Torn Over Garments, Turkey Hurtles Toward a Showdown
National Security Council meets Friday, with powerful Army demanding officials not permit Islamist dress.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Dundane Deger, a student at Istanbul University, tries to come to campus daily in Islamic dress. But she is refused entry at the gate of the university each time.
"This is inhuman. It's oppression," she says. "Last year we were allowed to go to class with the turban. Now they want to force us to give up our religious beliefs and traditions."
A government decree last month that bars university students from class for wearing Islamic dress has fanned the conflict between secularism and Islam in Turkey, and once again brought the government and the military to the brink.
A meeting Friday of the National Security Council, where top military commanders sit with President Suleyman Demiral, the prime minister, and some Cabinet ministers, could provide hints of how far the Army will go in its efforts to keep Turkey strictly secular.
The powerful military, which regards itself as the guardian of secularism as introduced 75 years ago by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic, says that the current government is not doing any better in combating "the Islamic threat" than its pro-Islamic predecessor.
Last year, military commanders forced down the government of Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party for failing to implement an 18-point program to curb the spread of fundamentalism in predominantly Muslim Turkey.
Hopes for a continued campaign against Islamic activism were pinned on the new pro-secular coalition government formed last June by Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the conservative Motherland Party.
On March 23, Mr. Yilmaz showed signs of bowing to the military's pressures. After a Cabinet meeting he announced new measures including "monitoring units" to determine the fundamentalist activities of civil servants and a general stiffening of control over Islamic organizations.
Such moves are widely seen as an effort by Yilmaz to take the initiative and deflect Army pressure. But the military and the secular establishment have proved tough to please. Top military leaders, requesting anonymity, have recently voiced their discontent through the press.
Anger is also rising among students like Ms. Deger. Last month's ban was followed by supporting actions by the president of the state-run Istanbul University, not only barring female students from wearing the traditional turban, the Turkish word for head scarf, but also barring male students with beards. Beards, like the turban, are regarded as a symbolic demonstration of fundamentalism.
The tightening of the ban provoked widespread student protests and clashes with the police. Not all of the participants were Islamists. Ebru Morkoyun, a bareheaded medical student, joined the demonstrations with conservative students wearing the scarf.
"I personally wear jeans and mini-skirts, and see no reason why others should not be free to dress differently," she says. "It's natural to have different views and convictions in a democratic society."
The order to bar bearded male students, regarded as Islamic activists, seems to raise even more anger.
"I'm neither Islamist nor leftist," says Gokhan Hakyilmaz. "My beard is not ideological. It suits me. [But] now that there is this ban, my beard has acquired a new meaning. I'm going to stick to it because I'm against all kinds of pressures."
Earlier this month, as the demonstrations and clashes became more heated, Prime Minister Yilmaz called for the postponement of the ban's implementation.
But while the universities were preparing to comply with Yilmaz's instructions, the Army's general staff held a briefing in Ankara for the rectors and administrators of some 40 universities, who were told the Islamic garb represented an attempt to introduce Islamic practices in educational institutions and public departments.
Faced with a warning, many went home and ordered the ban enforced.
Said Kemal Almedaroglu, rector of Istanbul University: "The students must respect the laws. The demonstrations are aimed at destroying the country's constitutional system. Many of the demonstrators are not even students, they are provocateurs.... These events should be regarded as a kind of test for an Iranian-type revolution."
Yilmaz expressed anger at the military for its interference and for spreading the word that the government was unable to deal with the "Islamic threat."
A great deal is riding on the National Security Council meeting Friday. The council is an advisory body. But it has proved in the past to be an instrument where the will of the military prevails.
The commanders are expected to judge the early actions by Yilmaz and perhaps call for more urgent measures, including strict control of religious schools and the pro-Islamic media and ending the granting of credits to businesses believed to be sponsors of Islamic activities.
The question is how far the military will go in pressing the government to comply, and how much Yilmaz will be able to convince the generals that they should let the government do the job as it sees fit.
"One thing appears certain." says a Western observer here. "The showdown between civilians and the military, and between secularists and Islamists, will continue in different ways so long as the ingredients of the conflict continue to exist in Turkish society."