Turkish Secularists See Red Over Islamists’ Rise

Politics: The republic’s founder rejected Muslim traditions. Now, as religious parties gain strength, the military guards his legacy.
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 6, 2002

August 6 2002

ANKARA, Turkey — Ayse Calmuk knows that some Turks view her head scarf as a red flag flaunting support for an Islamic political agenda. But she says wearing it is simply a religious duty.

Feride Acar, a professor at Middle East Technical University here in the Turkish capital, doesn’t buy that argument. And as Turkey heads toward elections in November that could bring a party with deep Islamic roots to power, clashing views over head scarves reflect a potentially dangerous split in society.

“In this country, sociologically speaking, the head covering is a symbol of violation of women’s human rights. This is how many people understand it,” Acar said.

“As a woman, if you are claiming that you are covering your head because this is part of your religion and it’s part of your belief system, then that same belief system has other things that are supposed to be accepted by women too,” Acar said. “That includes polygamy. That same belief system also includes unequal inheritance. It includes the right of the husband to physically punish the wife. All of these are gross violations of women’s human rights.”

Calmuk ridicules that notion.

“I don’t believe any of these issues–polygamy or unequal inheritance rights–are issues anymore in the modern world,” she said. “People like me don’t believe in them. It’s wrong to associate them with Islam.”

Still, the government’s fear of the head scarf is great enough that students and public employees are banned from wearing it at schools and on the job. The ban, itself often criticized as a violation of women’s rights, is just one small piece of a system enforced by the Turkish army that supporters say is designed to ensure that religious leaders can never take political power.

Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 on the Ottoman Empire’s ruins by Kemal Ataturk. He had a secular, Europe-oriented vision that rejected what he considered a backward Muslim world. He forbade the traditional veil for women and fez for men, abolished polygamy and let girls go to school.

The military has guarded Turkey’s secularism ever since, even forcing out the country’s first democratically elected Islamist-led government in 1997.

Many analysts and politicians doubt that the army would allow the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party to take power if it won elections set for Nov. 3. The party is led by the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Polls show the party with 20% to 30% popular support, at least double that for its closest rivals.

In Turkey’s system, only parties that win at least 10% of the vote are awarded parliamentary seats, so popularity at this level can bring a strong position in parliament, conceivably even a majority if most votes are split among a large number of parties.

There are widespread fears that postelection conflict could erupt, pitting the military against Erdogan and other religion-oriented politicians. Such conflict would damage Turkey’s democracy, its troubled economy and its hopes of joining the European Union. Although an open clash is far from inevitable, many say the risk exists.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit declared recently that an Islamist electoral victory could trigger a crisis.

“There is speculation that Justice and Development will end up as the first party,” Ecevit said in an interview on state-run television. “If that comes true, Turkey will be faced with questions over its regime.” That was taken as a reference to the possibility of military intervention in some form.

“I do not want Erdogan’s rights to be taken away from him or the party banned, but their true faces must be exposed,” Ecevit added.

Party leaders strenuously deny that they want to impose Islamic rules on the government or society. Erdogan insists that he has never chosen the label “Islamist” and that he simply tries to be a good Muslim.

“I do acknowledge that there’s a threat of radical Islam in this country, people who would like to see Turkey run as an Islamic state,” said Husnu Ondul, president of the Human Rights Assn. of Turkey. “But those people are not members of the Justice and Development Party. There may be a few people like that [in the party], but they’re really marginal.”

Few people believe that religion-based parties could succeed in imposing an Islamic political system even if they won elections and tried to do so.

Erdogan “can’t form an Islamic state,” said university student Fatih Budak, 21. “That’s impossible, because there’s strong opposition. There’s us young people. There’s the military. We won’t allow him to do anything of that sort.”

“Turkey is still being governed by a constitution drawn up by the military in 1982 following their last coup,” Hasimi said. “Although there’ve been a huge number of changes to that constitution, the spirit of the military dictatorship is still enshrined in it.”

Turkey has been under direct military rule three times since 1960. Before withdrawing for the third time, in 1983, the generals wrote a constitution enhancing their power behind the scenes.

Though few people predict that the army will stage another coup, it has enormous influence over some political parties, the courts, the media and business associations.

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