Army protects Ataturk's secular ideal

Islam: Turkey and France both feel threatened by religious zeal

The coalition government of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey's Islamist Prime Minister, is digesting the armed forces' most emphatic intervention in national politics since 1983, when Turkey's generals relinquished power they seized in 1980.

Last Friday, the National Security Board - which contains senior military figures - issued a declaration which amounted to a call for a return to the secular orthodoxy promulgated by Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. While the Prime Minister - along with other senior figures from the Turkish establishment - is himself a member of the board, Turks suspect that the sentiments expressed in this declaration reflect less Mr Erbakan's views than those of the military, which has launched three coups since 1960.

The declaration, which followed a nine-hour meeting, named neither individuals nor political parties. However, there is little doubt that it was composed with Mr Erbakan and his Welfare Party in mind.

The Prime Minister angered the secular establishment when he tried to introduce measures which would make Turkey a more Islamic state. These initiatives, which included plans to allow female civil servants to wear Islamic headscarves at work, worried the military, which cites a constitutional obligation to uphold Ataturk's secular legacy.

Mr Erbakan has said that the board's declaration addressed all of Turkey's political leaders, and he has begun a series of meetings with other party bosses. However, the Prime Minister's room for manoeuvre is limited by his government's parliamentary majority of only eight. Carrying out the military's demands - which means for the most part stricter enforcement of existing legislation - might mollify potential defectors within the True Path Party, Welfare's coalition partner.

The problem for Mr Erbakan is that cracking down on threats to secularism would also mean penalising the fundamentalists who provide Welfare with some of its most committed support.

For example, forcing a European-style dress code first introduced by the dapper Ataturk - a beardless devotee of plus-fours and brogues - would affect Mr Erbakan's more radical cadres who favour beard and garb of Iranian inspiration. The implementation of other demands, which include restrictions on religious education in private schools, would also alienate the party faithful.

For the moment, the Prime Minister has rejected calls to re-introduce a tough law, repealed in the Eighties, which bans rallying the people in the name of religion. Mr Erbakan is under no legal obligation to implement the board's recommendations.

"In Turkey, governments are formed in parliament, not in the National Security Council. Laws are made in parliament," he told reporters yesterday at the parliament offices of his Welfare Party.

However, not so distant history suggests that it may be wise for the Prime Minister to listen. When the army last issued a comparable warning, in December 1979, the government of the time took little notice. The following year the tanks rolled in.

Turkish stocks dived 5.58 per cent at the close of trading on the political uncertainty. "An easing in political tension is needed. Newspapers full of pictures of army generals negatively affect the market," broker Mustafa Yilmaz said.

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