Turks enraged by Saudi executions

With four strokes of the executioner's sword, Saudi Arabia has achieved what generations of Turkey's secular propagandists could never quite induce among their Muslim population: a deep and widespread sense of revulsion against the idea of sharia, or Islamic law.

Day after day this week, the media have splashed gut-wrenching pictures of beheaded bodies to illustrate the execution, after several years on death-row, of four alleged Turkish drug-smugglers, two on 11 August and two on 14 August.

"It's so disgusting, I can't look. Surely this can't be Islam?" said a Turkish woman in a traditional Muslim headscarf as she read the news.

"Everybody's talking about it. I think the anger is a lot of things mixed together," said a woman travel executive, taking a break from a record tourist season that illustrates the pragmatism of Turkey's 60 million Muslims: the invasion has been led by fun-and-casino seekers from Israel.

The Turks have long nursed an ill-concealed dislike of Arabs, laced with suspicion of their southern neighbours after they betrayed the Ottoman Empire in alliance with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia.

Anger is also high at the hypocrisy of the Saudis for punishing mostly Turkish truck-drivers for transporting Captagon, a prescription stimulant in Europe that is widely consumed in the Gulf as an orgasm-delaying aphrodisiac.

Turkish outrage may have encouraged the Saudis to stay their hand yesterday during the traditional execution time after Friday prayers: a Pakistani was killed instead. An envoy sent by the Turkish government to Riyadh is being hosted by the Saudis in a guest house as he waits for an audience with the King to try to save 40 other Turks who risk execution. Turkey has also spoken of extending their ambassador's home leave or even recalling him in protest. The Saudis have not put down their swords, however, and are sticking to a vision of Islam much more fundamentalist than that of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Officials say that convictions for drug-smuggling - like rape, murder and violent robbery - carry the widely advertised and mandatory death- penalty.

Saudi Arabia's newspapers said in chorus yesterday that, in the words of Al-Riyadh, "this country will continue to implement Islamic sharia regardless of anything''.

Westerners may characterise Islam as a religion of chopped hands and heads, but most Turks feel shock at the idea of killing anybody for a non-violent crime in the name of Islam. "My Islam is about love, about mercy," shouted the leader of a protest march to the Saudi Embassy in Ankara.

Columnists have insisted on Turkey's pragmatic vision of an Islam that adapts to modern thoughts and trends.

Complicating matters are Turkish suspicions that the Saudis started executing Turks because Pakistan had complained that only Pakistanis were being killed.

Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia has executed 142 people this year, nearly three times last year's total, mostly alleged drug-smugglers.

Also interesting will be the impact of the executions on Turkey's domestic politics, which faces a wide-open general election next year. Recent opinion polls have been led by the Welfare Party, which, backed by Saudi Arabia, has skilfully won Turkish voters by stressing its Islamic identity without ever defining exactly where it stands on executions or Islamic law.

Officials from Welfare's Islamist wing have kept quiet, while its liberal wing has publicly criticised the Saudis.

The Welfare Party leader, Necmettin Erbakan, usually quick enough to fly to Saudi Arabia, has squirmed with political embarrassment.

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