Islam Sticks in a Town Called Mud

Once run by Turkey's secular leaders, Sincan feels prosperity under Islamic party banned Jan. 16 in move to protect democracy.

The walls of the pro-Islamist political office are as gray as the mood as a handful of men from the town of Sincan gather to pay their respects to a populist party that has just been closed by Turkey's high court.

Thickly bundled in layer upon layer of dark-colored wool clothing to ward off biting cold - the concrete walls seem to keep it in - the men pull up to a small, wood-burning stove. A bright-red flag of Turkey hangs side-by-side with a red Refah (Welfare) Party flag, breaking up one dreary wall.

Three years ago this town was known as "Mud Sincan," because of neglect from previous secular local governments, which residents say were also corrupt. But Sincan today is well-paved, boasting green areas and a huge children's park, and most people have water.

Largely because of that, Sincan (pronounced SIN-jahn) is a Welfare stronghold - a case study of how grass-roots good works by Islamists have been turned into political support. Recent similar methods have helped transform political Islam in Algeria and, to a degree, in Lebanon under Hizbullah (Party of God).

What remains unclear is how that strategy in Turkey will affect the country's relations with both the West and Islamic world.

In Sincan, shoes have been left at the door of the Welfare office, in Islamic style, as the men chew over the future. Muslim prayer beads, held in at least two pairs of tough hands, click with a ritual gentleness.

"They can close a party like this 10,000 times, but we will establish a new one every time," says Selim Obali, pulling his jacket tighter. "They will never destroy our ideals.

"If five or six people made a mistake, it is not the mistake of 6 million Welfare supporters," adds Zeynel Yuksel, a rough-hewn older man with an edge of anger in his voice.

"I'm not surprised - there's no democracy in Turkey. As a citizen of the Turkish Republic, I am very sad," he says.

Sincan is a bustling provincial town close to the capital, Ankara, whose population has multiplied since the early 1990s, when urban populations were boosted by Turks coming from rural areas.

It was here a year ago that the Welfare mayor held a rally, and the Iranian ambassador to Turkey declared: "Do not be afraid to call yourselves fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are those who follow the words and actions of the Prophet. God has promised the them the final victory."

That proved too much for Turkey's Islam-shy military, and within days 20 tanks rolled through the streets here, sending an message to emboldened Islamists. With three military coups carried out since 1960, the message was unmistakable: There were limits to Islamic rule in Turkey, and the military would decide what they were.

"The script of this Welfare closure began in those days, with the tanks," says Rustem Tash, a Welfare official and member of the city council. "It is a bad lesson for Turkey, because Welfare isn't just a party, it represents a mission. But the people will show the military how powerful they are."

A campaign led by the military and secular elites resulted in the June 18 ousting of Welfare Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan after a year in power, and on Jan. 16 the court decision banned the party for good. Turkey's military has for decades been the most respected institution in Turkey, and it has a constitutional mandate to defend the secular values of the Republic.

But rarely has that "enemy" taken the form of a grass-roots Islamic party that won 24 percent of the vote in the last elections and controls two-thirds of the local city councils across the country, including Ankara and Istanbul.

And if the attitudes of most people in "Mud Sincan" suggest anything, it may be that those who voted for Welfare appreciate the corruption-free rule and ground-level support they say it delivered. Sincan is relatively prosperous, unlike poorer slum areas where Welfare has found even more ready supporters.

"The people started to love their municipality," says council member Tash. "We invested three times more than previous governments." The difference has not been the cash that has come from Ankara, he says, but that corruption is minimal.

The "threat" of Islam is exaggerated, he adds. "We don't want an Islamic state, everybody can live how they want. Islam is an open religion. If people decide to live by Islam, nobody should force anybody."

But that is, in fact, one of the reasons Welfare has so much support in Sincan, says one man, playing with his children outside in the chill air at a nearby playground - one built by the previous government, he points out.

"They are trying to make Sincan like Algeria, with more mosques and more Koran schools, and it is not a good thing," says the man, who said he worked for the "security" services, and would only give his name as Ahmed. "All this support isn't true, they are exaggerating things. They are pressing people to vote for Welfare, especially the women," he says. "Once I went to a neighbor's house. First we read the Koran, then they asked me to sign a letter saying 'I will vote for Welfare.' I didn't sign it, I'm against this, but those who do get cooking pots and a little bit of money."

Critics have pointed out that statements by some Welfare officials show the party has feigned democracy only as a means to gain power.

But others in Sincan say that, even if they found Welfare "too religious" to support, its council had worked hard for improvements. They noted soup distribution that took place at nine points across town for those too poor to afford their own meal to break the holy month of Ramadan fast at dusk. At one distribution point, children and mothers lined up with plastic jugs, as municipal workers ladled them full of hot soup from immaculate new pots.

More evidence of Welfare work is seen in the expansive children's park. Despite the icy weather, more than 150 children screamed in delight as they charged across the brightly colored slides, tunnels, and tall ladders and swings.

"I can hardly wait to get out of school each day to play here," says a boy named Mehmet. The park was built last year, as a joint project between the Sincan and Ankara city governments - both Welfare-run.

"The other parties did nothing here," says Osman Hamdi Isildak, a retiree. "Two million people are leading this country - these 'kings' live how they like - and there are 60 million poor. The only party that can help us is Welfare.

"They have done so much that I would show my gratitude by giving them my only house."

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