On Turkish streets, local battles over Islam's role
Amid the deep political crisis over the country's presidency, secularists bemoan an incremental Islamization of everyday life on the local level.
Perched on a high hill overlooking Istanbul's old city, the Pierre Loti cafe is named after a 19th-century French bon vivant whose sensual tales of his time in the Ottoman capital have fueled the imaginations of countless tourists.Skip to next paragraph
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Earlier this year, the local mayor tried to rename the area around the cafe after an Islamic saint whose tomb – a popular Muslim pilgrimage site – is nearby, enraging Turkish secularists. One secularist member of Istanbul's city council accused the mayor, a member of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), of being part of a larger plan of Islamization.
It is a charge that is being heard increasingly often in Turkey. Founded on secular ideals by Kemal Ataturk after World War I, the majority-Muslim republic is embroiled in a deep political crisis pitting the AKP-led government against secularists, who fear the liberal Islamic party is gaining too much power. Hundreds of thousands of Turks have turned out for massive rallies held nationwide in recent weeks, frequently expressing the concern that the AKP is enacting incremental local changes that are eroding the country's secular foundations.
Much of the concern has focused on the AKP's recent effort to have its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, elected by parliament as president – an effort that was successfully blocked by Turkey's secular opposition parties.
"Secularism, the regime of the country, is in danger," says Hasan Husseyin Engin, a chemical engineer who was among an estimated 1 million Turks at an April 29 pro-secularism rally in Istanbul. "The government is not obeying the rules of the country as set up by Ataturk. You cannot see this or feel this. They are doing this secretly."
True or not, such claims illustrate how, despite four years in government that have seen record economic growth and brought the country closer than ever to its long-held dream of European Union (EU) membership, many secular Turks remain deeply suspicious of the AKP government and its intentions.
It's a sentiment that also appears to be shared by Turkey's powerful military. When the AKP announced Mr. Gul as its presidential candidate – a post Gul was almost certain to get, given the AKP's majority in parliament – the military released a terse statement late last month expressing its concerns over the AKP government's track record on secularism. But rather than mentioning anything the government itself had done, the military cited several examples of local events it found troubling, such as a Koran reading contest at a municipal celebration in Ankara of a Turkish national holiday.
"I think what they are saying is that on a national level Turkey's secular system has not changed, because the system is too difficult to amend since it's guarded by a secular system and constitution. But they are concerned about the microlevel efforts that are making changes at the grass-roots level," says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Local Islamization: orchestrated?
The AKP has been wildly successful on the local level, capturing 42 percent of the vote in the 2004 municipal elections and taking over the mayoral offices in most of Turkey's large cities.