Turkey learns to balance secularism and Islam

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WHEN Kemal Ataturk was shaping the new Turkish Republic six decades ago, he turned Turkey firmly toward Europe and the West. Among other reforms, Ataturk replaced the sharia, Muslim canonical law, with European civil codes and installed the principle of secularism - into the Constitution. To the ``children of Ataturk,'' as the secularists think of themselves, Muslim piety has long been equated with backwardness. It was seen as a brake on Turkey's march to modernization. Many devout Turks would dispute this, pointing to outstanding industrialists and and scientists who have not compromised their devotion to Islam.

Today the competing roles of secularism and Muslim piety in Turkey's public life are more than ever the subject of intense debate.

Some of the evidence is paradoxical. Most recently, in September's parlimentary by-elections, Turkey's single small fundamentalist political party, called Affluence, garnered barely 6 percent of the vote. The statistic, however, is misleading. It is not a measure of public indifference. The renewed assertiveness of fundamentalism is a major preoccupation for Turkey's journalists, intellectuals, and government leaders.

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The President of Turkey, former Gen. Kenan Evren, himself the son of an imam, is active in the forefront of the effort to harmonize the heretofore antagonistic trends. President Evren's speeches regularly denounce softalik, a code word for Muslim bigotry and intolerance. Even so, President Evren, in the same breath, urges the people to follow the dictates of ``pure Islam'' in their daily lives. By emphasizing ``pure Islam,'' he pointedly distinguishes it from the accretion of superstition, folk culture, and cult-inspired fanaticism that have confounded the popular understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim. President Evren appeals to Turkish men to free their womenfolk, to educate their wives and daughters, and to restore them the dignity that the Almighty endowed them with.

Urban intellectuals are struggling with the issue on another plane. Left-of-center politicians and ideologists, temporarily in eclipse, are trying to find parallels between Islamic doctrine and orthodox socialist thought. The right-of-center parties, including the ruling Motherland Party, have all along shown an undisguised respect for the so-called ``prayer rug'' vote.

Deference toward Islam does not prevent the Motherland Party or its competitor, the True Path Party, from endorsing without qualification Turkey's attachment to free enterprise, European Community association, and NATO. Left-of-center partisans have their reservations about free enterprise, but few question the ties to Europe. Turkish foreign policy is not at issue.

There is hope, then, that the striving for accommodation between Muslim piety and doctrinaire secularism need not be the prey of party politics. If so, the split personality of the Turkish nation - European and secularist, Middle Eastern and Muslim - can move toward healing.

The Turkish government will continue to prosecute and imprison seditious Muslim fanatics who seek to restore the sharia in violation of the Constitution. No one will seriously accuse the government of suppressing freedom of religion in doing so. Likewise, Turkish authorities can continue to be alert to any signs of foreign manipulation of fundamentalist extremism and can be expected to counter such efforts firmly. At the same time, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's government can move to keep the bureaucracy - particularly the Ministry of Education, from being infiltrated by zealots.

Turkey's economic recovery has dazzled those outsiders who, in 1980, saw Turkey as a ``basket case.'' Yet, stubborn problems of inflation and unemployment persist. The hopes and fears of Turks in that realm are challenge enough for supporters of Mr. Ozal and his arch-rival, former Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel. By concentrating on charting believable alternatives for the future economic health of the nation, these two could eschew temptation to play the ``religion'' card.

Amid the dizzying disruptions of Turkey's race to modernization, few pockets of serenity remain for the average Turk in which to harmonize his devotional or moral agenda within himself or with his neighbors. If the politicians will desist from distracting and confusing them, the Turks might just work it out for themselves.

Kemal Ataturk gave an enduring lift to the Turks' sense of self-respect, epitomized in his maxim ``Happy is the one who says `I am a Turk.''' For decades it would have been shocking to the ``children of Ataturk'' to hear the maxim paraphrased as ``Happy is the Turk who says `I am a Muslim.''' Now it is not so shocking, and it could come true. If the current mood of mutual awareness is nurtured, the Turks may be on the way to harmonizing an unfinished chapter of Ataturk's revolution.

Daniel O. Newberry, a US Foreign Service officer, served in Turkey on and off for 11 years. He retired as US consul general in Istanbul in 1985.

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