Quake calls Turks to religion

Muslims see temblor as a message from God and a challenge to

The Islamic call to prayer does not come from this Turkish mosque anymore: The minaret and its speakers toppled over in the earthquake, first shearing off the zinc gutters and then smashing one of the prayer areas.

The spot where worshipers once placed their shoes before going in to prayer is gone, too.

But the first Friday - the Muslim holy day - after the Aug. 17 earthquake saw swarms of new devotees to mosques across the hardest-hit area of northwest Turkey, an industrial heartland in a stridently secular state.

"The people are feeling different now," says the imam of this mosque about the apparent rediscovery of faith as Turks cope with the earthquake's aftermath. "They are trying to tell God they are sorry."

Since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, there has been tension over his secular ideal and the religious reality that most Turks are Muslim. The post-earthquake boost for religion is just the latest shift in that uneasy standoff.

In this region of collapsed buildings, countless backhoes chew at rubble where more than 15,000 people died. The 200,000 left homeless camp in public parks and beside highways in makeshift tents. Amid the destruction, many blame Turkey's militantly secular policies and believe - with a fire and brimstone vigor - that this was divine retribution.

"In the Koran, the prophets say that if people do not accept believers, the last event will be a natural disaster, an apocalypse," says the imam.

He asked not to be named, saying that the concerted government efforts to keep Islam out of political life meant that "they are watching for the noise of every mosquito."

Embracing religion to help cope with disaster is "only natural," analysts say, but many doubt whether that will turn to more political support for divided Islamists. It may just mean more mosque-goers.

"This time, the Turkish government was slow and inadequate, and this is a temporary reaction because when help is not coming, you turn to God," says Hasan Koni, a professor of international relations at Ankara University. Islamists began the antisecular "propaganda," he says, and on Saturday the Turkish military started in with its own "counterpropaganda."

"People had many losses, so they had to pray. Religion has become very fashionable again," Mr. Koni says.

Though this may be a minority view, even among devoted Muslims elsewhere in Turkey, it has gained currency. Former Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced from office in 1997 for violating secular laws, called the earthquake a "divine warning."

But for Turkey's establishment, secularism itself is an article of faith. "Secularism is the most sensitive aspect of the regime in Turkey - if it collapses, the whole regime collapses," Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has said. "It's the Achilles' heel."

The traditional bastion of secularism has been the army. Soldiers are not allowed to wear beards - for some a symbol of devotion - or visit mosques in uniform. Since Ataturk's time, the army has carried out three coups to preserve secular rule and was seen to be behind the 1997 decision to oust the Islamist Mr. Erbakan.

This stance is not likely to change. The chief of Turkey's military, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, declared on Sept. 4 that the Army would fight Islamist influence "for 100 years, 1,000 years if necessary."

Still, unrest spilled over swiftly. The day after the temblor, one Islamist group attacked liquor stores in Istanbul, accusing them of bringing catastrophe upon Turkey by breaking religious rules.

Mr. Ecevit's government and the army have also blocked some Islamic associations such as the Mazlum-Der foundation from distributing relief aid to quake victims.

"The people don't live like real Muslims," says Ilhami Unel, who now lives in a tent with seven family members in the devastated Kullar area of Izmit. "God didn't separate the believers from the nonbelievers. God made this disaster for everyone."

Secularists are searching for answers, too, Mr. Unel says. Though he has always prayed regularly, his wife never did - until the earthquake. "Right now, my wife is telling me: 'Please pray.' "

The message is global, he says: "All around the world, people must take the message that they must leave the guns and the atom bombs. This is coming from the Koran and [the Islamic prophet] Muhammad, Moses, and Jesus, that all people should live as brothers."

"From the first moment, we became brothers and sisters, strong like one fist," says Nesrin Oskar, whose daughter was killed in the quake. "We believe that God sent this disaster for us to be together. We were separate before; I didn't know my neighbors."

So was the earthquake, in a sense, positive? "Not personally, but altogether it is a lesson, an examination for us," Mrs. Oskar replies, sitting on a plastic chair with neighbors under a tree. Their tent "homes" all around cover a soccer field.

"This must be the case, for we all worked for ourselves, for this world - but what did we do for heaven? What did we do for our God?" asks Oskar, whose fingers are decorated with several gold and diamond rings. "We worked only for ourselves, that's why [the earthquake] happened."

Soul-searching is also under way across the road from the imam's broken mosque in Korfez. Staring wistfully at his damaged mosque, he says that he "feels empty" when he makes the call to prayer now. But the burst of new interest in religion brings a smile to his face.

"It looks like a collapsed mosque, but it's collecting us and bringing us together," says the imam. "After this passes, we will see the people coming more and more."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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