May 3, 2007 -- THE only surprising thing about the latest political crisis in Turkey is that it has come so late.
On Tuesday, the nation's highest court blocked Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from the ballot in the coming presidential election - a move that seems likely to trigger early parliamentary elections.
Though the ruling's basis was technical (the parliament lacked a quorom on the day it OK'd Gul's candidacy, the judges found), it will inevitably be viewed through the prism of politics.
Ever since the AKP won control of the parliament and government four years ago, its opponents have warned that the crypto-Islamist outfit is pursuing a hidden agenda to destroy the nation's 83-year-old secular and republican political system.
Ironically, AKP won power largely thanks to a peculiar electoral system designed to prevent it from winning a majority. Had the secularist parties remained united in the 2003 general election, AKP would've ended up with less than a third of the seats in the Grand National Assembly (parliament). Instead, the secularists splintered, allowing AKP to bag two-thirds of the seats with 34 percent of the vote.
AKP leaders, especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, knew that they'd benefited from an accident. So they devised a strategy aimed at building a lasting power base.
First, they played the European Union card against the Turkish secularist system by insisting on an actual separation of mosque and state.
Secularism in Turkey is a peculiar beast. In Western secular republics, such as in the United States or France, church and state are genuinely kept apart. In Turkey, however, the state controls the mosque. It owns some 80,000 mosques, appoints all preachers and approves all sermons. It also controls the flow of pilgrims to Mecca and supervises the content of all religious literature distributed.
Through a special department, the Turkish state also manages the vast portfolio of Islamic endowments. This includes major businesses in banking, insurance, transport and real estate, among others. In most Muslim countries, private foundations manage the assets bequeathed by the pious to such charitable purposes. In Turkey, the state is in control.
But the AKP, with the help of the European Union, has tried to script the Turkish state out of religion. On the surface, its moves look like a step toward genuine secularism. But things are never that simple in Turkey.
AKP wants to wrest control of mosques, religious shrines and endowment businesses from the state, and transfer these assets to private foundations controlled by Islamists. If such a scheme succeeds, AKP would secure a permanent base from which to challenge the state when other parties are in power.
Aware of the Europeans' illusions about secularism, AKP has persuaded the European Union that all it wants for Turkey is a Western-style democratic system based on separation of mosque and state.
Most Turks, including AKP leaders, know that Turkey's prospect for EU membership are iffy at best. At least five EU members, including France and Germany, oppose Turkish membership under any conditions. In the best-case scenario, Turkey wouldn't be able to join the EU for at least another 15 years.
Thus, it costs AKP nothing in political terms to champion EU membership. At the same time, EU rules and culture could be used to end state control of the mosques, diminish the army's influence in politics and lift restrictions on religious propaganda and ceremonies in the name of a Western-style respect for freedom of conscience.
AKP has also played the European card in an effort to reduce the secularists' influence on the judiciary. It has abolished most special tribunals and decriminalized some of religious activities previously regarded as anti-state. In the process, AKP has replaced hundreds of secularist judges with crypto-Islamist jurists. Even the Supreme Court now has two pro-AKP members.
Also claiming EU legitimacy, the AKP government carried out a massive reform of the state-dominated Turkish economy. It privatized scores of government-owned businesses - providing businessmen close to AKP with new sources of wealth, economic influence and, ultimately, political power.
All this produced the paradox in which the Islamists appear to be the genuine secularists and free-marketers in Turkey.
AKP's next target was the presidency. The post is mostly ceremonial, with little executive power. Nevertheless, a president can use his bully pulpit to curb government excesses. He can also delay legislation by refusing to assent to bills passed by the parliament.
At first, Erdogan, AKP's founder and uncontested leader, wanted the presidency for himself. The post would have given him and AKP a place at the center of power in Ankara for seven years, regardless of his party's performance in the general election, whose date he has now brought forward from November to June.
Once Erdogan had to drop out of the presidential contest, he nominated his closest ally, Gul, for the post. Gul is certainly less of an ideologue than Erdogan, and would probably be more cooperative as president if secularist parties return to power.
The problem, however, is that most Turks regard Gul as nothing but an Erdogan understudy. "Gul is Erdogan when Erdogan wants to hide," former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem liked to say.
Many Turks, including the million-strong anti-Islamist protesters in Ankara the other day, would be horrified to have Gul's wife as their first lady. The reason for their dismay is not that Mrs. Gul wears the hijab, but that she wears a political form of hijab - close to the one made fashionable by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and not the traditional headgear of Anatolian peasant women.
For the past three years, AKP has been engaged in a creeping coup d'etat, designed to destroy the Kemalist republic, which it hates, and replace it with an Islamist creature dressed in EU colors. In other words, a wolf disguised as a sheep.
The Europeans seem to have fallen for the scam. The June election will show whether a majority of the Turks have also bought this bill of goods.
Iranian-born journalist and author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.