Has Ataturk's legacy been abandoned?

Turkey's search for its Islamic and Ottoman past shows the secularists have failed, says Hugh Pope in Istanbul

When Turkey's maverick new Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, set out in politics 30 years ago, his pro-Islamic party preached a millennial vision of conflict with the Christian world.

Back in those heady days, his party programme talked of resurrecting the spirit of the Turks' Muslim ancestors who confronted the Crusaders, conquered Constantinople, laid siege to the gates of Vienna, fought off the Allies at Gallipoli and beat the invading Greek armies out of Anatolia in 1922.

This same Mr Erbakan is now leader of a Nato-member state the size of Britain and France combined, a commercially dynamic nation of 65 million people on the doorstep of Europe. The parliamentary vote of confidence won by his coalition with the True Path Party this month is an historic turning point for a country whose official ideology for the past 73 years has been unremittingly secular and pro-Western.

Nowadays, of course, Mr Erbakan takes a much softer public line than in 1969, the main reason that his Welfare Party's support rose to 21 per cent of the national vote in December. Most Turks would stiffly resist any attempt to impose the 1,300-year-old Islamic laws of the Koran on them. Even in the Ottoman Empire, the leaders of the faithful usually gave secular law precedence over the religious.

The Welfare Party is not fundamentalist either - there are other, more radical Islamic parties. Rather, Mr Erbakan's ambition is that his party should lead Turkey's centre-right, bringing to its logical conclusion the "Turkish-Islamic Synthesis" introduced in the 1980s by the conservative wing of the Motherland Party, founded by the late Turgut Ozal. "The Welfare Party's main objective is to prove itself part of the system, to show that it is the only force capable of solving the system's chronic problems," wrote Rusen Cakir, the leading Turkish intellectual expert on the party.

Turkish secularists are aghast at such talk. But their problem is that the country's supposedly secular politicians have shown themselves to be not only morally and politically bankrupt, but incompetent as well.

In a way, the success of the Welfare Party is part of the Turks' search for a new honesty, legitimacy and unity in Turkish political life, and perhaps even a solution for the Turkish-Kurdish conflict under a Muslim umbrella. At the same time, the shady political horse-trading involved in the formation of the new government showed that the Welfare Party is far from perfect or indeed fanatically ideological.

This search for a new beginning often looks back to the Ottoman and Islamic past, and is an ironic reversal of the situation facing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when he built modern Turkey in the 1920s on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Ataturk deliberately destroyed the discredited multi-ethnic, multi-religious Muslim caliphate. In its place he built a nation state around a secular Turkish nationalism, invented to unite the Turkish and Kurdish peasants of the countryside as well as Muslim refugees who had flocked to the broken cities of Anatolia from the Balkans and the Caucasus.

Turkey lost its complicated but lovely Ottoman Arabic script. The colourful turbans, costumes and fezzes of the past were banned. The alternative civil society of religious brotherhoods were suppressed, and the evocative Muslim call to prayer in Arabic was replaced by "pure" Turkish neologisms. Centuries of teaching about Islamic civilisation in schools was cut off. But a large section of society never went along completely with Ataturk's projects: even today, older members of parliament still jot down notes in the old Ottoman script.

Turkey started moving back closer to its Muslim roots in the 1950s, when the then prime minister, Adnan Menderes, reintroduced the Arabic call to prayer and state-financed religious schools. In the 1970s, Mr Erbakan's party spent three years in power in various coalitions, and packed ministries with pro-Islamic supporters.

In the 1980s came the taboo-breaking Turgut Ozal, a pious Muslim who made it acceptable once again for Turkish politicians to be seen praying regularly in mosques. Typically for Turkey, his private Turkish-Islamic synthesis meant he also publicly held hands with his cigar-smoking wife and enjoyed his cognac in the evening. Now Tansu Ciller, the modern woman who only six months ago courted voters with the promise that she was the last line of defence of secularism, has enthusiastically embraced the populist jargon of her pro-Islamic coalition partners about how the new government will work with "all the power of faith".

In recent years Turkish society has become fascinated with all things Ottoman, and not just for narrowly Islamic reasons: television sitcoms have sprouted Ottoman costumes, a new film has broken box-office records by dealing frankly with Ottoman sexual and Muslim themes and new academic publications are busy exploring the past. The latest brand of black olives has even named its different sizes after the ranks of the Ottoman court.

The pro-Islamic movement is also a broad church. As late as 1980, Mr Erbakan led marches that called for Islamic law, and he doubtless still believes in his rhetoric about Islamic commonwealths and Jewish plots, but he is pragmatic enough to take a softly-softly approach. He knows a clear statement either for or against Islamic law could split his party and send it back to the margins of Turkish politics.

The younger generation of Welfare Party politicians seem to believe in a genuinely pluralist society. Even thoroughly secular Turks have been impressed by the non-ideological approach of many of the 327 municipalities won by the party in 1994.

"The Welfare Party municipality in Istanbul is almost better than the ones before," said Nilgun Mirze, a director of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which organises a popular series of music, jazz, film, art and photography festivals each year, featuring everything from Islamic fundamentalist films to erotica.

"The municipality gives us free billboards and venues and is very co- operative. We are not censored at all," said Mr Mirze, pointing out that they were also 90 per cent financially independent of the state. "The government cannot change anything; people would not accept it. We are all looking for a new synthesis as part of our being a bridge between Europe and Asia."

'Father of Turks'

Mustafa Kemal once said that, had he the power, he would change social life in Turkey at one blow. By 1923 he had that power; by his death in 1938, he had not only changed its social life but transformed its religious, economic and political foundations.

Born in 1881, Ataturk's interest in politics began as a young soldier. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in the First World War threatened Turkey with partition, but Kemal led the struggle for national independence, driving out the Greeks.

In 1923, when Turkey became a republic, Kemal became the first president, and embarked on his radical programme of reform and modernisation. He eradicated Islam from the new republic's politics, founded secular schools, established equality of the sexes and replaced Arabic dress, script and other Oriental trappings with European models, including the taking of surnames: he chose Ataturk (Father of the Turks).

He remained president, with dictatorial powers which he never hesitated to use, until his death from cirrhosis of the liver.

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