The Mild Face of Radical Islam?

Istanbul's mayor spruces up city, but some fear he will impose strict moral law

There he sat, stoop-shouldered and uncomfortable, the mayor of Istanbul lodged between a glossy blond TV anchorwoman and denim-clad cameramen. Tayyip Erdogan did not seem a lion of Islam.

As an announcer read out names of venerable Turkish correspondents at this recent Turkish Press Association ceremony, Mr. Erdogan (pronounced ER-do-an) managed to produce a wan smile.

This rising star of Turkey's fiercely Islamist party, Refah, is fond neither of Turkish journalists nor of the cocktail-and-canape circuit that his mayoral duties require him to frequent.

"There he is!" whispered Levent Avci, receptionist at the shabbily elegant Pera Palace Hotel in whose ballroom the mayor so unhappily sat.

"We all panicked when he came to power," Mr. Avci says. "But I like him now. I could never have imagined supporting the Refah party, but if he became leader I might give him my vote."

Many Turks worry Refah's long-term agenda is to dismantle the secular state founded in 1923 by the venerated "father of the Turks," Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan is widely expected to take over as the next leader of Refah, the party that stormed to prominence just over two years ago by capturing the mayoralties of both Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey's capital.

But if Erdogan represents the future of Refah, then that future is an enigmatic one. He has thus far refrained from imposing a strict Islamic regime on Istanbul's 12 million people, though many in the secular elite say he is merely biding his time.

Meanwhile, Refah's current leader, Necmettin Erbakan, is trying to form Turkey's next government. He was shunned by the traditional secular parties five months ago when he attempted to form a governing coalition after Refah won the most parliamentary seats in December's elections.

But after the spectacular - and some say amateurish - collapse of the secularists' center-right, anti-Refah coalition last week, the prospect of an Islamist-led minority government is becoming less ominous to many Turks.

"If we believe in democracy, we have to test Refah in government," says Sakip Sabanci, an influential Turkish businessman.

Since being asked by the president to form the next government, Erbakan has sought to calm worries about Refah's aims, saying he would respect democracy fully if given the chance to rule. But he has also said, if given the fiat, he would pull Turkey out of NATO and impose sharia, or Islamic law, such as is practiced in Iran.

"If you believe Refah is 100 percent fundamentalist, of course you should be anxious," says Asim Temizgil, a senior Turkish diplomat in Ankara. "But they are changing, too. Politicians always modify themselves when they get into office."

Erdogan is a case in point. Two months after taking office in the spring of 1994, the handsome, mustachioed former soccer player abruptly dropped his campaign rhetoric about closing Istanbul's brothels and night clubs. He also stopped being combative to the press (though he refused the Monitor's repeated requests for an interview.)

Instead he focused on improving the city's degenerating air quality and depleting water supplies. Pollution fell markedly after the mayor banned the use of the lignite coal for heating and increased natural gas use. He bought shiny new garbage trucks and installed two new water-filtration plants. And, in a crowd-pleaser, he even organized the planting of 100,000 slender new trees on Istanbul's dusty roads.

But apart from any ulterior motive, Erdogan's push to beautify rather than moralize is also pragmatic: He may not want to risk a clash with the quietly powerful military, which resists Islamic rule. Also, because he shares power with the governor of Istanbul, he does not have total power.

His support has only risen: "He's doing a tremendous job, and he gives no serious grounds for anyone to worry about his intentions," argues Nufel Cetenkaya, an Istanbul carpet merchant.

But there's a widespread belief among Turkey's Westernized middle and upper classes that Erdogan is the deceptively mild face of fanatical Islam.

"Refah scares me, but Erdogan scares me even more," says a veteran journalist at one of Turkey's biggest daily newspapers, who jokes that if his name were printed, "next time you would visit me in prison."

It was Erdogan's abrupt change in approach that worries the intelligentsia so much. "In Turkish we have a word, takiye, which means you act in a way you don't believe. He is showing us a kind face, but Tayyip Erdogan keeps what he is to himself."

Whatever Erdogan's true nature, he has a growing army of supporters. In Istanbul, as in the capital, Ankara, Refah's rise corresponds with the flow of migrants from the Anatolian countryside to gecekondu - ramshackle neighborhoods of "huts built in one night" - on the city's outskirts.

Istanbul alone has received about 300,000 to 500,000 migrants in each of the last six years. Most are religiously conservative villagers who can neither understand nor afford the big-city lifestyle of Istanbul's elite.

Erdogan has shrewdly capitalized on this natural constituency. The city's new policy toward these largely illegal settlements of flimsy wooden shacks and rough concrete houses is to charge a fee for each concrete building and let the construction continue.

"All the places where Refah won, things have improved," says Mural Elmas, who brought his family to Istanbul two years ago. Fingering a chain of china-blue worry beads, Mr. Elmas raises his voice over the roar of planes leaving the nearby international airport. "Erdogan is a good man," he says. "We would be happy to live with Islamic law. We didn't vote for him last time, but we will in the future."

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