Fundamental Trouble For Secular Turkey?

TURKEY'S treatment of its Kurdish population, many of whom it has pursued militarily into Iraq in recent weeks, has drawn sharp criticism, notably from the European Union. But many observers have another big concern regarding Turkey: Are its secular foundations in a tenuous state?

It's been a year since that nation's pro-Islamic Refah (Welfare) Party scored stunning victories in Turkish local elections; it now governs Istanbul and Ankara.

According to an emerging consensus, Muslim fundamentalism has replaced communism as Turkey's main geopolitical concern.

Refah's ascendance is based more upon populist discontent than a growing adherence to Islamic precepts, however. And although the West's positions on Bosnia and Chechnya, on Turkish membership in the European Union, and on the Kurdish conflict have undoubtedly alienated the traditionally Europhilic Turks, there's more going on here.

Turkey, like other rapidly industrializing countries, has been transformed by a quarter century of continuous migrations to the cities. Where vacant fields once existed, shantytowns known as gecekondus (''night built'') ring the outskirts of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other sizeable Turkish municipalities. Almost three-fifths of Turkey's population currently lives in urban settings, coping with poorly planned civic services and inept supervision. This is especially noticeable within gecekondu communities, the spawning grounds for Refah support.

Signs of Turkey's mainstream conservative and social democratic parties are practically nonexistent. But while worry beads and veiled women are ubiquitous throughout gecekondu societies, these don't necessarily translate into support for Islamic culture.

''This is a fashion statement many gecekondu youth are adopting to protest against growing economic and political disparities,'' a Turkish sociologist confided to me. ''Twenty years ago, they would have worn Mao caps and quoted from little red books.''

The gecekondus also reflect a regional dichotomy between eastern and western Anatolians. Nearly all gecekondu inhabitants hail from the underdeveloped east, a wide swath of territory roughly stretching from Ankara to Turkey's frontiers with the Caucasus and the Middle East. Kemal Ataturk's renowned modernization policies were essentially a Western Anatolian phenomenon. This legacy is much less profound in Eastern Turkey.

Another sociological insight that the emerging collective opinion fails to discern is the competent, even technocratic nature of Refah's apparatus. No matter what their ideological predilections, Istanbul's 10 million inhabitants unanimously concede that Refah's personnel are the best managers of essential civic services. Necmettin Erbakan, Refah's party chairman, has a knack for attracting talent from the ''wrong side of the tracks.''

It's worth noting that Turgut Ozal, Turkey's former prime minister and free-market advocate, began his political career as an Erbakan protege in the early 1970s. A native of Malatya, a provincial city in eastern Anatolia, Mr. Ozal lacked the proper academic and social credentials for gaining access to established political networks. Certain analysts believe that Ozal's ''outsider'' status enabled him to confront Turkey's state-controlled orientation successfully and reform it.

Further overlooked is the fact that Refah is far from being a monolithic movement. Signs of growing differences between the party's old guard and younger, more ultranationalist members are increasingly evident. Islam's finite appeal is also reflected by Turkish electoral history. Refah's forerunner, the National Salvation Party, was never able to garner more than one-fifth of the vote during its heyday more than 20 years ago. Could Refah's 19.3 percent approval rating last March suggest that its popularity has peaked?

Refah isn't the provoking factor behind Turkey's recent Sunni-Shiite clashes either. The causes of this strife need further clarification, but Shiite (Alawite) demonstrators were seen waving pro-Socialist banners on television. Russia was rumored to be behind this unrest, avenging Turkey's alleged covert aid to Chechnya's independence struggle, but this remains unfounded.

Another perspective conjectures a totally different connection, namely that most Alawites come from predominantly Kurdish districts of southeastern Anatolia. Assuming that Alawites are essentially Kurds is spurious logic, though, and doesn't explain Ankara's subsequent invasion of northern Iraq to arrest nascent Kurdish separatism. Whatever the case may be, Alawites aren't protesting against possible theological control by the Sunni majority, but age-old discriminations within Turkish society.

Turkey's political Islam is essentially anti-elitist. But until Ankara curbs a 150 percent inflation rate and a sense of political drift, the Islamic bogeyman will continue to be written about.

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