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The Radicalization of Turkey
By George Thomas

(For the full story, go to CBN News) — ISTANBUL , Turkey – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit comes at a time of growing worries in the West that the largely Muslim country of Turkey is becoming more radicalized in its embrace of Islam.

“After 9/11, Iraq , Palestine , this conflict of religions, people are becoming more conservative,” said Mehmet Ali Birand, a Turkish political commentator.

TESEV, Turkey ‘s leading think-tank, released the findings of a new survey showing religiosity on the rise. The study’s author also said that the percentage of people who consider themselves “Muslims first” rather than “Turkish first” has risen as well.

“When you ask questions about their identity and their commitment to the religion, they are religious people,” said Can Paker, president of TESEV.

Turkey is geographically and politically caught between two worlds, with Europe to the West and the Islamic world to the East. The Bosporus Strait literally divides the country in half. In fact, Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents.”

” Turkey has been incredibly successful and part of this is because it has been a democracy and because they’ve achieved a balance between mosque and state between religion and state,” said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.

But there are signs that the balance is tipping. Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam, said the forces of political Islam are steadily gaining ground.

“There is nation-wide re-assertion of a more virulent form of Islam that does not accept Turkish secularism and wishes to subjugate non-Muslims under the rule of Islamic law,” said Spencer.

Some point the finger at Turkey ‘s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A devout Muslim, Erdogan has been accused of pursuing a hidden agenda.

Birand said, “The hidden agenda is to make Turkey a country like Iran , like Saudi Arabia .”

Since taking power four years ago, Erdogan has tried to replace traditional secular education with strict Islamic schools. State-run radio and television stations are being Islamized. Dozens of imams are placed in top government positions. He has also lowered the minimum retirement age for those working in Turkish courts.

“What this allows him to do is replace 4,000 out of Turkey ‘s 9,000 judges,” said Rubin. “Now imagine the battles we have in the United States over a single Supreme Court justice and imagine one prime minister being able to appoint nearly half the judges in any country.”

A Turkish film called, “Valley of the Wolves” hit theatres across the country earlier this year. It depicted American soldiers in Iraq as blood-thirsty war criminals. It was a box-office hit.

Some Turks have been openly saying that it is time to abandon ties with the West.

” Turkey should be wise and turn to our Arab brothers,” said one Turk.

The drift away from the West is what worries many Turkish watchers the most. Turkey has been a long-time U.S. ally in the region. And if its bid to join the EU is rejected, it could go looking elsewhere for relations– perhaps with Damascus or Tehran .