With Islam's Crescent Rising Over Turkey, the Army Howls

GUARDING THE SECULAR

Turkey's military did something this week it hasn't done in a long time - it sent tanks rumbling through a town near the capital, Ankara.

The 20 tanks were gone almost as fast as they arrived. But to Sincan's residents - and indeed everyone in this nominally Muslim country - the message was clear: Don't threaten Turkey's long tradition of secular rule.

The powerful and aloof generals have grown edgy over changes being made by Turkey's first pro-Islamic premier and his Welfare Party - including a rally at which Sincan's mayor advocated the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law.

Given the military's history - three coups since 1960 - rumors of a putsch are swirling in this key NATO ally. But many say the generals' fear of chaos after a coup - and likely criticism by the US and European allies - will keep them from ousting the elected, Islamist leader.

The trouble at Sincan began last Friday when the mayor - who is a member of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's pro-Islamic Welfare Party - held the rally. Draped along the walls of the hall were posters promoting Hamas and Hizbullah - two militant Islamic groups who operate in Israel, Lebanon, and other Mideast nations.

Also, the Iranian ambassador spoke at the meeting, urging the audience not to be cowed by the "enemies" of Islam - the US and Israel.

Turkey stands astride two cultures - the Christian West and the Muslim East. In 1923, Turkish Republic founder Kemal Ataturk put the nation on a pro-Western course. When Mr. Ataturk began wrenching his country away from its Eastern ties, it was the military that backed him and later leaders.

His drastic reforms even included a ban on the fez, the brimless hat that Ataturk saw as too Eastern. Ever since, Army generals have seen themselves as guarantors of Ataturk's heritage.

"The duty of the armed forces is not only to defend Turkey's borders, but also to protect the reforms of Ataturk, including secularism," says retired General Dogan Beyazit, the former secretary-general of the powerful National Security Council.

Turkey's pro-Western position has also brought massive military and other aid from the West and NATO. This year it is slated to get a total of roughly $500 million.

As part of the Ataturk legacy, it is still a constitutional crime to speak against the secular nature of the state. So, since the Sincan event, Mayor Bekir Yildiz has been dismissed by the interior minister, and he is on the run from police.

The military says its tanks were merely passing through Sincan on Tuesday while headed to maneuvers, but it was seen as a strong warning.

This was only the latest sign of concern by the generals, however. Last week, the top brass communicated its concern over an increasing number pro-Islamic activities to President Suleyman Demirel in several meetings.

Much of the generals' wrath is directed at the pro-Islamic Welfare Party - the senior partner in the coalition government. The generals almost never make public comments, but Defense Minister Turan Taylan, the Cabinet member closest to the military, accused the Welfare Party of "exploiting religion for its own political purposes."

What worries the generals and others is a bevy of Welfare policies and projects. While they may seem innocuous in themselves, the critics say, they represent Welfare's "salami tactics" - a grand plan to turn Turkey into an Islamic state.

One is a plan to allow women students in all universities to wear head scarves. Headgear has always held great symbolism in Turkey, as seen in Ataturk's battles over banning the fez. The Welfare Party defends the plan saying in a democracy, it is a right and a freedom to wear anything one chooses.

Another move is to build a mosque on Istanbul's central square. Mr. Erbakan says that in a country that's 99 percent Muslim, it is natural to have a mosque in a city center.

Erbakan has also formed a special corps of bodyguards who wear black berets and green uniforms. He swore off the guards provided by the state, giving rise to speculation that he has started his own paramilitary force.

It was Erbakan's then-tiny Welfare Party that was a driving force in the massive anti-secular demonstrations in 1980, which set off the last military coup.

Since then his party has risen slowly to the top of Turkish politics. As Turkey's economy stagnated - inflation now runs at 80 percent - and the secular politicians became increasingly corrupt and inefficient, Turkey's public began searching for political alternatives.

Erbakan formed a coalition government in June 1996.

And now the generals must deal with a more powerful pro-Islamic party. All of their previous coups were bloodless, and they did return the country to civilian rule.

But they may not be willing to go through with a coup this time because of the strength of the Islamists.

"A coup is more dangerous [than in 1980], because the Islamists are organized," says retired General Nevzat Bolugiray, who took an active role in the 1980 coup. "They have trained militants. Such an intervention this time [could] be bloody. Turkey [could] turn into an Algeria...."

However, in the words of an analyst with close military contacts, "There are other things, too, that the generals can do, short of a coup."

Indeed, Turkey's politicians are now talking about a "civilian coup" - action that would have the same effect as a putsch, but without polarizing the nation. Another concern is that a coup would raise flags among the US and other allies. While the West is also concerned about the growth of the Welfare Party, civilian rule is a key condition for NATO membership.

Indeed, a "civilian coup" is brewing. A no-confidence measure for Erbakan's government was presented by an opposition party. And Mr. Demirel has apparently persuaded Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Ciller to keep pressuring Erbakan, her coalition partner, to curtail his actions. With the military flexing its muscles, Erbakan is expected to back down, at least for now.

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