On Turkish streets, local battles over Islam's role

Amid the deep political crisis over the country's presidency, secularists bemoan an incremental Islamization of everyday life on the local level.

Perched on a high hill overlooking Istanbul's old city, the Pierre Loti cafe is named after a 19th-century French bon vivant whose sensual tales of his time in the Ottoman capital have fueled the imaginations of countless tourists.

Earlier this year, the local mayor tried to rename the area around the cafe after an Islamic saint whose tomb – a popular Muslim pilgrimage site – is nearby, enraging Turkish secularists. One secularist member of Istanbul's city council accused the mayor, a member of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), of being part of a larger plan of Islamization.

It is a charge that is being heard increasingly often in Turkey. Founded on secular ideals by Kemal Ataturk after World War I, the majority-Muslim republic is embroiled in a deep political crisis pitting the AKP-led government against secularists, who fear the liberal Islamic party is gaining too much power. Hundreds of thousands of Turks have turned out for massive rallies held nationwide in recent weeks, frequently expressing the concern that the AKP is enacting incremental local changes that are eroding the country's secular foundations.

Much of the concern has focused on the AKP's recent effort to have its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, elected by parliament as president – an effort that was successfully blocked by Turkey's secular opposition parties.

"Secularism, the regime of the country, is in danger," says Hasan Husseyin Engin, a chemical engineer who was among an estimated 1 million Turks at an April 29 pro-secularism rally in Istanbul. "The government is not obeying the rules of the country as set up by Ataturk. You cannot see this or feel this. They are doing this secretly."

True or not, such claims illustrate how, despite four years in government that have seen record economic growth and brought the country closer than ever to its long-held dream of European Union (EU) membership, many secular Turks remain deeply suspicious of the AKP government and its intentions.

It's a sentiment that also appears to be shared by Turkey's powerful military. When the AKP announced Mr. Gul as its presidential candidate – a post Gul was almost certain to get, given the AKP's majority in parliament – the military released a terse statement late last month expressing its concerns over the AKP government's track record on secularism. But rather than mentioning anything the government itself had done, the military cited several examples of local events it found troubling, such as a Koran reading contest at a municipal celebration in Ankara of a Turkish national holiday.

"I think what they are saying is that on a national level Turkey's secular system has not changed, because the system is too difficult to amend since it's guarded by a secular system and constitution. But they are concerned about the microlevel efforts that are making changes at the grass-roots level," says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Local Islamization: orchestrated?

The AKP has been wildly successful on the local level, capturing 42 percent of the vote in the 2004 municipal elections and taking over the mayoral offices in most of Turkey's large cities.

Since those elections, secularists have been quick to provide examples of AKP-run municipalities trying to introduce Islamic "lifestyle changes," from efforts to ban alcohol sales to brochures distributed to newlyweds which claimed, "Women who don't wake up early ... and a horse that doesn't obey your commands are useless."

Metin Heper, a professor of political science at Ankara's Bilkent University, says he believes examples like these have been blown out of proportion.

"I don't think those things have been orchestrated by the AKP leadership," he says. "I think those are isolated events and when the leadership found out what happened, they tried to stop it. I don't think a capital case should be made out of it."

Adds Prof. Heper: "Unfortunately, in this country, some people think that if someone is, in one way or another, a practicing Muslim, that someone would be enthusiastic to bring back a state ruled by Islam, and that is just not true."

In a recent interview in Newsweek, Gul, who has withdrawn his presidential candidacy after it was blocked, said charges of a hidden Islamization agenda on AKP's part are false.

"We have worked harder than any party in Turkey's history to make Turkey a member of the EU," Gul told Newsweek. "Why would we do this if we are trying to Islamize Turkey?"

AKP leaders rein in local officials

In his wood-paneled office, Hasan Can, the AKP mayor of Istanbul's sprawling Umraniye district, says he believes what the opposition really fears is the party's success on the local level, going on to describe the AKP's well-oiled political machine that provides coal and food to the poor and that has in the last three years built eight cultural centers in a borough that previously had only one.

Umraniye, on Istanbul's eastern edge, is rapidly swelling with migrants from Turkey's conservative Anatolian heartland. Once filled with ramshackle homes, today Umraniye has one of Istanbul's hottest property markets, with high-rise apartment complexes now ringing the area.

"The people want a more modern life, one filled with culture," says Mr. Can. "They would like to be able to fill their stomachs and live a modern life.... That's what the AK Party is giving them."

Asked about fears that the AKP is injecting religion into its work, the mustachioed Can smiles. "I have been talking for an hour; has there been any religion in what I said?" he asks. "This is a political discourse that's not based in reality."

Still, the AKP's leadership appears to aware of the impact, at least in symbolic terms, of its party's local activity, recently warning mayors and local leaders to refrain from using religious references in their publications. It may also try to purge some of its more conservative members before the upcoming elections, say analysts.

"Until now, they have been pretty loose with the local administrations, but I think that is going to change," says Mehmet Ali Birand, a commentator for CNN Turkey.

"If one municipality does something, another one thinks it's a good idea to do it as well," he says. "It generates a momentum, and the party needs to do something to discipline them."

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