Turkey's high court keeps religion at arm's length

On Friday, the Turkish high court banned the Islamist-led Virtue Party for allegedly encouraging radical Islam.

"Let nobody be deceived," Recai Kutan declared defiantly, "in Turkey at the moment there is no democracy." A week ago Mr. Kutan was the leader of the opposition in the Turkish parliament. His party, Virtue, held 102 of the chamber's 550 seats after winning more than 15 percent of the vote at the last election. Now, Turkey's democratic credentials have come under the microscope again, following a verdict by the Constitutional Court on Friday banning the Islamist-led Virtue party.

The court's decision reveals a profound debate about how this largely Muslim country should handle the interplay between religion and secular life. And for Turkey, a nation trying to adjust to Western standards of democracy to prepare for possible membership in the European union, banning the largest opposition party points up the ironies it faces.

In a majority verdict, the Constitutional Court found the Virtue Party guilty of encouraging radical Islam and "engaging in activities contrary to the principle of the secular republic." There is no appeal to the move which, in effect, casts aside the votes of more than 5 million Turks.

The head of Turkey's powerful armed forces, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, warned earlier this month that radical Islam is still a danger. "On one day it appears not to exist," he said, "but it always reemerges."

The Virtue Party denies it posed any threat. It made a concerted effort to present a moderate image, and its political platform differed little from other conservative parties. It campaigned against official bans on women wearing the Islamic headscarf in government offices or on university campuses, and it made no secret of its religious inclinations. But party leaders argued that they simply reflected the views of a majority of Turks.

The ban of Virtue was opposed by most politicians, including Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who argued that it could upset delicate political balances at a time when Turkey is struggling to recover from a severe economic crisis. Since February, hundreds of thousands of Turks have lost their jobs, and the local currency has lost some 50 percent of its value. The government needs a period of political stability if it is to carry out the reforms that international agencies are demanding as a condition for nearly US$16 billion in loans.

The verdict against Virtue could have been more severe. Only two parliamentary deputies have been banned from politics, and the rest will be allowed to stay on as independents. That could still create some instability, but if more than 20 deputies had been banned, a series of by-elections would have been held, placing unbearable strain on interparty rivalries in the coalition government.

"In the short term this verdict has eased fears of an immediate political crisis," says Haluk Sahin, of Bilgi University. "But it also shows that our system is in desperate need of reform."

Turkey's powerful military generals regard themselves as the guardians of the Turkish secularism envisioned by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the republic in the 1920s. The Army was instrumental in forcing Turkey's first Islamist-led government out in 1997, and it sees the Virtue case as a continuation of that campaign.

But ironically, the legal safeguards the military had written into the current Constitution are increasingly out of step with Western democratic norms. Plans for constitutional reform, which are currently being debated in parliament, would make it harder to close political parties down.

Turkey's allies are willing to give it another chance, but the US was quick to criticize the ban. "We regret the closure of this party because it is contrary to accepted international norms of democracy," the State Department said in statement Friday.

The real damage will be to Turkey's often difficult relations with the EU. Turkey became a candidate for EU membership in 1999, but it will not be allowed to begin formal negotiations until democratic reform has taken root. Political parties can be banned in some European countries, but only if they use or advocate violence. The Virtue Party has been shut down for its nonviolent beliefs, and European officials have already made it clear that Turkey needs to change course if it is to pursue its EU membership.

There is already a fierce debate within Turkey about how - and how fast - it should implement the EU-prescribed reforms. Some hard-line secularists believe the EU is demanding too much, but many Turks want reform for its own sake. The verdict against Virtue suggests there is still a ways to go.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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