Ataturk's inheritors square up to Islamic foes

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THE traffic policeman charged into the crowded motorway 100 yards ahead, turned in the middle lane and held up his arms. We screeched to a halt. Then he threw a stiff salute, a command for all to remember the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, who died that minute, 9.10am, 56 years earlier.

Such suicidal enthusiasm was part of the most fervent 10 November anniversary for years, a reaction from Turkey's secular-minded majority to fears that Ataturk's old Islamist opponents are poised to outflank them.

Everybody shuffled out of their cars and trucks to stand to attention on Istanbul's equivalent to London's M25. Most of the country ground to a halt. But in the capital, Ankara, an ordinary post office worker suddenly embodied the secularists' fears.

Like the policeman, Mahmut Kacar surged forward. But he was brandishing the Muslim holy book, the Koran. And his target was the country's entire leadership, transfixed before Ataturk's sarcophagus. ``I invite you to the Koran. These stones will not save you. Worship the Koran, not this idol,'' he shouted before being dragged away.

Turkey reacted with shocked alarm. ``They can't bring Sharia law!'' thundered ex-President Kenan Evren. ``We will never be defeated,'' said President Suleyman Demirel.

``It was like Mathias Rust landing a plane in Red Square,'' intoned columnist Derya Sazak. He linked the incident to the assassinations of five secularists in the early 1990s, the Islamic mob burning of a hotel in Sivas last year, killing 37 intellectuals, and to a tendency among Islamist-run municipalities to tone down the Ataturk memorial ceremonies.

``Radical Islamists are stepping up actions smelling of violence,'' Mr Sazak wrote. ``Let us not turn into Algeria.''

Turkey is, of course, a far cry from Algeria. It has a booming private sector, a long state tradition and now hundreds of local and national television channels. But an explosion of civil society has diluted the old monopoly of the secularists and panicked the Kemalist elite.

With rural migration to urban areas, more women are wearing headscarves or even the veil. Mosques are sprouting everywhere over their built-by-night suburbs. The collapse of the populist Turkish left has opened the way for the pro-Islamic Welfare Party's efficient house-to-house politics. Pro-Islamic newspapers are growing.

The Welfare Party is no newcomer or pristine monolith. It is currently being investigated on charges of creaming off funds collected for Bosnian Muslims. A victim of its own success, it is also rent by divisions between reformers and old-time traditionalists.

But it is a symbol of a Turkey that is becoming more ``Islamic'' and suspicious of the West, worrying the Europeans debating progress on Turkey's 1995 Customs Union application this week and also US strategists

Hasan Cemal, one of Turkey's most respected columnists, felt no particular anxiety. ``So far they are playing by the rules,'' he said. ``Some Islamist intellectuals have a genuine belief in a pluralist system. They have reformed in practice. Like the communists, they have seen [their ideal state] is impossible. But they cannot bring themselves to admit it.''

The Welfare Party was forced to dilute its fundamentalist image to win an impressive 19 per cent of the vote in municipal elections in March, four percentage points behind the True Path Party of the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller. This new image reflected the fact that Turks do not favour the full rigours of Koranic law.

``In Europe, there are Christian Democrats. Here we are Muslim Democrats. We never say we are an Islamic party,'' said Abdullah Gul, a leading moderate and vice-chairman of the party.

Welfare now controls 400 of the 2,700 municipalities, including Ankara and Istanbul. Most mayors are trying to show they are doing a good municipal job. A storm of opposition has forced them to modify their few attempts to follow an Islamic agenda, such as limiting alcohol sales.

Hardliners may never be satisfied about each other's good intentions. Old-guard Kemalists cannot believe that if the Welfare Party won elections due before 1996, it would not try to turn Turkey into an Islamic state.

The likely outcome of the clash, a Turkish diplomat believed, would be a Turkish-Islamic synthesis that would make Turkey only a slightly less automatic member of the Western Alliance than it was in the Cold War.

(Photograph omitted)

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