The Washington Times

Wherever Turks dwell, from the Europeanized behemoth city of Istanbul in the north to the stunningly beautiful Anatolian coastal region below, where hazy mountains rising steeply from the deep blue Mediterranean unmistakably evoke arrival in Asia Minor, the two ubiquitous sights rising above the streets are the minarets of the mosques and the innumerable national flags, the bright white crescent and star on a brilliant vermilion field.

Over the past year in the United States, we have had a chance to grow used to seeing the American flag in every size and material all over the place. The flag replaced the yellow ribbon of the 1970s, 80s and 90s as a symbol of unity in adversity, a reassertion of pride of place of the nation in the lives of Americans.

It’s impossible to look at all those flags flying in Turkey and see anything but a similarly robust social sense of national pride. Put it this way: No government out to create a massive display of tribute to itself could ever be as successful in dotting the flag all over the landscape than a people who decide to put flags up for themselves.

This is doubly consequential in light of the minarets. Turkey is Islamic and secular, an Islamic country on a long, deliberate and at times bumpy road to modernization via the separation of mosque from state.

I say Turkey is Islamic and secular, not that it is Islamic “but” secular. The reason is that the project of the modern Turkish state is to show that the interaction of Islam and the modern world need not always be a collision. On the success of this project, obviously, much depends.

Turkey is a country in which one may choose Islam. But then again, one may choose otherwise, from the secular life in toto to some blend of the two that affirms the authority of the Prophet while denying that it is properly a coercive political authority.

The choices have consequences, of course. The depth of the government’s [and in particular, the military’s] commitment to secularism lends itself to disapproval of those who seek simultaneously to choose Islamist life and public life, on the grounds that this public Islamism seeks to deny people the choice of a secular life.

Modern Turkey is thus a work in progress. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took power in 1923, bringing a formal end to the decaying Ottoman Empire, he did so in the conviction that only by eliminating the caliphate and Islamic law from public life could Turkey modernize and join “universal civilization,” as he called it. The results are imperfect but impressive. Turkey is poor by the standards of Europe, but its people have more opportunity and are better off [discounting the oil wealth of sultans, princes and playboys] than those in many countries where Islam and government remained conjoined. Turkey’s is still a transitional democracy – but again, far more democratic than any Islamic country whose rulers eschewed Ataturk’s choice or, worse, who believe that the purpose of democracy is one final election installing a coercive Islamic government.

Above all, there is the social fabric of Turkey, in which Turks themselves remain committed to the secular path they are on. Only this, I think, can account for all those flags. The Turkish national project is a commitment to choices, including Islam, but understands true choice in the context of politics to mean not the freedom to choose once and for all, but now and forever the freedom to choose.

This is very profound stuff. If Islam is a matter of choice, the freedom to choose is the individual’s alone. If Islam is a legitimate choice, other choices are likewise legitimate. For those who believe that Islam is a necessity, they are free to do so, but they are not free to impose Islam as a necessity.

The implication of the success of this vision is that Islam would occupy in the Islamic world the same position that religion [here, one may speak generically] does in the Western world of today – the “universal civilization” of which Ataturk spoke, a phrase George W. Bush has not spoken but whose spirit he frequently evokes. Believers are free to believe as fervently as they wish, but they may not coerce others. No more crusades – and no more jihad.

If there is a shorthand expression of the true endpoint of our current difficulties, it can be read in the meaning of Turkey’s skylines of flags and minarets: free to choose Islam.