Fire adds to Turks' crisis of confidence: Islamic fundamentalist attack aggravates loss of direction since death of Ozal

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The Independent Online
TURKEY struggled yesterday to come to terms with the worst Islamic fundamentalist attack in its recent history, with some commentators fearing that the country was facing a general crisis of confidence.

Thirty-six people died after a hotel in the eastern town of Sivas was set ablaze on Friday by a crowd of Islamic radicals angered by a left-wing cultural festival in the town that starred Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. The dead included three folk poets, a literary critic, a German woman and Turkey's last maestro of the three-stringed lute.

'Alarm bells are ringing from Sivas. Those who want to split and ruin Turkey are in full swing. We must be very careful in this period,' said the daily newspaper Hurriyet.

The problem is not just the fundamentalist attack. At least 150 people were killed last week, most in some of the worst violence in Turkey's nine- year Kurdish insurgency. Twelve foreigners were also wounded in what was apparently the first Kurdish rebel attack on Turkish tourism.

Turkey seems to have lost its way since the death in April of President Turgut Ozal. It has been hard to hear the voice of authority or of Tansu Ciller, the new Prime Minister. In a speech to parliament, she confused her facts but appealed for national unity to face the crisis. MPs are expected to approve her government programme today, giving her more authority to tackle problems.

President Suleyman Demirel also tried to soothe passions, saying: 'Every country has its problems. Nobody should panic.'

Secular Turks can take comfort that anti-fundamentalist protests against the Sivas fire were bigger than those that back the Islamic cause. But nobody doubts that Turkey's Islamic radicals are more than a marginal force. Newspapers called for an investigation of why the police, known for their Islamic sympathies, failed to head off the riot, and into the role of the pro-Islamic mayor of Sivas, who was seen assaulting Mr Nesin as firemen rescued him from the hotel.

In Sivas yesterday, troops kept a tight curfew in force to prevent the possibility of violent confrontations between the conservative Sunni Muslim majority and the long-persecuted, more progressive Alawite minority living in the town's Alibaba district.

'The old battle-axes are being dug out . . . let us not get into this game, let us respect each other's beliefs,' wrote Hasan Cemal, a Sabah newspaper columnist, in a report from Sivas.

Responsiblity for what happened is still hotly debated. Right-wing members of the government and Islamic figures blame the forthright Mr Nesin for a speech in Sivas in which he repeated his view that Turks were '60 per cent stupid' and that he did not believe in the Koran because it was written too long ago. Mr Nesin rejected responsibility. 'My speech was just used as a pretext,' he said.

The debate is an agonising one for Turkey, caught between its secular and Muslim identities, especially in view of neo-Nazi burnings of Turkish houses in Germany. 'All of us, fundamentalists and leftists, revolted against the logic of burning houses in Germany just because of a different culture and beliefs,' wrote a commentator in Milliyet. 'After the events of Sivas, what can we say to anybody?'