Trying time for Turkish democracy

The unrest in Turkey continues, touched off by a May 31 clash between police forces and protesters opposed to the Turkish government’s plan to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul. At the root of the unrest is the resistance by people who fear the government is retreating from the principle of secularism. They criticize Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for trying to introduce Islamic-tinged policies in a highhanded manner.

Riot police stormed Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Istanbul on the night of June 15 and dispersed protesters using water cannons and tear gas. That clash followed a rally in Ankara the same day sponsored by Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in which some 100,000 supporters took part. A similar rally was held in Istanbul the next day. Five labor organizations, including a 240,000-member labor union of public servants, carried out strikes on June 17. The police started full-scale searches against suspected activists in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey on June 18.

The situation in Turkey raises the critical question of whether democracy and political Islam can coexist — an issue that other Muslim-majority countries around the world are struggling with.

In Iran, Mr. Hassan Rouhani, a moderate conservative clergyman, won the June 14 presidential election. There, secularist forces calling for reconciliation with the international community have opposed religious forces that seem bent on closing the country’s door to the international community. And, in Syria, a fundamentalist Sunni group is in the core of anti-government forces fighting against the secularist, autocratic government of President Bashar Assad.

Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey established a secular republic in 1923 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It promoted the separation of church and state and pushed modernization on the principle of democracy. But in 1995, a government led by an Islamist party was formed for the first time in Turkey’s modern history.

Following a short period during which a left-leaning government ruled, AKP took power in 2002. In the past 10 years, with Mr. Erdogan in office, Turkey’s nominal general domestic product has increased 3.4 times. But Mr. Erdogan is using the popularity and political capital his government has accrued through this strong economic performance to strengthen the influence of Islamism.

Behind the current protests are young Turkish people’s opposition to what they believe is Mr. Erdogan’s attempt to impose Islamic values on them — such as restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages and patriotic appeals to families to have three or more children. Control over the media also has strengthened.

Turkey plays a critical role as a bridge between Europe and Asia, and serves as a role model for the coexistence of democracy and Islam. We hope that Mr. Erdogan will drop his highhanded approach to policymaking and instead focus on bolstering Turkey’s reputation as a country where Islamic and democratic values can coexist in harmony.