Turkey's Army Keeps the Faith at Bay

Many Muslim officers purged as Welfare Party grows

THE sword of every Turkish Army officer is usually displayed prominently at home, a proud reminder of his oath to protect the Turkish republic with all his courage and his blood.

For years Capt. Metin Turk's sword hung on the wall, its gold braid tassel, brass hilt, and badge of Turkey's Islamic crescent on an etched blade a blend of the country's roots in the Ottoman Empire, with its newer tradition of secularism.

But today, Captain Turk's sword is kept in a box out of sight, a symbol of pride that has turned instead to one of shame.

The former intelligence officer - who received numerous commendations during 17 years of service - was discharged from the Army last December, along with dozens of others, for activities deemed "too Islamic": Turk's wife wears a Muslim head scarf, he says, and he prays regularly.

Turkey is an entirely Muslim country, and also fiercely secular, even to the point of being a US ally in NATO. Since Kemal Ataturk founded the modern democratic republic more than seven decades ago, the Army has been entrusted with a sacred mission to preserve those ideals.

But now, in the eyes of the Army, the challenge comes from within: The Islamic Refah (Welfare Party), which won more seats in parliament than any other party in December's elections, is claiming that Turkey's secularism is against Islam.

Diplomats and Turkish politicians agree that the Army is sensitive to Welfare's victory, and is taking a tough line to ensure that the political changes do not filter into the Army. The dismissal of the officers and soldiers, they say, points to the Army's unease with a party that seeks to undermine its mission.

As a member of NATO, Turkey serves as the alliance's eastern anchor and is seen in the West as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. US military aid since 1990 has topped $3 billion.

Turk's dismissal came as a surprise to the officer, as it did for Capt. Suleyman Ogreten, who had devoted 21 years to the Army. As an elite armor officer, he was sent twice for training courses at Fort Knox, Ky., and received a special commendation for "exceptional performance" from American commanders.

But last December he was recalled from United Nations duty in Kuwait after visiting Islamic holy sites at Mecca with other UN officers. In Ankara, he says, he was given no explanation and was not charged. Instead he was told to sign a discharge document stamped "top secret," and sent home in disgrace. In a country where military service is mandatory - and young men are sent off with huge family celebrations - Captain Ogreten is too ashamed to tell relatives of his discharge.

"A few months ago I was the No. 1 armor officer, and then I am told that I am a bad guy, a bad officer," he says, controlling his emotion. "This is unbelievable. Even at Fort Knox there are 10 churches and a mosque, and you can pray on Friday without asking anybody. But not in the Turkish Army."

Ogreten and 24 others who were "retired" have appealed for a hearing to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Since the victory of Welfare, which advocates transforming Turkey into a religious state, it has become "much worse" for those conducting religious observances in the Army, Ogreten says.

A circular put out two weeks ago by one branch of the armed forces curbs Islamic practices in barracks and prohibits visits to mosque while in uniform. A senior Welfare official touched off a row when he accused the Army of showing "animosity to religion."

The normally secretive Army reacted angrily, using an unnamed senior officer to draw the limits of the Army's tolerance. "Fake believers and a bunch of anachronistic reactionaries are trying to harm the Turkish armed forces," he told the semi-official Anatolia news agency. "It is normal for them ... to use their filthy tongues to darken the armed forces."

Despite winning most parliament seats, Welfare failed to form a government, finally ceding to a shaky coalition of the center-right True Path and Motherland parties, and the smaller Democratic Left Party (DSP). Turkish sources say that high-ranking commanders made clear their preference that Welfare be kept out of the government. "There is a strong group of old Ataturkists [secularism advocates] who are very suspicious of any compromise by the military," says one Western diplomat. "They say, 'We don't want Iran here.' They see it in black and white - they are not very good with gray."

NEVERTHELESS there are some indications that a limited rapprochement is now under way, and Welfare leaders have banned their politicians from commenting on the Army.

Fear that Islamic rule would harm Turkey is also widespread in business and other circles, even though Welfare success in local elections over the past two years has placed two-thirds of the population - by their estimate - under local Welfare government.

Among those who have sought to keep Islam out of government is Bulent Ecevit, leader of the DSP. "The Army doesn't reject Islam at all, but Welfare wants to infiltrate the Army as well as the civilian side," he says. "Secularism is the most sensitive aspect of the regime in Turkey - if it collapses, the whole regime collapses."

As a result, Welfare's policies have sparked accusations of religious extremism. Tansu Ciller, leader of the True Path who shares the premiership, has accused Welfare chief Necmettin Erbakan of being Turkey's "biggest divider" by exploiting religion.

"Other parties believe the state is holy, but we don't believe that," says Welfare vice chairman Abdullah Gul. "Turkey is 99 percent Muslim ... and so I reflect the values of my people. US senators do the same thing. But if we [Islamists] are pressed into a corner ... then of course we will change our feelings."

The Army has carried out three coups since Ataturk ruled, to preserve the founder's secular ideal, but diplomats and politicians say that the Army is unlikely to do so again, even if Welfare's influence grows. "They will get used to us," Mr. Abdullah says, with confidence.

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