ANKARA, Turkey — Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no stranger to political persecution. He was sent to prison and barred from politics temporarily a decade ago for championing his Islamic beliefs.
Erdogan's political career is in danger again, but this time he's not an upstart politician, but the popularly elected prime minister of Turkey. Once again, it's the country's highest court that's debating whether to oust him, with potential consequences that could reverberate far beyond this Muslim nation of 71 million people.
Erdogan, who rose from selling bread on the streets as a child to becoming the mayor of Istanbul, led the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, to a re-election victory last July with an unprecedented 47 percent of the vote.
His current problems stem from one of his new government's most contentious proposals: to end Turkey's 27-year-old constitutional ban on Muslim women wearing head scarves on university campuses.
That provoked Turkey's state prosecutor to ask the Constitutional Court to ban the AKP, Erdogan and 70 of his party allies, including President Abdulluh Gul. The court agreed unanimously to hear the case, which political observers said was a bad omen for Erdogan and his AKP.
While the AKP has strong Islamic roots, it's distinguished itself by embracing moderate Islam, preaching liberal economic changes and reaching out to the West.
The move could undermine Turkey's flagging hopes of joining the European Union, exacerbate tensions with its Kurdish minority and derail U.S.-led efforts to nurture a pro-Western Muslim government as a bulwark against Islamist extremists.
"If the Turkish experiment ends with the Constitutional Court ... closing down the party, I think the repercussions are going to be going far beyond Turkey," said Soli Ozel, a political science professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Erdogan hopes to short-circuit the case. His party is toying with the idea of changing the law to make it harder to close down political parties unless they advocate violence. AKP lawmakers also are resurrecting stalled political reforms, such as revising a law that makes it a crime to insult "Turkishness," that the EU is seeking.
It may be too late to head off the court, however.
Opposition leaders won't cooperate with any attempts to "change the goalposts in the middle of the game," said Onur Oymen of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, which was founded by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, Turkey's revered founder.
Ataturk established a staunchly secular nation, and his political heirs, such as Oymen, argue that Turkey's democracy can't exist if religion seeps into its political life.
In an interview with McClatchy, Oymen compared the Muslim head scarf to Nazi brownshirts and Italian fascist Black Shirts, the World War II paramilitary groups that were identified by the color of their uniforms.
"Secularism is part and parcel of democracy in a Muslim country," said Oymen.
Publicly, AKP leaders have vowed to fight, but privately, at the party's towering new headquarters in Ankara, some members seemed resigned to seeing the AKP dissolved and Erdogan ousted.
Some Turkish political analysts warned that derailing the AKP experiment could undermine a U.S.-backed initiative that's sought to cast conflict in the Middle East as a war between Muslim moderates and extremists.
"If you ban this Islamist party and you drive them underground, then al Qaida will come quickly," said Oral Calislar, a leftist Turkish author who spent seven years in prison for opposing the nation's past military regimes. "It's normal. When you ban everything, if you don't give any permission in the political and legal system, what will the people do? This radicalism will come and take people."
Oymen dismissed the suggestion that the rival AK Party or any other political group that's influenced by Islam could act as a moderating force in the region. The only way to combat the rise of Muslim extremists, said the CHP lawmaker, is to fight any attempts to allow Islam to seep into Turkish life.
"What does it mean, 'moderate Islam'?" Oymen asked. "It's like Coca-Cola Light or half-pregnancy. Either you observe the rules of the Quran — in your daily life, in the judiciary, in education, in state administration — or you don't."
The court's action could take months, but European leaders already are warning Turkey that the case could jeopardize the country's efforts to become a full member of the European Union.
"We are concerned when we are told that a party that received such a huge mandate from its people eight months ago in purely democratic methods is facing closure," Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said on the eve of a visit last week to Turkey. "This is quite strange."
Erdogan has made EU membership a centerpiece of his ruling party's platform, but the initiative has stalled.
Egeman Bagis, the AKP's vice chairman for foreign affairs and one of the 71 politicians facing a five-year ban under the court case, encouraged the West to take a stand.
"No matter what, Turkish direction toward the West should continue, and the West should also ensure that it does continue," Bagis said. "Because Turkey in chaos would not be like Syria in chaos, or Lebanon in chaos, or Sudan in chaos. Turkey has a lot of leverage."
During a speech to Turkey's parliament in Ankara, Barroso also praised the country as a model to be emulated.
"Turkey demonstrates that a secular democratic republic, with a predominantly Muslim population, well integrated in Europe, offers a powerful alternative to fundamentalist temptations throughout the world," he said.
Looming over the political crisis is Turkey's military, which has engineered four coups in the last five decades. While most people don't expect the army to use military force to oust Erdogan, the fear is ever present.
This time around, critics have dubbed the attempt to oust the AKP a "judicial coup d'etat" and suspect that the military is quietly working to shape events.
"The more violence there is, the more excuse there is for repression and using security as your excuse for shrinking the political space and violating liberties," said Istanbul Bilgi University's Soli Ozel.