Riot Spotlights Turkey's Struggle With Rise of Fundamentalist Islam

Secular-run government copes with popularity of Muslim party

ISLAM-RELATED violence in Istanbul has raised fresh concerns over whether Turkey, a NATO member and perhaps the most secular of Muslim nations, will go the way of other Mideast nations in being forced to cope with large-scale unrest by militant, fundamentalist Muslims.

At least 17 people were killed and more than 100 others injured when police fired on demonstrators in Istanbul's minority Alawite community March 13.

The protests started in the Gazi district on the outskirts of Istanbul after unknown gunmen sprayed bullets into four coffee shops frequented by Alawites -- members of a liberal Muslim order opposed to fundamentalism. The March 12 attack resulted in the deaths of three Alawites.

The next day, Alawites from that district, joined by others from nearby neighborhoods, staged the demonstrations. The crowds attacked and destroyed many shops and cars. They also stormed police stations shouting, ''down with fascism,'' and ''we don't want sharia [Islamic law].''

The unrest comes as Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, politically revived by the European Union's decision on March 6 to allow Turkey to join the EU customs union, strives to form a new government. Her coalition has been shaken by a recent change in the leadership of the Republican People's Party, a junior coalition partner.

The party's new leader, Hikmet Cetin, has called on the government to pass his ''democratization'' legislation that would allow minority groups more participation in government and more respect for individual human rights.

Mr. Cetin, a former foreign minister, also demands a government amnesty for intellectuals and officials imprisoned for expressing their views -- particularly those who say Turkey should find a peaceful solution to the problem of the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

Call for talks

The riots also coincide with calls by moderate Islamists and secularists to come to a ''reconciliation.'' Prominent academics and writers from both sides -- including supporters of the pro-Islamic Welfare Party and strong defenders of secularism -- have been calling for dialogue.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Alawites. But officials and politicians were quick in describing it as a ''provocation'' by forces who want to divide Turkey.

Speculations about who may be responsible for this provocation vary from Islamic fundamentalists to Kurdish insurgents.

''There are clues that the attack [on the Alawites] was masterminded by the PKK [Kurdish Worker's Party] and the Turkish Hizbullah [Islamic militants],'' Minister of the Interior Nabit Mentese said. ''We know that in the past they have worked together to create trouble.''

The PKK has been waging a guerrilla war, mainly in the southeast but occasionally in urban areas. Ethnic Kurds, about 12 million of Turkey's 60 million people, want a separate Kurdish state. At least 13,000 people have been killed in the past decade.

The Turkish Army went on the offensive in the southeast along the Turkish-Iraqi border two months ago. At least 300 members of the PKK were killed in the month of February.

Mehmet Agar, director-general of Turkey's security forces said, ''There is a strong probability of a PKK provocation in this matter.... They have been trying to divide the nation along ethnic Kurdish-Turkish lines without success. They are now trying to provoke religious hatred.''

Turkey, although a secular-run country, has become in recent years the center of growing pro-Islamic tendencies. Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and other underground Islamic organizations, some with connections to similar Mideast groups, have claimed responsibility for the murders of liberal intellectuals, editors, and academics.

These groups aim to abolish Turkey's secular Constitution and form an Islamic state. Many are members of the pro-Islamic Welfare Party -- the party that has grown significantly in recent years. But these organizations find the legal constraints of a political party too cumbersome and say terrorist acts will achieve their goals more quickly.

Minority sects' concerns

But the trouble at Gazi also brought to the surface the explosiveness of the Alawites' concerns in Turkey. Numbering about 20 million, they make up about one-third of Turkey's population. They are Muslim followers of Ali, one of the four apostles who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Alawites are considered liberal and supported Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's founding of the modern secular state of Turkey in 1923.

As a liberal Muslim sect, Alawites reject pressure on women to wear a head scarf in public. Leftist ideas have a large support among the Alawites, and young members of that community are known to be members of underground revolutionary Marxist groups. They claim they are not equally treated and that they are looked down upon by the Sunni Muslim majority as ''alien to the Muslim faith.''

And Alawites are strongly opposed to the stricter rules of the Sunnis, and strongly oppose the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, which gained control of municipal governments in Istanbul and Ankara in elections last March.

''The only way to remove the sensitivity of the Alawites is for the state to treat Alawites and Sunnis on equal footing,'' says Izettin Dogan, a leading Alawite professor at Istanbul University. ''Alawite and religious communal institutions get no financial assistance from the state, while the Sunnis receive subsidies. The Office of Religious Affairs employs Sunnis. There are several cases of mistreatment of Alawites in police stations.''

The first serious outburst of violence between Alawites and Sunnis occurred in July 1993, when a large Sunni crowd, provoked by pro-fundamentalist elements, attacked and burned a hotel, where Alawite intellectuals, poets, and singers were staying to attend a cultural festival in the city of Sivas, in central Turkey.

About 37 people died in the attack, and tensions between the two sects rose throughout the nation.

TV joke offends

Just four months ago, Guner Umit, a leading Turkish entertainer, told a joke on TV that insulted the Alawites. Demonstrations were held in Istanbul, during which the TV station building was attacked. Mr. Umit eventually had to quit his job under the strong pressure of the Alawites.

The situation remains tense, with many saying that such trouble may recur here or elsewhere in the country.

The Alawites celebrate Nawrouz (the new year) on March 21 -- a day that has been used for mass protests in the past.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Riot Spotlights Turkey's Struggle With Rise of Fundamentalist Islam
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today