Secular Turkey Teeters Over Plan to Close Islamic Schools

Army pressure on religious schools sparks outcry. Threat to Islamic premier grows

The entrance to the Kadikoy Anadolu Imam Hatip School in Istanbul looks like the entrance to many of the more than 600 government-run Islamic schools in Turkey.

To the left, a large bust of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, secular Turkish republic, greets students. To the right stands a large glass cabinet of wrestling trophies won by students over the years. The school, a visitor is proudly told, has produced several national wrestling champions.

Turkey is itself now grappling with a major issue: the future of religious education.

"Do I look like a threat?" asks Gulnur Kilicoglu, a veiled teenage girl who dreams of one day becoming a doctor after she graduates from the Kadikoy Anadolu middle school.

But graduation may not come. Turkey's staunchly secular National Security Council would like to have schools like Gulnur's closed.

The issue is polarizing the nation. Under pressure from secularists, Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan recently announced early elections, now reportedly set for October, relinquishing his office to his secular deputy prime minister and coalition partner, Tansu Ciller, in the interim.

Western observers are becoming concerned about the deepening political conflict in Turkey, a key NATO ally.

Rising opposition to the secular military

Mr. Erbakan's recent power-sharing moves followed weeks of speculation as to what he would do to counter the military's Feb. 28 claim that his government was encouraging religious fundamentalism and had failed to implement the National Security Council's demands for an anti-Islamist crackdown - including planned restrictions on religious education and Islamic dress.

Last month, tens of thousands of Turks rallied in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet Square against the proposed closure of the Islamic schools.

Carrying signs demanding "education freedom" and asking "Is it a crime to be Muslim?" protest organizers instructed the crowd between Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque to send a clear message to the government in Ankara, the capital.

Such examples of rising opposition have been noted by the military. Army Gen. Cevik Bir recently stated that "the threat against secularism is now more serious than the 12-year war with the [Kurdish Rebel group] PKK."

'Breeding ground for fundamentalism'

The government plans to implement compulsory eight-year education, and to close the Islamic middle schools, decreasing what the National Security Council views as a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism.

A recent report by the Turkish Army analyzed the spread of political Islam and its rising "threat" to secularism. The report said that religious education, in its current form, was moving to train a specific type of person "as a voter and administrator of the future."

In the last general election, in December 1995, the religious-based Welfare Party received 21 percent of the vote, only enough to gain them a share of the ruling coalition that was finally formed 11 months ago.

If the current education system is left unchecked, however, secularists calculate that Islamists could form a government of their own in 2000, and by 2005 would have enough clout in parliament to establish a broad, religious-based state government in Turkey.

The report went on to say that graduates of the Islamic schools are working their way into positions of power. Of those students in Turkey's public administration department, where most of the nation's future provincial and country governors are educated, more than 50 percent are Imam Hatip graduates.

"What we are trying to do is establish real democracy," says Abdullah Gul, vice chairman of the Welfare Party. "We reflect what people think and what they want, and consequently those in power do not like this," says Mr. Gul. "We have a state ideology that believes that the masses can not choose the right way for themselves and this is wrong," he says.

While Erbakan looks upon the coming elections as a public referendum, the public prosecutor's office has filed charges against his party, saying that it is trying to undermine the secular principles of the country and that it, too, should be closed down.

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