Turkey, too, sees gains by Islamists

From Pakistan to Morocco to Bahrain, cracks appear in the mosque-state wall.

For 80 years, the leaders of Turkey – a Muslim majority nation – have built walls between mosque and state.

On Sunday, voters here ousted the ruling parties, and swept into power a new political party with Islamic roots, leaving many unsure of whether those walls are still welcome by most Turks.

Turkey's election – coming on the heels of gains by Islamic parties in Pakistan in October and in Morocco in September – is seen by some analysts as a sign that more Muslims worldwide are turning to religion-based political movements.

Domestic factors – from frustration with government corruption to resentment toward oppressive regimes – are fueling this trend. But, in some places, there's a perception of a post-Sept. 11 polarization between Islam and the West. Voters also are being drawn to a better vision than the one they've heard from secular politicians.

"At the level of ideology, these organizations seem to be more coherent, more exact their program, than what they hear from anyone else," says Dr. Emad Shahin, an expert on Islamic political movements at The American University in Cairo, Egypt.

"One reason for the success of Islamic parties is good organization. They have the neighborhood infrastructure, the continuity of seeing people at the mosque every week or every day – and at the same time, there is an inability of the nation-state to provide basic services and to fulfill basic needs of the people," he says. Shahin points out that Islamists often provide assistance that the government does not.

"These groups also address the issue of their identity and the outside threat. The incentive for these movements was there before Sept. 11," he says. "But after Sept 11, there is an increasing level of polarization between the West and Islam. Westerners for obvious reasons are feeling threatened by an outside force, which in this case is Al Qaeda, and unfortunately making Islam associated with their entire camp.

"And on the other hand," he adds. "Muslims feel threatened by what they see as Western designs for them for their future."

In many ways, the Islamic world is so diverse that some here say it is hard to draw parallels between Turkey, which has one of the most feisty democracies in its region, and a Gulf Arab country like Bahrain, which also recently held elections for the first time in 30 years. In that vote, the Islamist candidates gained almost half the seats available.

And unlike the parties in Morocco and in Pakistan, which openly support the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, Turkey's AK Party politicians have avoided the fiery rhetoric of the Islamic parties closed down by Turkish authorities in the past decade, and have pledged to uphold Turkey's secular, pro-Western stance.

But some of the parallels do hold true. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AK (Justice and Development) Party, gained widespread popularity when he was the mayor of Istanbul – and tended to hard scrabble neighborhoods that were neglected by the municipality for years. He infused this image of clean, altruistic governance with Islamic principles, banning alcohol from cafes on government property. "In many countries, the record of the Islamists is not that bad," says Shahin, "Many of them emphasize issues of fairness, justice and discipline, and that has appeal."

Moreover, though he's already been in government, Mr. Erdogan maintained his image as an outsider fighting the system, bolstered by the fact that the system is fighting back. Just last week, an election court brought a new case against the AK Party for violating electoral laws in a new attempt to keep Erdogan from power. The case is to resume in the next two weeks, after AK Party has a chance to prepare its defense.

Some analysts in Turkey say the AK Party's rise to power is more of a rejection of failed leaders than it is a vote for an Islamist agenda. "This is a civilian coup d'etat. It's an earthquake," says Mehmet Ali Birant, a newspaper columnist in Istanbul.

"But it would be a big mistake to say that Turkey is being taken over by an Islamic party," he says. "It's a revolt of the people in the outlying areas, the poor and the needy. Only 20 percent of the people who voted are Islamist. The rest of them are issuing a protest vote: 'I hate the corruption. I hate the system.' "

Still, analysts say, there were 16 political parties to chose from in Turkey – 27 in Morocco – and yet voters chose the one that was known for its Islamic foundations. Perhaps most voters for AK Party were motivated by Turkey's internal economic issues. But some observers say that the war in Afghanistan and US plans for military intervention in Iraq, have had an impact on how many Muslims – Turks included – view their place in the world.

"Many people in Turkey and elsewhere in the Islamic world are watching Muslims suffering around the globe," says Ozdem Sanberk, an analyst with the Turkish Economic and Social Foundation, a think-tank in Istanbul. "The masses in the Islamic world don't have parties, don't have parliaments, and they feel besieged in their own countries. Many of them can't change their leaders - and yet they see that the US is supporting those regimes.

"In Turkey, we can change them, and in one night they are swept away," he says. "That means maybe Turkey can be a model for others."

It has been a model, on some level, for Pakistan.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf spent part of his childhood in Turkey and became a fan of Kemal Ataturk, the father of Turkish secularism. Both countries have powerful militaries that could step in if Islamists are perceived as going too far. Pakistan has dealt with Muslim politics by trying to show that it is the real guardian of Islam, while Turkey has shown the last group of Islamist politicians – most recently in 1997 – that if they get too ambitious they will be shown the door.

In Pakistan, it used to be a political truism that religious parties were noisy but small, and had never won more than 10 seats. But in the elections last month, a conservative coalition of religious parties won 59 seats in the National Assembly.

Monday, the country's prodemocracy parties said they have reached a tentative deal to form a coalition government with the Islamic coalition, which has been a staunch supporter of Afghanistan's Taliban and an opponent of Pakistan's alliance with the United States in the war on terror.

If the agreement goes through, The Associated Press reports that the prime minister's spot would likely go to Fazl-ur Rahman, the head of Jamiat-e-ulema Islam or Party of Islamic clerics.

To explain the growth of religious parties, some observers say the finger of blame points directly at President Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999. During the past three years of military rule, rallies by mainstream political parties have been restricted and the two most prominent political leaders – former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – have been pushed out of Pakistan and out of politics altogether.

The irony is that Musharraf was repressing the very parties that might have supported him, says Afrasiab Khattak, the Peshawar-based chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"During these three years of military rule, the religious right had the advantage of a sustained campaign, because they were supposedly [speaking only] on religious matters. The other parties were not allowed to hold rallies, to organize," says Mr. Khattak.

Ardeshir Cowasjee, a Karachi-based columnist for the leading Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, says that the success of Pakistan's religious parties is based on demographic trends. Pakistan's high birth rate has produced 20 million more Pakistanis since the last elections in 1998.

"That's 10 a minute, 600 an hour, 14,400 a day, 5.3 million a year," he says. "That means 160,000 new classrooms, and [the state doesn't] have the money to build them." So these children go to Pakistan's tens of thousands of madrassas or religious schools, Cowasjee says.

"Pakistan is a military government, while Turkey is a civilian government backed by the military or a military watchdog, so they're not that different in terms of limits for political activity," adds Shahin. "They allow political expression, but it's within a well-calculated political game. It's like a soccer match, the regimes are the referees, and they're allowing the players to play."

That means they could call a time-out, or take them out of the game altogether. Knowing that, most here think that the AK Party will not try to anger the referees, at least not initially. "They come from Islamist roots. They are in a genuine effort to embrace modern values as well, to reach a synthesis," Sedat Ergin, the Ankara bureau chief of the Hurriyet newspaper, says of Turkey's new leadership.

• Staff writer Scott Baldauf in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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