Turks question role as Muslim go-between for US

Turkey's government sides with the US in Afghanistan. But its people say that stance has hurt them in the past.

As the war in Afghanistan intensifies, Turkey is beginning to feel the pressure of its hybrid identity as a bridge between Europe and Asia.

Nearly 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, yet the country is a member of NATO. While Turkey's government is firmly with America in the war against terrorism, the people of Turkey are less certain that their interests lie with the West.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Turkey quickly offered its condolences and aid. It opened its airspace and bases to US forces the same day America requested them, and last week sent a team of counterterrorism advisers to the command center in Tampa, Fla. The Turkish parliament also authorized Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to deploy Turkish troops.

While there is little of the virulent anti-American sentiment here that has been seen in other Muslim countries, many Turks say they believe the war against Afghanistan is unjust. They add that their country gained little the last time it helped the US, during the Persian Gulf War.

Even young Sinem Demiray and her friends, who are part of Turkey's cosmopolitan youth, say they are against the bombings. "Nobody wants war," says Ms. Demiray's young friend, Pori Altinbascan. "Afghanistan shouldn't be harboring terrorists, but America is killing lots of innocent people."

While these students are part of a highly Westernized younger generation, Islam in Turkey has long been of a milder breed. The establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 placed strict controls on religion and created a secular state.

Since the US strikes began, imams - who are appointed by the state - have preached more about how killing is against Islam than calling for jihad.

"The Turkish people are very supportive of the Afghan people, but that doesn't mean they are supportive of the Taliban administration," says Semih Gemalmaz, a professor of law at the University of Istanbul. "People here have a secular understanding of Islam. It's not the same as if you go to Iran or Syria or Saudi Arabia."

Most Turks say they were stunned by the Sept. 11 attacks, and that such acts are not condoned by Islam. After a 15-year domestic-terrorist war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party that claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 people, there is little sympathy for terrorism here.

The greatest fear for most Turks is that a continued conflict in Afghanistan will further damage an already fragile domestic economy.

"The Turkish people and Turkish government suffered because of the Iraqi war, and they will suffer because of the current situation," says Rassoul Raouf, a suited businessman.

Iraq had been one of Turkey's major trade partners, and most Iraqi oil passed through Turkey on its way to international markets. The loss of oil revenues alone cost about $400 million a year, and conservative estimates put the cost of the war on the Turkish economy at about $9 billion. In the months and years after the war, the country also absorbed an estimated half a million to 700,000 Kurdish refugees.

The recent downturn in the world economy has already hit Turkey hard. The lira has shrunk more than 60 percent against the dollar, and inflation is expected to top more than 70 percent.

The government, however, believes that participation in the war against Afghanistan will garner more economic aid from the developed world.

Turkish Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu says his country's aid in the war against Afghanistan could lead to a greater respect for the Turkish role in European stability and more generous donations for its allies.

"This shows how much importance Turkey has for durable peace and security in the world, particularly in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia," he told the Agence France Presse.

"To say 'you need me now, then give me money' is not our character. But I believe our allies will see this [economic] aspect as well," he said.

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