Islamic Party Jumps Out Front

In Turkey, the most Western of Muslim nations, fundamentalists gain popularity

Since 1979, radical Islamists have either toppled or terrorized governments from Iran to Algeria.

But in Turkey, a Muslim nation with a secular, Western orientation, a political Islamic movement is creeping peacefully to the forefront.

Refah, the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, has been making significant inroads into Turkey's political institutions. And political analysts say Refah will parlay its municipal elections victory in 1994 into a big win in parliamentary polls in December.

Led by Necmettin Erbakan, Refah emerged in 1980 - a transformation of the pro-Islamic National Salvation Party, which was banned by a military government.

The party began with only 5 to 7 percent national support. But it grew dramatically last year when it won 20 percent of the total vote in municipal elections and the post of mayor in several cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. Recent surveys show the party has 20 to 22 percent backing.

The mainstream parties - True Path and Motherland - now lag behind Refah in the polls - for the first time. If Refah takes a majority of parliamentary seats in December, it will be in the position to lead a new coalition government.

Foreign observers question where Turkey will go if Refah comes to power. They question if Islam is becoming a threat and if Turkey may one day turn into an Iran or Algeria.

''Even if the threat is not immediate and serious, the concern and worry about it is,'' says a European diplomat based in Ankara. ''This by itself shows that the rise of Islam in Turkey should not be taken lightly.''

Refah has gained widespread support from Islamic traditionalists, but also from the disenfranchised who say the government is not meeting their basic needs.

Last year's elections showed that large numbers of people in urban centers sympathize with Refah, which pledges ''social justice.'' In the last 20 years, millions of people have moved from rural areas to Istanbul, swelling its population to 10 million. Nearly two-thirds of its population now live in shanty towns.

''Turkey's social and economic conditions and the rising expectations of the masses account largely for a popular trend toward Islam,'' says Nilufer Nala, a researcher on Islam at Marmara University here. ''Refah, which aspires to establish an Islamic regime, gets the support not only from the Muslim conservatives, but also from the people who resent their difficult living conditions, corruption, and social injustices.''

Signs of the rise in Islam are everywhere. Many females have begun wearing the head scarf. Thousands of mosques have been built, bringing the total to 70,000.

Compulsory religious education was imposed in public schools in the 1980s, while Islamic religious schools have spread to all corners of Turkey. About half-a-million students are enrolled in nearly 500 Islamic high schools. Pro-Islamists occupy important posts in the ministry of education and its regional offices.

In some districts and townships controlled by Refah, Islamic practices - banned in the 1920s - have been reintroduced. Alcoholic drinks are banned in bars and restaurants. The mayor of Istanbul has announced plans to close brothels. He is also planning to build an imposing mosque at Taksim Square, the city's major entertainment center.

New Islamic dailies and weeklies are flourishing. Three Islamic TV channels broadcast nationwide.

Various Islamic sects (tarikat) that were banned by Kemal Ataturk when he set up this secular republic in the 1920s are reappearing. Leaders of these sects are now courted by mainstream political parties (including the True Path Party of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller) because of their growing influence.

The goal of the Islamic movement is a subject of controversy here. Secular intellectuals say that the Islamists want to impose sharia, strict Islamic law. Secularists see them as enemies of Ataturk's Western-style reforms, bending more toward the Iranian model.

Although Mr. Erbakan and other leading Refah figures refrain from stating publicly that they want sharia, they do advocate changing laws they consider anti-Islamic, such as the legal prohibition of wearing the head scarf.

What is seen in the West as a rise of fundamentalism in Turkey is a trend to restore Islamic values and practices ignored or rejected in the past, says Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, director of the Islamic Research Center in Istanbul. ''This is a rectification of the concept of secularism,'' he says. ''If this is done smoothly, moderation will prevail and radicalism will be marginal.''

''There are deep differences between political, economic, and social conditions that led Islamic extremism to grow in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Algeria, and those which exist in Turkey today,'' says Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Koc University in Istanbul. ''Turkey is the only democratic country in the Islamic world which has achieved significant industrial and economic progress.''

Islamists claim that the way secularism has been applied in Turkey is antireligious. Erbakan says that ''true secularism will be possible only when Refah comes to power, because then Muslims in Turkey will be saved from the restrictions and practices that were imposed on the nation in the past.''

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