world was more occupied by more momentous events in another part of Europe, there has been a subtle change on the island of Cyprus.

The Greek, southern, internationally recognised part of the island was holding presidential elections that would effectively determine the next five years of relations with the north. The incumbent running for re-election, Tassos Papadopoulos, was by no means a shoo-in, but he was leading all the opinion polls. They turned out to be wrong - Mr Papadopoulos came third in today's vote and failed to progress to next week's run-off.

Greek Cypriots will choose next Sunday between Ioannis Kasoulides, a former foreign minister, and Demetris Christophias, leader of the communist AKEL party. Both have said they want to restart talks with the Turkish north, after negotiations stalled in the latter years of the Papadopoulos administration.

The precise policy of the eventual winner will not be clear for a while. Just 900 votes separated Mr Kasoulides and Mr Chirstophias today; as both will be courting Mr Papadopoulos's supporters over the coming week, neither is likely to detail their plans for talks or reunification. But it is an encouraging result. Turnout was very high - at almost 90 percent - and more than two-thirds voted for the top two candidates, which shows that Greek Cypriot voters strongly favour a more conciliatory approach to the Cyprus problem.

What is certain is that Mr Papadopoulos will not be Cypriot president come next week. He is no loss. He was a source of frustration not just for leaders in Turkey, who found EU accession chapters suspended on his insistence, but also for leaders in Europe, who felt betrayed by his opposition to the Annan plan for Cypriot reunification in 2004. His pledges for a second term offered little change from this approach, and Cypriot voters have now told him what they think of them.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Headscarves at universities

As I write, a second round of voting is underway in Turkey for the easing of the headscarf ban in universities. The bill has the support of the governing Justice and Development (AK) and opposition Nationalist Action (MHP) parties. It will pass, just like a first round did earlier in the week. The real question is what happens next.

Normal procedure is for laws such as this - a constitutional ammendment - to be taken directly to the president, Abdullah Gül, who can either approve it or exercise his one-time veto. It won't be that simple this time, because the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) says it will take the bill to the Constitutional Court, arguing the bill itself infringes the constitution. Once again we return to a situation where a panel of judges hold a remarkable say over a major political issue.

But is it a political issue? The protestors gathered outside parliament today certainly think so. The MPs voting inside the chamber certainly think so. But we're talking here about relaxing a ban on a choice of clothing that prevents a group of women from attending university - it is surely a social question too.

To isolate the matter for just one moment: there should be no question of whether women should be allowed to wear their headscarves at university. If it represents a personal faith, it should be no obstacle to education. But like so many things in Turkey, this is a highly symbolic issue, and secularists say it goes to the root of everything Turkey stands for.

There is no doubt that secularism has made Turkey unique. From an empire that even at its weakest was the indisputed leader of the Islamic world, it was transformed into a nationalist republic, its religious element entirely removed, and set firmly on a westward course. The Turkey of today is an official candidate for EU membership. Never before has a country so predominantly Muslim been this close to a group of countries that so predominantly are not. There is no other country in the world like it, and secularists are rightly proud of that.

But for all its benefits, Turkish secularism does not help illuminate the boundary where public life ends and personal life begins. Universities represent part of that boundary: are they public spaces that should be religion-neutral, or centres of learning where personal faith is irrelevant?

Many headscarf-wearing women do, it is true, attend university. While some fumble with wigs, others just remove the scarf before entering the classrom and put it back on immediately after leaving. There was even talk last summer of lecturers at Sabancı University in Istanbul who cast a blind eye at those who sport it.

Two major issues that exist in Turkey have been exposed by this latest debate. They are issues that will not be resolved anytime soon.

The first is the secular structure itself. Many in Turkey would have you believe that secularism is the country's most important principle. It supercedes everything else, they say, including democracy if necessary. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, frequently warns that "secularism is becoming a matter for debate", implicitly suggesting that it shouldn't be. He is wrong.

Turkey's secularism is not sanctified, it should be justified. The concept of keeping apart mosque and state should be explored and debated, not committed to memory in endless platitudes. Part of the reason for hawkish generals and Ataturk statues is an intrinsic fear that the system could be lost. The way to prevent that is to talk about it rather than defend it with a gun.

The second issue is the oil-and-water manner in which politicians operate in Turkey. Today's response to the long-running headscarf debate has been typically Turkish: a decree from above is made, and those below are left to sort out the details. There was a small cry that the AK-MHP committee putting together the bill contained not one woman, but then again, there isn't a single woman MP in parliament who wears a headscarf. There couldn't be.

What politicians in this country have yet to understand is that social politics involves actually talking to those people whose lives you intend to change. This would mean public consultations, campus debates with ministers, perhaps even a televised seminar or two attended by the prime minister - the kind of thing at which European hearts beat a little faster. Mr Erdoğan himself attended a meeting with Turkish students and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday. He looked uncomfortable, but he was there. He wouldn't do the same thing in Turkey.