Turkish Secularists See Red Over Islamists' Rise - LA Times
- Turkish Secularists See Red Over Islamists' Rise
Politics: The republic's founder rejected Muslim
traditions. Now, as religious parties gain strength,
the military guards his legacy.
By DAVID HOLLEY, TIMES STAFF WRITE
ANKARA, Turkey -- Ayse Calmuk knows that some Turks
view her head scarf as a red flag flaunting support
for an Islamic political agenda. But she says wearing
it is simply a religious duty.
"This is God's command," said the 31-year-old
homemaker, who on a hot summer evening was bundled up
in a black silk scarf, black jacket and loose cotton
trousers. "My head scarf is not a political symbol. It
has nothing to do with politics."
Feride Acar, a professor at Middle East Technical
University here in the Turkish capital, doesn't buy
that argument. And as Turkey heads toward elections in
November that could bring a party with deep Islamic
roots to power, clashing views over head scarves
reflect a potentially dangerous split in society.
"In this country, sociologically speaking, the head
covering is a symbol of violation of women's human
rights. This is how many people understand it," Acar
"As a woman, if you are claiming that you are covering
your head because this is part of your religion and
it's part of your belief system, then that same belief
system has other things that are supposed to be
accepted by women too," Acar said. "That includes
polygamy. That same belief system also includes
unequal inheritance. It includes the right of the
husband to physically punish the wife. All of these
are gross violations of women's human rights."
Calmuk ridicules that notion.
"I don't believe any of these issues--polygamy or
unequal inheritance rights--are issues anymore in the
modern world," she said. "People like me don't believe
in them. It's wrong to associate them with Islam."
Still, the government's fear of the head scarf is
great enough that students and public employees are
banned from wearing it at schools and on the job. The
ban, itself often criticized as a violation of women's
rights, is just one small piece of a system enforced
by the Turkish army that supporters say is designed to
ensure that religious leaders can never take political
Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 on the Ottoman
Empire's ruins by Kemal Ataturk. He had a secular,
Europe-oriented vision that rejected what he
considered a backward Muslim world. He forbade the
traditional veil for women and fez for men, abolished
polygamy and let girls go to school.
The military has guarded Turkey's secularism ever
since, even forcing out the country's first
democratically elected Islamist-led government in
Many analysts and politicians doubt that the army
would allow the Islamist-rooted Justice and
Development Party to take power if it won elections
set for Nov. 3. The party is led by the charismatic
former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Polls
show the party with 20% to 30% popular support, at
least double that for its closest rivals.
In Turkey's system, only parties that win at least 10%
of the vote are awarded parliamentary seats, so
popularity at this level can bring a strong position
in parliament, conceivably even a majority if most
votes are split among a large number of parties.
There are widespread fears that postelection conflict
could erupt, pitting the military against Erdogan and
other religion-oriented politicians. Such conflict
would damage Turkey's democracy, its troubled economy
and its hopes of joining the European Union. Although
an open clash is far from inevitable, many say the
Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit declared recently that an
Islamist electoral victory could trigger a crisis.
"There is speculation that Justice and Development
will end up as the first party," Ecevit said in an
interview on state-run television. "If that comes
true, Turkey will be faced with questions over its
regime." That was taken as a reference to the
possibility of military intervention in some form.
"I do not want Erdogan's rights to be taken away from
him or the party banned, but their true faces must be
exposed," Ecevit added.
Party leaders strenuously deny that they want to
impose Islamic rules on the government or society.
Erdogan insists that he has never chosen the label
"Islamist" and that he simply tries to be a good
Those who think the party wants to impose an Islamic
state "don't know us," said Abdullah Gul, its deputy
"We believe that being a religious party, or
establishing a religious state, is not rational and
not good, and doesn't help anyone, not even religion,"
Gul said. "If you ask me individually, I try to be a
good Muslim, and I want my family and children to
follow that way. But I don't want to interfere in
Views vary widely as to whether such statements can be
"I do acknowledge that there's a threat of radical
Islam in this country, people who would like to see
Turkey run as an Islamic state," said Husnu Ondul,
president of the Human Rights Assn. of Turkey. "But
those people are not members of the Justice and
Development Party. There may be a few people like that
[in the party], but they're really marginal."
Few people believe that religion-based parties could
succeed in imposing an Islamic political system even
if they won elections and tried to do so.
Erdogan "can't form an Islamic state," said university
student Fatih Budak, 21. "That's impossible, because
there's strong opposition. There's us young people.
There's the military. We won't allow him to do
anything of that sort."
Efforts are already underway to undermine the Justice
and Development Party, said Kemal Can, a political
analyst in Istanbul, the country's largest city. "The
coming three months will be a period during which the
military will do everything possible to ensure they
don't come to power," he said.
Can noted that legal action against Erdogan might well
keep him off the ballot. He faces trial on charges of
defrauding the state by fixing contracts and illegally
transferring money into his personal account while he
was Istanbul's mayor, from 1994 to 1998.
Erdogan was convicted in 1998 of inciting religious
hatred for reciting a nationalist poem, even though
the poem is taught in Turkish schools. A court
recently ruled that the conviction bars him from being
elected to parliament, but legal appeals continue.
"If it becomes clear that Erdogan is not eligible to
run for parliament, that would be a huge blow to
Justice and Development," Can said.
Still, Gul predicted that his party will win an
outright majority in parliament and form a government
smoothly. "Democracy will work," he said. "I don't see
any reason for [military] intervention."
But Hasim Hasimi, a Kurdish member of parliament,
predicted that the courts will keep Erdogan from
running and that if his party nevertheless wins, the
military won't allow it to form the next government,
either alone or in a coalition with other parties.
"Turkey is still being governed by a constitution
drawn up by the military in 1982 following their last
coup," Hasimi said. "Although there've been a huge
number of changes to that constitution, the spirit of
the military dictatorship is still enshrined in it."
Turkey has been under direct military rule three times
since 1960. Before withdrawing for the third time, in
1983, the generals wrote a constitution enhancing
their power behind the scenes.
Though few people predict that the army will stage
another coup, it has enormous influence over some
political parties, the courts, the media and business
The military exercises its power in part through the
National Security Council, which is made up of top
political and military leaders. In 1997, the generals
used the council's monthly meetings to badger
Necmettin Erbakan, the nation's first Islamist prime
minister, into agreeing to curb Muslim religious
schools and foundations. When his government balked,
the commanders orchestrated a campaign by pro-secular
business, labor and women's groups that forced Erbakan
The constitutional court banned his Welfare Party
several months later and slapped him with a five-year
political ban that expires early next year. His
supporters in a successor party, Saadet, favor holding
elections next spring, so that he can lead their
Those fearful of state-imposed Islamic rules see
Erdogan as the current leader of that cause. "I really
hate him," said Ayhan Sarinalbant, a retired
schoolteacher. "I think he's awful. Erbakan was
dangerous, but this man is 1,000 times more dangerous.
He has a lot more energy, and he's very clever."
But Ramazan Hoca, an Istanbul resident who runs a
stand selling religious trinkets and music tapes, said
Erdogan was a great mayor. The corruption charges
against Erdogan "are completely illogical, absurd and
stupid," he said. "Certain powers who fear for their
own power are doing this. But the people know this. If
all the legal obstacles are removed, he'll get enough
votes to rule on his own."
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