Islam makes political push in Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit missed a key meeting with generals last week, spurring calls for elections.

Turkey, a key Western ally, is experiencing an Islamic revival that some Turks see as a threat to this officially secular nation.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's steadfast refusal to resign or call early elections, despite a recent illness, has many analysts suggesting that the secular establishment fears the religious parties now leading in opinion polls.

In a recent survey by the German polling company ANAR, the Justice and Development Party (known as AKP) scored up to 23 percent of the vote in a hypothetical election. The governing socialist-nationalist coalition received 9 percent.

"Modernization – and with it secularization – was an elite project in Turkey," says Dr. Talip Kucukcan, director of the independent Center for Islamic Studies in Istanbul. "People in Turkey are sincere Muslims and the state has alienated many of them.''

Indeed, a study by the Konrad Adenauer Institute in Bonn found that 95 percent of Turks believed in God and 70 percent considered themselves "devout Muslims," fasting during Ramadan and attending mosque on Friday.

Since the Israeli military invasion of Palestinian towns on the West Bank this spring, Islamist rhetoric has risen in Turkey, with some leaders also calling for greater Muslim brotherhood.

After the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the state became officially – some argue aggressively – secular.

In 1997, the military-dominated Constitutional Council even ousted the governing Islamist Welfare Party, which had won power in a coalition at the 1996 elections. Its leader, Necbattin Erbakan, did not impose sharia (Islamic law), but tried to change the way religion was controlled by the central government, which appoints some 80,000 clerics.

He also courted the leaders of Iran and Libya, ringing alarm bells in Washington and within the Turkish military, which was simultaneously strengthening ties with the United States and Israel.

But the Islamists' appeal never really waned, especially in the poorer parts of the country, and the AKP is now led by the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Four years ago, Mr. Erdogan was sentenced to 10 months in jail and banned from politics for making an Islamist speech and "criticizing the secular order." Now that his ban is to be lifted, he is the most popular leader in Turkey.

His deputy, former Turkish diplomat Yasar Yakis, says Erdogan's treatment at the hands of the military shows that the religious parties, far from being Taliban-style fundamentalists, are more liberal than their secular counterparts.

"The way our chairman has been treated is a mockery of justice,'' says Mr. Yakis. "Now they are looking at other pretexts to prevent him from becoming prime minister.''

Although 48 out of the AKP's 53 parliamentary deputies were once aligned with the Welfare Party and its banned successor, the Virtue Party, Yakis insists the AKP is a completely new entity, which does not threaten secular society.

Their touchstone is the right of religious women to wear a veil or headscarf, a practice currently banned in state schools and universities, government offices, and parliament, and on state broadcasting. Their agenda also includes the right of local Muslim congregations to appoint imams to mosques.

"We want to lower the prerogative of the central government in all areas of public life," says Yakis. "So if a religious community prefers to nominate their own leader, they should be able to do so. "This may require some amendment to the constitution.''

The AKP also advocates that Turkey join the European Union, saying local Muslims will enjoy EU protections on religious freedom. "Why is it that a Muslim lady in a Christian country, like Britain or the United States, has more rights than in Turkey?" he says. "We see it as an issue of fundamental rights."

Secular liberals, who also support EU membership, are not completely convinced that Turkey's religious parties have changed, even if their rhetoric is focused more on human rights than Islamic morality. Some, such as Erdal Guven, a columnist for the leading liberal daily, Radikal, says recent history haunts the Islamists.

"Soon after they came into government, Erbakan got up in his party room and said to the members, 'It is for you to decide if we come democratically or with blood,''' says Guven, in an office decorated with posters of Mick Jagger and the latest George Clooney movie.

"All this talk of blood frightened many people. There are new faces but some think the old man [Erbakan] is still pulling the strings. They still have to convince the majority of Turkish public opinion they are not fundamentalists."

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